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Why big clubs are no longer being bought and sold: re-interpreting the evidence

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By Tony Attwood.
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How to be a millionaire – 1.   Be a billionaire and start an airline.
How to be a millionaire – 2.   Be a billionaire and buy a football club.
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Same old same old.   You’ve almost certainly heard one or probably both of those before.  But such comments haven’t stopped people buying football clubs.  Although since the sale of Manchester City in 2008 the buying and selling of clubs has gone downhill a bit.
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This is an issue that the Guardian has raised today in an article by Chris Anderson and David Sally, and I am very grateful, because the issue had been on my mind, and it was good to get a chance to see someone else’s analysis before I had a bash at the subject.
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And it is particularly interesting to take up the Anderson and Sally thesis, because their book “The Numbers Game” is one that I read upon its publication with at first interest, and later horror.  Horror because of the sub-heading of the book “Why everything you know about football is wrong,” is just about the most misleading title I have ever read on a book cover.
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It is a book that aims to give the reader facts, and not opinion – so with my persistent interest in evidence based football commentary this was obviously the book for me.   However although it was published in 2013, it reads as if it were published in 1913.   Take this quote included in the book, from the founder of Match Analysis: “In comparison to historical medicine, football analytics is currently in the time of leeches and blood letting.”
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Now it is true that Arsenal had not bought StatDNA at the time the book was published, but they were already using the data, and some sniffing around would have revealed there was a purchase of such an organisation on the way.
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But the biggest disappointment is that although the football world was already awash with match fixing scandals (most notably Italy by the clubs, and in many other countries by people involved in gambling) and despite the fact of our own analysis, and that of Referees Decisions and other sites showed there was good reason to question what was going on in England vis a vis referees, they never even seem to consider there might be a problem in football at least of ref competence, let alone venture into the murky waters of Type III match fixing.   Instead they become hypnotised with their own factors, which in order of importance they put as good luck, skill and fitness, and momentum.
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From their “analysis” (I use the word lightly) they reach the conclusion that the better team wins only half the time, which might be a case (to adapt TS Eliot) of reaching the right conclusion for completely the wrong reason.
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This is not to say that the book doesn’t come up with some good facts – such as the fact that team that shoots at goal the most is by no means guaranteed to win.  But it goes down all sorts of strange side routes saying things like the notion that it is not true that all supporters want to see are goals.  “What they really want to see are matches in which every goal is essential and potentially decisive.”   Tell that to an Arsenal fan that has watched us beat Tottenham 5-2 two years running.
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And so here we are again back to opinion without evidence in a book that is sold as being based on evidence.
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But to be clear, this is not a book that considers match manipulation by owners, gamblers etc and says, no, clearly not happening here.  Nor is it one that considers whether referees are consistent and accurate.  Not at all.   This is a book that ignores all such issues.
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So what I wondered would these most curious of writers, seemingly liked enough by the Guardian to give them an article in the paper, say about the buying of football clubs by rich men.
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Here to begin is the raw data that I want to deal with – the major purchases of clubs since 2008 (which is my cut off point not their’s):
  • September 2008 Manchester City
  • May 2009 Sunderland
  • August 2009 Birmingham City
  • October 2010 Liverpool
  • November 2010 Blackburn Rovers
  • August 2011 Queens Park Rangers
  • July 2013 Fulham

The question they pose is “why the slowdown in purchasing?”

Their answer is, “We suspect that market conditions in recent years have made it harder for buyers and sellers to identify agreement, and that two factors –exploding media revenues coupled with uncertain profitability – have caused a widespread negative Zone Of Possible Agreement as seller’s expectations have zoomed skyward and potential buyers have hesitated to follow….

“With Premier League television monies increasing at a significant rate with each new three-year cycle and no slowing apparent in the current rounds of media negotiations for global rights, owners’ expectations may well have become seriously inflated: the Guardian reported a year ago, for instance, that Joe Lewis, the owner of Spurs, had valued the club at £1bn.”

Now that is a possible argument, but rather like their book which is supposed to reveal that everything you know about football is wrong, their vision could be quite wrong too.  Just look at the list again

  • September 2008 Manchester City
  • May 2009 Sunderland
  • August 2009 Birmingham City
  • October 2010 Liverpool
  • November 2010 Blackburn Rovers
  • August 2011 Queens Park Rangers
  • July 2013 Fulham

Now the Man City deal was extraordinary, with seemingly unlimited wealth poured into this club, which is owned alongside one in Australia and one in the USA, and with talk about having one in South Africa and another in South America – all separate football jurisdictions.

