Modern Football: Big Business vs Centuries of Tradition

The story spread quickly on Friday morning (4th March). Charlie Stillitano had spoken to Sirius XM, an internet radio station in America, and had outlined exactly what had been said at the widely reported meeting between Mr. Stillitano and the chiefs of the ‘Big Five’ teams in the Premier League.

As had been speculated, representatives from the two Manchester clubs, as well as from Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool had met with the American sports executive to discuss his lucrative International Champions Cup pre-season tournament. Stillitano went on to drop a small bombshell in claiming that a re-structuring of the Champions League had indeed been discussed, a suggestion which had been dismissed when word of this meeting had first spread.

However, our friend Charlie was only getting started. He went on to claim that, seeing as Manchester United did more to “create soccer” than Leicester, they are more worthy of the riches on offer from the game, such as in the Champions League. By ‘creating’ the game, Stillitano was referring to the wealth and exposure which has been generated around the world by soccer in the past 20 years, rather than the centuries of history which went before it.

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According to Stillitano, Leicester  are not deserving of the riches of the Champions League.                                                                                                                                                           Photo Credit: Ronnie Macdonald on Flickr. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/legalcode

He further claimed that the Champions League was less prestigious and exciting because of the presence of PSV and Ghent in this season’s last 16 and that his International Champions Cup (again, a pre-season kickabout) seemed more illustrious.

Happily, Stillitano’s comments have been met with the perfect mix of anger and mockery online.

However, the mere occurrence of a meeting between the power brokers of the Premier League and, to quote a famous Leicester fan, “berks” such as this should be a legitimate worry to all football fans.

While Mr. Stillitano’s comments are the most brash and extreme examples of ‘bottom line decision making’ in football, it is a school of thought which is gaining more and more traction.

We can all agree that football is big business in the modern day and that clubs should be run accordingly. However, there still exists this basic lack of understanding amongst owners and executives about a football club equating exactly to a business and fans equating exactly to consumers or customers. Normal elasticities do not apply when it comes to football. Fans are not rational in supporting the team that they have grown up with. Just ask Liverpool’s owners if their ‘consumers’ reacted as expected to a price increase recently.

Stillitano’s comments reek of this lack of understanding. He seems to think that fans of Manchester United and Liverpool would be unhappy at the unfairness of Leicester getting a big ole slice of a pie that they apparently did nothing to make. He cannot understand that the anger of fans will not be at Leicester or at the system but at their own club and how it is managed. They will not want the gates locked to Leicester, they will demand to know how Leicester climbed the wall while their own team could not.

In Stillitano’s world, the trophies appear to be handed out on the basis of a club’s revenue. One wonders if he is bored by the notion of actually playing football matches at all. Why don’t we all just compare net spends, sponsorship deals and likes on Facebook and divide the trophies up that way? Saves this nasty business where a team performs above expectations and has the audacity to win something they aren’t supposed to.

Stillitano is unsurprisingly a fan of the American sports franchise model, with no relegation or promotion to get in the way of teams making as much money as possible. It is entirely fitting to his view for soccer; a sport which disregards history and even the illusion of hope for the future at the altar of increased revenue and trending worldwide on Twitter.

Worryingly, it has gone beyond the point where this sort of thinking is confined to Stillitano and chief executives. The phraseology of football as a business has begun to leak into how fans discuss football. When someone accuses your team of being crap at actually playing football, some people now consider it an appropriate response to quote back the net spend statistics over the past decade, or how much the club’s revenue expanded from last year. Fans are now using financial stats in footballing arguments. It has gotten this bad.

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Modern football is becoming increasingly difficult to find the good in .                                      Photo Credit: Ben Sutherland on Flickr. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/legalcode

These comments from Charlie Stillitano, a man who I imagine 99% of us had never heard of before this, can be easily dismissed by pointing and laughing at a man who clearly does not understand football at all. However, it is part of a wider problem and a bigger battle so the point is worth labouring.

Because of the money to be made, we are constantly being convinced that the footballing universe boils down to about six or seven teams. But we know that this is not true. We know, in fact, that it is utter bollocks. Football is as much about the League of Ireland First Division as it is the Champions League semi finals. Football is not a business. Football, first and foremost, is a sport. When people like Charlie Stillitano tell us how to feel and think about this sport, they are attacking something which we hold dear. And so it is imperative that we do not hold our tongues on this. There is something of a war waging for what football is. I for one do not want football to mean what Stillitano thinks it does.

Phil Greene

You can follow Phil on Twitter here

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