Is sport up for sale?

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Global sport has been careening into financial absurdity. Recently, Gordon Brown pointed to an “age of irresponsibility” as the worst offender behind the notorious credit crunch. With unprecedented sums bandied about in sport, can we suggest that it too is heading for failure?

Football, naturally, is the chief culprit. Wages and transfer fees here have been mind-boggling since the conception of the Premier League, but now the numbers are approaching the, well, mental. The debt of the nation’s two ‘richest’ clubs, Chelsea and Man United, is estimated at a whopping £1.5 billion, and the buck does not stop with the big boys. F.A. Cup holders Portsmouth are reportedly spending a surely unsustainable 90% of their income on wages, while West Ham are the subject of a lawsuit from Sheffield United to the tune of some £50 million. Even lowly Luton Town, bottom of the football league, are suffering a pretty ridiculous 30 point deduction this season as punishment for various financial irregularities.

However, football isn’t sitting alone in the naughty corner of the sporting world. Cricket, one of the world’s most traditional sports, has become the latest victim of a cash-ridden greed virus. 2008 saw the start of the Indian Premier League, or IPL, contended between a group of eight American-style franchises. Yet this is no ordinary league but a towering branded behemoth, a gravy train without parallel in the sport. World stars have been bought for extraordinary sums in auctions by the franchises; India one day captain Mahendra Dohni went for a huge $1.5 million, while the Indian Cricket Board made $800 million dollars in branding and TV rights in the run-up alone. More recently, American billionaire Alan Stanford has set up a 20-20 game between a Stanford Select XI and England with the winning team taking $20 million to be split among the players and staff. For those looking for a genuine reason why such a match might take place, don’t worry: there really isn’t one.

Boom and bust

All this is just damn unstable. Chelsea’s debt is estimated somewhere around £730 million, yet at the moment some £500 million is written off as interest free loan from their benefactor and billionaire owner, Roman Abramovich. Can this really last? Theoretically, were Abramovich to get bored with his plaything, Chelsea would be faced with just eighteen months to assemble an unobtainable sum of money to pay him back. Debate will rage as to the likelihood of billionaire owners going AWOL on their clubs, but financial problems for these people are not as impossible as they may seem. Just two weeks ago advisers close to Abramovich were forced to play down talk that he had lost some $12 billion with share collapses, a tidy sum even for one so unimaginably wealthy.

If this seems ridiculous, consider the potential problems for Manchester United, with debt almost as large and owners not nearly as wealthy, or Fulham, with their Premier League survival still so dependent on the whims of the enigmatic Mohammed Al-Fayed. Many would resist tears if such clubs went bust due to their own mistakes, but the consequences for fans would be dire. Sad it may be, but supporting football is life for many and the choice of club something ingrained in their person. If the biggest and richest aren’t immune to decline, what’s to protect the little guys?

If all this seems like just pointless talk about ridiculous sums of money and posing prima-donnas, it’s not. These financial extremities damage the very fabric of the sports they are supposedly helping to evolve. The quality of the traditional English county league is under great threat from the riches of the IPL; Nottingham and Lancashire lost key stars David Hussey and Brad Hodge to Kolkata and the IPL, respectively. They and the numerous other stars departing for Eastern shores will spout forth about wanting to play regularly amongst the best players in the world, but as one member of the Lancashire county hierarchy recently admitted, if a county can offer £60-70,000 a year to it’s top stars while the IPL clubs offer nearer £250,000, what’s a player to do?

Testing, testing, twenty-twenty…

Moreover the newly acquired wealth of cricket damages its purity. Test cricket is considered by all in the know as the pinnacle of the sport, a five-day epic contest. Now, the IPL and the Stanford match are threatening this ideal. With so much money becoming available in 20-20 cricket, what’s to stop players from concentrating on short-term, risky strategies suited to this form of the game, rather than the perfection of technique required for test cricket? This is not what 20-20 was founded for. It was meant to bring excitement back to the game with swashbuckling six-hitting and frantic last-ditch chases: to bring fans back into the game as a whole. Now it is beginning to damage the game at its highest level. This may sound like the sort of baseless speculation traded by traditionalists, but the money involved justifies the fear. Just this year Sri Lanka failed to guarantee that their best side would come on the test tour to England next year, as many of them, including stars such as Jayawardene, Sangakkara and Muralitharan, have clashing fixtures with their IPL clubs.
Even competition suffers. Everton are a classic example.

In recent times they have been the only side to break the dominance of the so-called ‘Big Four’, with a fourth place finish at the expense of rivals Liverpool in 2005. Yet their progress has hit a glass ceiling as their relative poverty in Premier League terms has pulled them back. The Everton hierarchy explicitly addressed the problem at the club’s EGM; the Chairman, Bill Kenright, is reported on the BBC Sport website to have flatly stated, “I’m a pauper when it comes to other chairmen…I want Everton to have a billionaire, but it is not me.” Evidently no longer is it enough for a club to have a great manager and to rely on team spirit, making that first tackle. Now, money talks to such an extent that even a multi-millionaire possesses insufficient funds for success.

Yet for all this, is sport actually dying? Is it heck. While we can all pontificate about the potential decline of the elites, there are some areas of sport that will never die. Take Oxford college sport. Does this rely on wads of cash? I would say I wish, but I really don’t. What sport at such a grass-roots level survives on is passion, enthusiasm, camaraderie; all the things that makes sport so great in the first place. While all the worries expressed above are more than legitimate, as long as the factors that make sport so exciting remain, such worries can be shelved, for now.

 

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