It quickly became clear that you would have to be phenomenally rich (Chelsea, Man U) or phenomenally clever (Arsenal) even to get a bite at a major trophy in this environment.  And so it has been – of the six major national trophies available in the last two years, Chelsea have two, Man C have two, and Arsenal have two.

Sunderland has looked like a black hole into which one pours money, Birmingham have been mired in corruption scandals and failures to climb into the Premier League, Liverpool has been a string of 6th, 7th, and 8th, with just one good season with a player of the most dubious taste, expensive managers to pay off, and an owner boasting about his ability to lie.

Blackburn was famously bought by Venky’s with the statement of the aim to win the league and be best in Europe combined with the quip, “how hard can it be?”  We found out.

QPR had to fight in court for their version of financial reality, and even though they won, the owner still had pushed £60m or so into a bid to get into the Premier League and survive, no matter how he dressed it up to avoid an even bigger FFP fine.  They like Birmingham and Fulham, and Blackburn and maybe soon Sunderland, rest in the wrong league.

Meanwhile, the great pretenders, Tottenham and Liverpool are endless wannabes who have taken a long old time to get the stadia re-built, while Tottenham (again) and Chelsea are still in negotiation as to where they are going to play while the building is being done.

And this is because the Emirates is the Gold Standard in stadia.  Buy a club and you not only have to plough in a fortune for players and hope you get lucky, you also have to build a stadium that meets the standard Arsenal have set.   But if you do it the Arsenal way, and take money out of the club for the first five or ten years after stadium building, you need a total genius of a manager to keep you in the top four – assuming you were there already.  If like Liverpool and Tottenham you weren’t there already, then it is even harder.

Of course I can’t prove this thesis, any more than Anderson and Sally can prove theirs, but my thesis at least has the benefit of fitting more of the facts surrounding football since the Man C purchase.

And the most obvious fact is that even with all the wealth of an oil billionaire (or in the case of Man C, an entire authoritarian country with no vestige of human rights and democracy, vast wealth obscenely focussed in the hands of a couple of families) you can’t do better than get two trophies out of six in two years, then what hope for mere mortals?

It is enough to put even the most pig-headed and brazen billionaire off his champagne breakfast.

And it is not just the failure of Chelsea and Man C to carve up football between themselves and win everything in sight.  There is the on-going issue of uncertainty.  If Uefa and/or Fifa suffer total breakdown because of revelations of misdeeds, who knows what sort of regime change there might be?  Plus there is the pesky British government trying to get the Premier League to fund what the inept and bankrupt FA are supposed to fund, and what local authorities used to fund but now can’t afford to: grass roots football.

Plus we still have FFP – diminished and hiding in the corner, but it might still come back.  Certainly that was Abramovich’s dream – to secure Chelsea at the top, and then have FFP stop anyone else doing it again.  And who knows what vision he has up his sleeve as and when Uefa finally stabilises.

Plus there are all the tales about changes to the loan system (it will be changed in a small way next season, but there is talk of more than that).   Plus the growing concern about Man City’s multi-continental model.   Plus the abject failure of Tottenham and Liverpool to break into the top four.

Of course I am supposing a lot, but then that is what Anderson and Sally do, but without  ever considering many of these factors.

Remember billionaires don’t know what failure is like and when they see other billionaires failing they tend to laugh at the other fellow’s incompetence.  But when they see more and more disasters, slowly the notion creeps in, maybe this football lark, like running an airline, is a mug’s game.

And that is before we even start to think fully about the evidence supplied week after week on Untold relating to incompetence and/or corruption.

Makes you think.

More anniversaries

  • 6 October 1962: Tottenham 4 Arsenal 4 (Court 2, McLeod and Strong).  61,749 attended the game.  The week before Tottenham had beaten Nottingham Forest 9-2, and in this game went three up in 26 minutes.  Arsenal eventually went 4-2 down but battled back to get the point.
  • 6 October 1964: Debut for Frank McLintock – a 0-3 home defeat to Nottingham Forest in a run of four defeats in five matches.  McLintock however was not blamed for the problems and took over the No 4 shirt from Geoff Strong for most of the rest of the season.

21 comments to Why big clubs are no longer being bought and sold: re-interpreting the evidence

  • eezzeee

    Excellent, well written and logical and the piece about the genius (Wenger) is something every arsenal fan should read, as well as closet spud piers morgan

  • Usama Zaka

    As someone who works in the Aviation field, I am afraid to say the first line of the article is very true. Profit margins among different airlines are near to non-existent. The airlines that make profit have profit margins of 2%-6% not much.

    Since many flagship airlines (A country’s main airline) are in losses, its quite uncommon for them to stop functioning, because Air Travel is a major public need for any country. So to keep their flagship airlines functioning governments sometimes fund them to keep it running.

