When you talk about philosophy; surely this question takes the biscuit, doesn’t it? Well, our headline this week may be a little unrealistic, poking a bit of fun at the over-reactive tabloids or even the click-baiting social media sites we witness on a daily basis in modern life, but when altered a little, there is the potential to have a thought-provoking debate at hand, right across the football community. When studying the global footballing landscape in the 21st century, and proposing the query of ‘how important is football to the world today?’, or ‘what if football had never had its late-20th century boom?’, there is certainly the need for a discussion. Honestly, if these questions are left unanswered, football may continue down its clearly dangerous financial path, or even aimlessly stumble onto an even more treacherous one, risking the health of our already-battered and bruised game. So, just how vital is football to the world we live in today, considering the billions of pounds in televisual income and high-end sponsorship that rolls in to the coffers of club chairmen, and more importantly the taxmen, benefitting the economies of a number of highly developed nations the world over? How many people, as an industry, does it keep in a job, and where would these people be without the sport, at least in its professional, multi-billion pound industry, ranks? Finally, and I suppose most significantly – considering I bang on every week about football belonging to the fans – how would our lives be shaped without the sport, which I, amongst up to billions of others across the globe, adore so much, and base our lives around?
Well, in response to these hypothetical, some may argue pointless (who would dare, though?), questions, there are flippant responses, and there are measured, laterally-considered responses. Obviously, I’m here today to offer you the latter, rather than the juvenile and unforgivingly forthright ‘why talk about something that hasn’t even happened?’, for example, as I truly believe that, while I accept this is a theoretical debate, it is worth discussing in order to comprehend the inner workings of football in the past, present and future, and to more closely explore the role of football in our ever-changing and entirely unpredictable world. It is at times a challenging debate to fully get your head around, but it is an entirely useful and stimulating one which deserves a light being shone upon it in order to realise the world we live in, and the standing football has in the fabric of it. When peered upon, it does seem incredible that a sport should have such a massive impact upon the lives of everyone, as football does not only affect its fans, but also those who come under the umbrellas of society as an entirety, and that is what we are closing our targets upon this week, a blog for all, both the fans and the doubters.
Some people may rubbish the concept that football affects all lives in the world, but over the course of this article, I will attempt to clarify why, I believe, backed up with the vital facts and statistics, it does, despite its perceived irrelevance to outward society as a simple sport. Obviously, many have caught on to the fact that football is much more than this, especially in the 21st century, as commercialisation creeps further and further into our daily lives, corresponding with the increased investment in sports, most notably football, from a number of trans-national corporations with bucks to spare. As many national newspapers go into decline in terms of sales, their reliance on the power of sport, again most prominently football in this country, as across a number of other nations in Europe and South America, escalates, desperately looking to break the next big story – as we have seen with the Telegraph and Sam Allardyce this year – or join in on the latest scandal, offering often controversial opinions on even the most meaningless of topics. The juggernaut that is professionalised football also vitally must employ hundreds of millions across the globe, so despite its many faults, football may have a redeeming feature throughout its increasing globalisation and callous commercialism, in that it keeps physically talented players, mentally (sometimes) gifted managers, loyal club officials and traversing journalists in stable occupation, in a dream industry for many young-at-heart sports fanatics.
Would all of these people be left on the dole if football hadn’t had its post-1966 economic boom though? Well, I seriously doubt it, but if one thing was for sure, their personal levels of job satisfaction would deplete considerably. As will be the theme throughout this blog, in this ulterior world we are imagining, without the existence of professionalised football, there would obviously be one, or even a number, of other sports looking to take over the reign of the sporting world, and the enviable – or unenviable, depending on your cynicism to the subject – title of the most valuable, and most commonly partaken, sport on the globe. Question is; would any of these, from rugby, cricket, athletics, basketball, golf, tennis or cycling, be as ruthlessly effective in building an undeniably brilliant cash cow in the ilk of football? Well, as long as the possibility of money is distinct, I’m sure the same Russian oligarchs, Arabian royals and American business tycoons would still be capitalising, but would their already tepid interest be amplified or diminished? All things considered, it would be difficult to tell, as in our era, one defined by online scandal, untruth and corruption, there seems to be a fine line for these sugar daddies between actually caring for the future of the club they invest in, and only being in the game for the potential personal financial benefits. I could only imagine this type of mystery to the men and women behind the success of a number of clubs and leagues in the professional ranks of certain sports would continue on, no matter the sport which took football’s mantle, as the magnates involved wouldn’t change, so the way these sports would be run – behind closed doors at least – would shape up in an eerily similar manner to that of present-day professional football.
