Thursday, July 21, 2005

What is the point of Chelsea?

The news that Chelsea had snapped up yet another exciting young player from a midtable club naturally brought back memories of January 04 when we too were raided for Scott Parker, for what now seems a bargain £10m. To the list of Parker and Wright-Philips, one can also add Damien Duff and a trio of ex-West Ham starlets, namely Lampard, Johnson and Cole. Whilst I wouldn't be daft enough to suggest that Chelsea view Charlton, Man City and West Ham as genuine rivals, the sheer fact that they can snap up these players on wages which naturally they won't refuse, and in many cases allow them to rot in the reserves, whilst perhaps great for Chelsea fans (still smarting from their first title for several decades) can't possibly be good for the game. Whilst Lampard has clearly benefited from the move, one could argue that Duff and Cole have gone sideways (in a footballing sense, not a financial one) whilst Parker and Johnson have gone backwards.

I write this as someone who would place Wright-Philips in my top five 'players I look forward to watching' at the Valley, and now there is every chance we will be denied the opportunity (again - he was injured over Easter) as he will now compete with Duff, Robben, Cole, etc.. for a place, as opposed to rightly being the quintessential star at Man City.

I don't blame the players and nor do I blame the agents - sporting careers are short, and they are entitled to maximise their incomes, and it would be unrealistic to expect blind loyalty (though the actions of Rio Ferdinand defy belief in light of his drugs ban). The real question is not only whether Chelsea's dominance is healthy for football (it isn't) but whether in the long-term it is even healthy for Chelsea.

In a great book called 'National Pastime' by Stefan Szymanski and Andrew Zimbalist, the authors discuss the differences between baseball and football (soccer) but rightly conclude that both sports ultimately rely on healthy competition amongst clubs to ensure a strong future for all. Baseball (and pretty much all American sports) operate as a quasi-monopoly with very tough entry requirements for new clubs, and essentially no relegation. Moreover, the worst-performing clubs are aided by beneficial policies, most notably in the 'draft system' which recruits the best college players. Whilst this attitude would seemingly run against that which most UK football fans take for granted (ie. the possibility of a club like Wigan gaining promotion to the Premiership), it shouldn't be written off as 'too American' or 'too idealistic.'

We are rapidly reaching the point where there are just three clubs with a realistic prospect of winning the Premiership. On Betfair, Liverpool (Champions of Europe after all) are available at 20/1 and believe it or not, Spurs are 4th favourites at a whopping 220/1. If one stands back from one's blind loyalty for a second, the idea that 16 clubs (out of 20) are rated as no more likely to win the League than Elvis is to be found alive in Tesco, is frankly ludicrous. Yet even more ludicrous is the fact that all of those 16 clubs will probably sell out their desired season ticket allocations. This entire concept would be anathema to an American sports fan and the question is surely how long it can persist?

Indeed, if Chelsea's financial dominance continues, one could imagine a virtual monopoly with even Arsenal and Man Utd competing for second place only. This may seem far-fetched, but bear in mind that Chelsea's title was virtually wrapped up in Jan/Feb and their spending has yet to reach third or fourth gear. Arsenal are now strapped with debts thanks to their new stadium and have never been a truly 'huge club', whilst Man Utd are famously now indebted thanks to their American owner and show little sign of participating in major pre-season transfers.

It's fairly obvious that football, and sport in general, is not a usual industry. Most non-sporting companies would love the customer loyalty that football clubs engender. After all, as bored as I may have been with Charlton last season, my only realistic option is consuming no football; I will not decide to take my custom to Selhurst Park or The New Den. But likewise, Chelsea will soon realise that whilst their metal will no doubt be regularly tested in Europe, it is not ultimately in their interest to destroy the opposition and thus belittle the League they play 38 games in, since fans will eventually tire of seeing them beat WBA, Norwich or even Charlton 4-0 or 5-0 every week.

The problem of non-competitiveness is most obvious in minor Leagues such as Scotland, Portugal and Holland. How many regular football followers could name more than 3 or 4 teams from Portugal or Holland for example? Of course these Leagues are dominated (ridiculously so) by Sporting Lisbon/Porto/Benfica and Ajax/PSV/Feyenoord respectively, yet both are hurt by low attendances and poor TV revenues. We can all wax lyrical about the 'special' way of the Premier League, but fans want exciting games, not just goals.

If you want a hint of the way the Premier League may look in five years time, take a look at the FA Cup. The competition was special when Wrexham had a realistic chance of beating Arsenal, or when Bournemouth knocked out a full-strength Man Utd team. Attendances have dropped off along with general interest in the 'greatest cup competition' because the gap between the best teams and the potential giant-killers has widened to such an extent, that the best teams don't even field their best teams anymore (hence even so-called 'giant killings' aren't the way they once were).


At 12:06 PM, Blogger The Sausage Tree said...

great article - people will say football is a business, which is true, but it is a business which depends on it's competitors.

Do chelsea fans enjoy a win more than they did a few seasons back? My guess is no - because they expect to win every single game now and anything less is a dissapointment.

football will struggle to introduce similar rules to those in the USA (salary cap for instance) becuase the market is wider than just Britain. anything tried will either lead to the more talented players naffing off to europe or the EU butting in saying any of this sort of restriction is anti-competitive.


At 3:54 PM, Anonymous Colin from Welling said...

NYA, you paint a very gloomy picture of the future of football in this country buut it's very, very hard to disagree with all you say.

You make some very good points especially about the way 'usual' business would love the customer loyalty that football clubs enjoy, and the way monopolies have affected many leagues in Europe (most talk exclusively about Scotland as being uncompetitive but as you say it's more widespread than that, I'd even add Spain and, to a lesser extent, Italy to your examples).

Probably the gloomiest aspect of your piece is that there are no solutions at the end. That's there are none - despite all the talking by media, fans and those in the game nothing is being even remotely considered and things stand to get much worse before the inevitable implosion occurs.

Well done!


At 4:45 PM, Blogger Ken J said...

Agree with your points. I would add another - Chelsea's policies of taking talented young players and not playing them also undermines the development of the England team.
Would a salary cap help in some way?

At 5:24 PM, Blogger New York Addick said...

It is a little gloomy I admit, and I suspect it will be reflected over time in lower attendances and TV viewing figures (this is arguably already happening at some clubs). The most positive outcome would be the realisation by the big clubs that ultimately they shoot themselves in the foot by destroying the very competition that is their lifeblood. Ironically the fact that Chelsea are willing to lend us Smertin for the season suggests they are aware of the problem. After all, they could quite happily pay his wages and utilise him occasionally as they did last season.

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