  • soglorious

    Tony , what about playing the tv show game – who wants to be a millionaire? Lol.
    Some will never learn. Let’s just get used to it.

  • nicky

    Today, most football clubs, certainly the successful ones, are big business and as such are treated in the finance world as fair game for buying and selling and for investment.
    Following the economic downturn, the dealings in football have gradually been restricted to billionaire foreign investors.
    So far this has led to grossly inflated transfer fees and wages which has had the inevitable knock-on effect throughout football and beyond.
    It is to be hoped that this financial intervention from abroad will not escalate. 😉

  • SamuelAkinsolaAdebosin.

    Good evening Chief Tony. Please allow me to digress from the topic if you wouldn’t mind. There has been a notion that’d been tailored in some quarters that Arsenal should dispiroritize their ambitions to qualify for the knockout stages of the Champions League. And instead prioritize winning the Premier League title this season. The reason they advance is, should Arsenal qualify for the Champions League next stages, there aren’t going to win the Cup. And even for them to continue playing in the competition will affect their chances to win the title as they opinionists are desperate to win the title. And thus, they are willing to sacrifice the Ucl games for League title. This is the most bizarre assertion I’ve ever read on a website by some analysts. I tried severally to convince them that Arsenal will beat Bayern Munich in the 2 legged tie and from there go on to win the trophy. Because this could be Arsenal’s year to this trophy that has eluded them. And moreover, football being not mathematics, Arsenal playing in the Ucl can’t hinder them from winning the title. I also said in my comment that Arsenal are out this season more than ever to win the fifthruple. But apparently, they don’t buy into my belief as they’ve 3rice refused to publish my comments on this subject at different occasions. The buying of football clubs is self put on the hold for now, as all the high status clubs that are appealing to buy have all been bought over by the Multi Millionaires or already owned by the Millionaires.

  • Porter

    It’s no longer a domestic problem though. It’s happening throughout Europe. It is leading to the inevitable European super league as the current Champions league loses it’s cache. The effect that it will have on the domestic game is the most worrying aspect.

  • SamuelAkinsolaAdebosin.

    Good evening Chief Tony. Please allow me to digress from the topic posting if you wouldn’t mind. There has been a notion that’d been tailored in some quarters that Arsenal should dispiroritized their ambitions to qualify for the knockout stages of the Champions League. And instead prioritize winning the Premier League title this season. The reason they advance is, should Arsenal qualify for the Champions League next stages, there aren’t going to win the Cup. And even for them to continue playing in the competition will affect their chances to win the title as they the opinionists are desperate to win the title this season. And thus, they are willing to sacrifice the Ucl games for the League title. This is the most bizarre assertion I’ve ever read on a website by some analysts. I tried severally to convince them that Arsenal will beat Bayern Munich in the 2 legged tie and from there go on to win the trophy. Because this could be Arsenal’s year to win this trophy that has eluded them. And moreover, football being not mathematics, Arsenal playing in the Ucl won’t hinder them from winning the title. I also said in my comment that Arsenal are out this season more than ever to win the fifthruple. But apparently, they don’t buy into my belief as they’ve 3rice refused to publish my comments on this subject at different occasions. The buying of football clubs is self put on hold for now buy the likely buyers, as all the high status clubs that are appealing to buy, have all been bought over by the Multi Millionaires or are already owned by the Millionaires.

  • Pete

    I was at an industry conference a few months ago and they imported a guest speaker who talked about football analytics and how his company consulted to gambling syndicates.

    His analysis seemed really high level and simplistic. I asked him if he took account of which referees were refereeing which matches in terms of correlating their previous matches for the respective teams. He looked at me wide-eyed – clearly not something that had occurred to him. And he was charging people money for his services!

  • WalterBroeckx

    Pete,
    amazing… and that guy was someone who analysed football….????? And consulted other people be it even gambling syndicates…..

    I should start my own consultancy company now… 🙂

  • colario

    Pete
    Goes to show most people don’t see what is in front of their eyes.

    Riley and co go on taking the football masses for a ride and probably laughing all the way to the bank.

    Why would any one want to stay in such a corrupt set up and oppose it as Arsene does?

    Arsene deserves all our support especially when the PMGOL win the game. as in games 50 and 51.

