The Social Institution of Football: 3 – Financial Capitalism

By | January 22, 2014

This third and final blog asks what next for football in England and elsewhere? The ‘super clubs’ have become mature businesses. But because of the sport’s regulatory structures they seem to be businesses with limited opportunities for expansion, either by horizontal integration (namely, by taking over other companies in the same line of business) or by vertical integration (namely, by expanding ‘backwards’ towards sources of supply or ‘forwards’ towards consumers). BSkyB’s attempted takeover of Manchester United, an instance of vertical integration, was prohibited by the UK Monopolies and Mergers Commission, which feared it would gain undue influence or control within the English game. The USA has pioneered much greater integration of sports franchises into larger media and entertainment conglomerates. In an earlier book I was not alone in anticipating what Morrow calls ‘a hermetic European Super League, akin to Major League Baseball or the National Football League in the USA’.

The latest data on TV revenue – for 2011-2 – highlight the significance of European competition in general and the English Premiership in particular. Football’s ‘top 10’ clubs worldwide by revenue are: Real Madrid (with revenues of 512 million euros), FC Barcelona, Manchester United, Bayern Munich, Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester City, AC Milan, Liverpool and Juventus. The Brazilian club Corinthians is the highest ranked club outside Europe with revenues of 94 million euros. Clearly vast sums of money are involved, representing an extremely rapid commercialisation or hyper-commodification of English, European and indeed world football. These figures on ‘the people’s game’/ ‘the world game’ put cricket into perspective. For all ‘KP’s’ publicity in England and Sachin Tandulkar’s elevated status in India, these pale into insignificance beside that of David Beckham. Beckham is mentioned here rather than Ronaldo, Messi and others for a reason. He is more than football’s Bolt. In many ways he epitomizes the postmodern sportsperson.

How does football fare, in comparison with sports like cricket, in terms of the nine features of present-day life enumerated in an earlier blog? As far as globalisation is concerned, football is on its own, pushing the likes of cricket rudely into the shadows. ‘Football’, Miller provocatively asserts, ‘is more popular than Jesus and John Lennon combined’. If there is a global game, this is it. And it remains big business, notwithstanding decade-by-decade ups and downs; we have already noted the enormous sums of money injected into football and its satellite activities. The privileging of finance is reflected not only in the magnitude of the capital involved but in the nitty-gritty of buying up football clubs as a way of underwriting, securing or advancing other and unrelated investment opportunities (witness the discussions of the Glaser interest in ‘acquiring’ Manchester United). According to Forbes latest calculations, three footballers feature in the world’s current top ten for annual earnings (Beckham $47.2m), Ronaldo ($44m) and Messi ($41.3m) at 8, 9 and 10 respectively).

Hyper-rationalization is part and parcel of these processes. As commodification advances, it seems, so too does bureaucratisation; and the resultant refinements demand ever-novel technologies and modes of presentation to consuming publics, not least to the gamblers among them. Who will score the next goal and how? And who will ‘assist’? What will the mid-season tables look like? Who will be champions/promoted/relegated, and how many points will decide these placings? So important are these matters that referees can no more be trusted than cricket umpires: third parties with access to replays will sit in judgement on crucial issues from next season on in English soccer.

Financial capitalism class/command dynamic manifests itself in a plethora of ways as yet under-examined in the literature. Enough has already been said to establish that football is a magnet for capital flows. Moreover some of the world’s leading clubs hover on the verge of bankruptcy (in England, for example, fearing a catastrophic of relegation from the Premiership). The role of television was noted in the second blog in this series; but the full implications of Murdoch’s predominance in this field have not been considered. And we have yet to factor in the ever-innovating social media that deliver hyper-rationalisation direct to handsets.  Murdoch’s relations with successive governments in the UK are also relevant. Neo-liberal governments allow some monies to be made more freely than others.

Relentless consumption, underwritten by an astonishing credit boom only called timidly into question even now, after the global financial crash of 2008-9, has embraced football in Britain and elsewhere in recent seasons. ‘Live’ global coverage of branded club as well as international games testifies to this. People worldwide gather in bars to watch Chelsea take on Manchester United in a Premiership League contest, and many are wearing – illicit reproductions of – their famous blue shirts, some manufactured and retailed under conditions of near-slave labour. Furthermore, facilitated by the postmodern culture, official club kits are shuffled regularly to enhance sales. Beckham remains iconic in his capacity to boost consumption, and his public persona, ‘David Beckham mark II’, is revisited throughout this text. Never mind cricket’s ‘KP’, he is Usain Bolt mark II with knobs on. His commercial power is immediately apparent via a breakdown in his ‘earnings’. Of the total of $47.2m per annum cited above, only $5.2m is in the form of pay; the bulk of his earnings arise out of sponsorship and deals struck outside the game.

Football’s global face and penetration into multiple continents and lifeworlds fits perfectly with the concept of networked individualism. Today’s information and communication technologies (ICTs) allow for simultaneous explosions of joy or angst at a goal scored for Real Madrid or Barcelona wherever one happens to be, be it Trinidad, Limoges, Beijing, Riga or Rio, and 24/7. The ‘determinacy of the moment’ bites much more deeply into football than cricket. And much of it has to do with celebrity. Beckham excels as a meritorious celebrity; in Whannel’s words

‘his star persona has become the substance, the marketable object – all that is solid melts into air, or at least, into magazine pages … Beckham appears rootless: he can be dressed as anything because surface appearance is all’.

And Cashmore:

‘ … Beckham is actually perfect for our time. He may be superficial, but who wants depth? He may give us only image, but who wants reality? He may even come across as a bit of a phony, but who wants authenticity?’

In other words, Beckham mark II is almost infinitely marketable, a (post-Diana) postmodern text: he is everything to everybody, a perfectly malleable resource for the everyday business of identity-formation. His role as an ambassador for London’s successful bid for the 2012 Olympic games has added a touch of gravitas.

Whether football is proving more susceptible to a de-civilising spurt than cricket is a moot point. Much of the hooliganism that attached itself to the English game in the 1970s and into the 1980s seems to have passed by, although this is far from true in other parts of the world, notably South America. It comes down to how civilising and de-civilising are to be defined. Is it just in terms of physical violence, as is typically and reasonably assumed given Elias’ pioneering studies, or should it extend to symbolic violence? I am more inclined than I was previously to plead that the jury may be out on the spread of physical violence in sports like football; but symbolic violence … ?


Cashmore,E (2002) David Beckham. Cambridge; Polity Press.

Miller,T (2013) Where next? Football’s new frontiers. In Eds Steen,R, Novick,J & Richards,H: The Cambridge Companion to Football. Cambridge; Cambridge University Press.

Morrow,S (2003) The People’s Game? Football, Finance and Society. Basingstoke; Palgrave-Macmillan.

Scambler,G (2005)  Sport and Society: History, Power and Culture.  Buckingham; Open University Press.

Whannel,G (2001) Punishment, redemption and celebration in the popular press: the case of David Beckham. In Eds Andrews,D & Jackson,S: Sports Stars: the Cultural Politics of Sporting Celebrity. London; Routledge.


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