Week 23 – Value for money (Premier League column for Goal.com Japan)
In times of such economic austerity, ever greater become our desire and need for ‘value for money’. The United Kingdom’s slide towards what would be an unprecedented triple-dip recession is clearly symbolised with a walk down almost any high street – where, in the last month alone, film rentals chain Blockbuster, electrical giant Comet, and the legendary music group HMV have joined the list of big-name retailers to enter administration and start closing their doors.
Amidst a tightening market, each have paid for their tardiness in recognising and adjusting their business models to suit the online paradigm shift in British consumer habits. In the cases of Comet and HMV, they have effectively ended up providing a free showroom service where customers can choose which products to buy, before whipping out their smartphones to seal an instant deal with the cheapest internet vendor. It is a lesson that should be closely observed by the big chain stores in Japan, where the deepest effects of the global financial crisis are arguably yet to hit quite so hard, and the wider public transition towards e-commerce is certainly a good few years behind.
Football, of course, exists in a bubble well beyond the stratospheric reach of the real world – inflated not only by oil money but also by the insatiable demand for domestic and global broadcast rights. Assuming, perhaps correctly, that a population with less money to spend and fewer shops in which to spend it will be more inclined to stay at home and watch television, Sky and BT have shelled out a collective £3.018 billion to show live Premier League matches for three seasons from 2013/14.
When the renewed – at significantly higher prices – contracts for overseas channels are thrown into the equation, the worldwide TV income is reportedly set to total around £5.5 billion. This will likely mean prize money of £100 million per season for the English champions, with the 20th-placed club receiving £60 million – Manchester City’s reward for winning the title last term.
Supporters are already demanding that the benefits are passed on, at least partly, to them. The expectation and fear, unsurprisingly, is that new profits will once again line the pockets of players and agents whose annual salaries already spread across seven or eight figures, but public anger over Premier League admission costs reached a head the weekend before last when Manchester City returned a third of their allocation for the away end at the Emirates – priced at fully £62 per head. The issue evolved into an embarrassing public relations gaffe for hosts and league alike when police were called over to assist the matchday stewards in forcefully removing the protest banners of those who had forked out the cash to travel south.
Arsenal’s counterargument was that a) City now represent top-category opponents and b) £62 was the same value as the cheapest home ticket. But quoting the general admission price ignores the fact that most of the crowd were season ticket-holders, for whom the average match will work out that bit cheaper, while £62 is frankly obscene whether you’re charging friends or foes. Unlike the armchair shoppers whose freedom to rent movies from Netflix and LoveFilm spelled doom for the less progressive services at Blockbuster, real football fans do not have the luxury of switching brands or picking and choosing where they shop. The more expensive clubs might one day face their own sudden recession if they prioritise day-tripper consumers over the unique customer loyalty they take for granted.
Arsène Wenger, of course, is rarely loath to talk about ‘value’ in the transfer market, even if cynics will point out an enormous wage bill padded out by top-dollar deals for unremarkable Arsenal squad players. Glazernomics have forced Sir Alex Ferguson to sing from a similar songsheet, while registration rules for European competition mean that there are fewer tempting ‘for sale’ signs available in January anyway.
Even at Chelsea, where money is obviously little object at board level, recent weeks have brought about an intriguing manifestation of supporters’ perceptions over value on the pitch. Throughout two years of toil since his £50 million move from Liverpool, the Stamford Bridge faithful have remained precisely that to Fernando Torres, even while the rest of the country laughed at the ‘2.75 goals per manager’ stat bandied about when Rafa Benítez was appointed in November. But all of a sudden, this is now being subverted – partly, perhaps, because of the forward’s association with his interim boss, but more noticeably ever since the spectacular arrival of Demba Ba.
While the Blues were winning the European Cup through the sheer willpower of Didier Drogba, there was always an excuse for second-choice Torres, and fans have generously appreciated his efforts following the number nine’s elevation to main man at the start of this season. But Ba’s immediate impact – two goals in the FA Cup at Southampton and another against the same opponents in the league – has removed the wool from their eyes. The glorious passing skills of Juan Mata, Eden Hazard, and company really do provide the dream environment for any striker, so if the man they signed for £7 million can hit the jackpot, why can’t the superstar brought in for seven times that? The Spaniard’s inclusion for Sunday’s 2-1 win over Arsenal was greeted with bemusement; his withdrawal for Ba on 80 minutes with unsubtle cheers.
Incidentally, after years spent harvesting the fruits of his home country, France, Wenger now believes the best value can be found among players developed in three other markets – Germany (where Ba made his name), Spain, and Japan. It is only a shame that the United Kingdom’s stricter immigration rules make it difficult for Premier League clubs to target the J. League directly.
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