  • Brickfields Gunners

    The original joke that spawned the others –

    Interviewer to Millionaire: To whom do you owe your success as a millionaire? ”
    Millionaire: “I owe everything to my wife .”
    Interviewer: “Wow . What were you before you married her?”
    Millionaire: “A Billionaire “

  • Brickfields Gunners

    Gone are the days that somebody would step in and take over or save a club either out of love or due necessity .
    Along the lines of Henry Norris ( Arsenal ); Derek Dougan (Wolves ); Jack Walker (Blackburn );
    Francis Lee ( Man City) and Niall Quinn (Sunderland ). There must have been more ,but these readily come to my mind .

    Fans now a days just hope that the new man would come in and spend some (or all of his )fucking money , while seating them comfortably and at reduced prices ! Good luck with that pipe dream !

  • Brickfields Gunners

    After failing in everything else, one of ‘them’ decided to try the job of a painter. The office manager went into the office kitchen one morning and found him painting the walls. He was wearing a new fur coat and a nice denim jacket.
    Thinking this was a little strange, the office manager asked him why he was wearing these rather than old clothes or an overall.
    The fool showed him the instructions on the tin, “For best results, put on two coats”

  • Brickfields Gunners

    Give generously . Its all for a good cause .

    A major traffic jam in Zurich was preventing people from moving forward.

    A motorist shouted out wanting to know what was happening.

    A guy from the front replied , “Well at the traffic crossing Sepp Blatter is sprawled across the road. He is refusing to move from there!”

    “But why?”

    “He has lost his appeal and will now surely be convicted for corruption and will have to pay millions of Euros as fines! He is threatening to douse himself with petrol and set himself on fire if people didn’t contribute with money to help him pay the fine!”

    “So how much has been collected so far?”

    “Six litres!”

  • Brickfields Gunners

    A young lady returns from her honeymoon totally exhausted and tired.

    When her friends asked her what happened , she replied , ” When this 79 year old bastard told me he has saved a lot over last 50 years, I thought It was MONEY!”

    Disclaimer –
    This is NOT a Sepp Blatter joke – he has been fucking everybody for the last 50 years !

  • BigV

    Somebody bought me that book for Christmas a year a go. I got to the chapter where they said all team should play like Stoke and put the book down and have never picked it up again. 3-0😃

  • Brickfields Gunners

    Armed robbery ?

    A lawyer defending a man accused of burglary tried this creative defense: “My client merely inserted his arm into the window and removed a few trifling articles. His arm is not himself, and I fail to see how you can punish the whole individual for an offense committed by his limb.”

    “Well put,” the judge replied. “Using your logic, I sentence the defendant’s arm to one year’s imprisonment. He can accompany it or not, as he chooses.”

    The defendant smiled. With his lawyer’s assistance he detached his artificial limb, laid it on the bench, and walked out.

  • Andy Mack

    A lot of the owners bought in as they could see that the income was increasing dramatically and for most clubs the marketing machine had been run pretty poorly until recently. But they hadn’t appreciated that the outgoing would increase in line (or maybe even as a higher rate than) with income.
    They also insist on trying to fleece their supporters on merchandise rather than get the stuff out their generating support. I’d happily buy every niece and nephew an AFC shirt if they were a sensible price but they’re so expensive that I got/get them as birthday/xmas presents which means the nieces don’t want them (not as a Bday/xmas present!) and the nephews will also get an ‘ammers’ shirt from my twisted brother (so embarrassing!).

  • Shakabula Gooner

    Coq became well established and distinguished in the role BEFORE the end of last season.
    Yet, it didn’t stop Arsenal fans and the press from screaming that we buy Schendelin, not as a back up (at £25m, and 25yrs of age, that would have been an expensive and inappropriate back up to a 23 year old) but as a replacement, while Coq became his back up.

    That AW didn’t oblige was a major plank of the abuse that he faced when the transfer window closed. Now that the team is gelling well (never mind the EUFA where we had hoped to get away with resting some of our star players and failed) there has been no mention of how little we spent in comparison to Manu that we mauled 3 – 0. Had the situation been reversed there would have been an earful of Arsnal’s failities, due to our refusal to buy players in the last transfer window.

    AW shows every time that quality is not only in high prices paid in bringing in players in transfer windows but also in the young players that are carefully developed and offered their chance in the first team as the opportunity presents itself.

  • Goéland

    Outstanding article, Tony. I think there´s a very real possibility that all the different factors you mention (strictly financial, commercial, related to football structure at the macro structure and the Premier League one, etc…) influence the issue, even if it´s not simple to conclusively prove it. But the journalists´analysis was destined to fall short by circumscribing itself to a singular field, and it´s to your credit that you incorporate everything in the larger picture when approaching the same issue. Whether cultural snobs want to believe it or not, Tottenham´s repeated failures to breach the top 4 might indeed carry the same weight as TV deals in this matter. Again, great read.