Would everyday life be the same though, or would it take on an entirely different guise, akin to that of a Back to the Future film, where the idea that a single alteration to the world we live in could change the face of the earth and how we see it, is explored? Obviously, without the use of a predictograph (not really a word, just a mockery of the predicting business, a foolish one if I ever saw it), or any expert opinions based on the global economic footballing trends, we are left to form our own views of how the world would form without its main leisure activity/sporting industry. Firstly, let’s say if one of the other four top five most popular sports – according to Total Sportek’s survey based on 13 separate and equally important factors such as their economies, number of viewers and average player salary – basketball, cricket, tennis or athletics, the first unlikely to be recognised as dominant at any point in the UK, hold off all other opposition and take the crown of the most popular worldwide sport. Naturally, this territory should come with its spoils, some of which helped them to the top, others garnered as they assume this position, such as unprecedented televisual broadcasting income or sponsorship deals.
If a practically year-round, world-class sport – clearly the most important factors to fans considering football’s continuing appeal -, out of these more likely to be basketball or cricket, is the one to take this handle, then these deals will fly in for most, if not all, clubs and leagues involved in the national and international disciplines of the game, with fixtures piling up in the process, as the viewer becomes more hungry for action. The providers of a majority of club and overall sport income, Sky and BT here in the UK, ESPN and Fox in the States, and so on, demand this from clubs, players and leagues, as they require continuous, ironically, talking points, to fill their otherwise dull and monotonous (as if they aren’t already), ludicrously priced subscription channels. In doing this, they degrade the sport with more and more wads of cold, hard cash, which always works, no matter who with or where in the world they are dealing, the system working far too easily for these corporations, as they rake in millions, if not billions, while sucking like leeches on the viewer’s insatiable appetite for world-class sporting action. They know their market; you can give them that at least.
So, I think we’ve established that the commercial side of the sporting world would appear incredibly similar to what we witness on a daily basis right now, with even the most obscure teams and leagues getting more coverage than ever as these corporations discover more about the viewer’s desires, tapping into the idea of human curiosity to make even more dough. The way I see it, the development of the forward-most sports in the world would also follow the path well-trodden by football. Objectively, the current story of the FIFA-headed sport expanding further into fresh, unbelievably promising markets such as the USA, India and China has a very similar tale to that of basketball and American football exploring the possibility of British involvement, cricket slowly treading the water in North America and mainland Europe, and tennis and athletics, which while already globally popular, are continually growing into previously untapped areas. Especially if these sports gained the expertise and know-how of sporting economist insiders, who would’ve otherwise been involved in football as the most prosperous sport, their increase in power and prosperity could prove to be absolutely transformative, taking these sports effectively through the glass ceiling which football has been reinforcing with glee, looking down at their competition and laughing in recent times. The roles would be completely reversed. Honestly, all this proves is how selfish yet tactically ingenious those in charge of the commercial side of football, notably including the heads of FIFA, UEFA and respective FA’s, as they are the responsible, lawful (which should come with the title as lawyers) representatives setting a precedent for their organisation, have been, now more than ever.
One thing I do see as changing with the slight switch of basketball, cricket, tennis or athletics for football, other than the obvious change in social norms – as youngsters would be brought up dreaming to be playing these sports, not the beautiful game, therefore sticking with these lifelong sporting preferences – is the shape-up of worldwide economies. Had football taken a dip post-1966, rather than gain millions of new fans after arguably the most progressive World Cup of all time, with possibly the best infrastructure and demand for the sport of any host country at each respective moment in time, and cricket, the most immediate challenger at the time, but still with nowhere near the capabilities, taken over, we could be living in a totally different world right now. In football, the sponsorship and exploitation of players, such as that of Bobby Moore’s endorsement of British pubs to Gareth Southgate’s self-mocking Pizza Hut advert and even Wayne Rooney’s shocking acting when promoting Casillero del Diablo, is one of the cringe-inducing commercial cornerstones of the game, but vital to encourage new sponsors, and therefore more money, into the sport in the eyes of those in charge. This trend would only be continued into sports that took over from where football left off in this ulterior society, but vitally, not on anywhere near the same scale, not without further investment first at least. With football continually expanding at breakneck speeds in our world today, with stakes in terms of professionalised leagues in almost every nation on the globe, the industry can draw on any number of potential sponsors, broadcasters and least importantly (apparently) fans, to provide with a real platform to garner world-changing amounts of cash in player, agent and transfer fees. Can you imagine how much of that spending respective governments garner in tax from these fees as well? (Well, I’ll tell you, it’s thought the Premier League alone is worth £1.3 billion, yes billion, to the UK Government every year!)
The thing is though; sports like basketball, cricket, tennis and athletics cannot call upon this platform of financial support in their quest to succeed, at least to the levels of football, as there isn’t enough raw emotion focused upon each of these sports that would topple those that the beautiful game draw out of fans. Maybe it’s because of the pick-and-mix attitude to global football these days, with any kind of delectable dish freshly prepared for you, the viewer, as soon as you want it, or maybe it’s because of the sheer accessibility of the sport around the entire globe, but particularly here in the UK, where you can hardly move from village to village without finding a club with fascinating history, playing the game to a reasonably high standard. Whatever it is, no other sport has been able to quite find that same striking balance, therefore leaving football as the distant leader in the market, despite the brilliant work of many other sports, almost all of which could claim a moral high ground over football.
What counts for respective global economies, though, isn’t morals, it’s cold, hard cash, something that those involved in football have realised and exploited to its full potential – well, maybe not full yet, but it seems ridiculous and unimaginable how far they’ve gone already. Had football not had the individuals or resources to do this, with other sports blessed – or cursed, again, it depends on your view – with them instead, it’s honestly difficult to say if they had taken advantage and expanded quite to the ranks football has in our reality, but if I’m giving my opinion, I would doubt it. I can’t quite see basketball, despite its popularity steadfast in some cases – North America – and growing in others – Latin America, Eastern Europe and Asia -, tennis or athletics, even through their packed worldwide schedules and financial prosperity for competitors, or even cricket, with its completely devoted fans across the Commonwealth, but most notably in the sleeping giant of a market, India, going to same extremes that football has and succeeding. I can’t, even in a totally separate universe created for this experiment, honestly see these sports employing the arrays of lawyers and businessmen to boards, nor the extreme levels of sponsorship, televisual deals, ludicrous player wages and extortionate agent fees that football does - even though I do recognise that each of the sports I have mentioned do partake in each of these evils to a certain degree.
Finally, too, what about social impact? Maybe, had football – as it was a game-wide decision rather than one on the part of any individual - not chosen the path towards world domination that it did all those years ago, we wouldn’t have heard the names of Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo or Neymar, with the performances of Steph Curry, Virat Kohli, Angelique Kerber and Dafne Schippers placed under a much more detailed lens by national broadcasters and newspapers instead. Certainly, we all would’ve grown up into different worlds had football not taken its universal decision to live, like Ebenezer Scrooge or Arthur Birling, a life of cold-blooded business, as we would’ve looked up to different individuals in the public eye, had different aspirations, memories, opinions and quite likely friends and colleagues, and overall experienced a different life, for better or for worse. All this because of football.
So, it’s true, my suspicions when I started this blogging adventure have turned out to be true, that football does shape each and every one of our lives, some obviously more than others, but because of its effect on global economics, the media, daily life and the career paths of hundreds of millions, whose families might rely on this income, we all hold an important stake in its financial success, whether we like it or not. Given another sport in its place, would our experience be any better, either in terms of morality or financial prosperity, but more importantly stability? It’s hard to say really, but I know many wouldn’t want to even imagine it, and if that is the ultimate testament to a sport that has taken so much ethically but returned so much in terms of finance and sheer joy for billions of people around the world, I don’t think we should begrudge the sport its position head and shoulders (is that you, Joe Hart?) above the rest. I don’t think any other sport would either, as they would detest that micro-inspection being carried out upon their inner workings on a daily basis, as they all have very clear faults too, just not in the echelons that the most reputable, corrupt and disgraced, yet unrelentingly thick-skinned and popular, sport in the world does. It’s a sorry state of affairs that took us to this point, but for those in power, it has made sense, and we have been dragged along, like a handbag-imprisoned Chihuahua, enjoying the ride through our simple perception of the world around us. Even sadder, I can honestly see this trend continuing on past any of our lifetimes, so I suppose we should make ourselves comfortable and enjoy the ride, right? Wrong.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!