These days, it is common to hear soccer fans saying something like “of course, soccer is just like any other business now.” It is a phrase intended to establish the speaker as a hard-nosed realist, puncturing idealistic delusions about the beautiful game with a knowing appreciation of the forces of profit and commerce that are now said to underpin the sport.
In reality, nothing could be further than the truth than the suggestion that soccer is becoming more like a business now than in some imagined golden age. In fact, the exact opposite is true. Over the last two decades, soccer has in important ways become less like a normal corporate commercial enterprise, and is instead becoming a means of conspicuous consumption used by the super-rich for showcasing their success and demonstrating their magnanimous generosity.
Thorstein Veblen was an American economist and social theorist. In his Theory of the Leisure Class, he invented the term ‘conspicuous consumption’ to describe the practices the rich and powerful use to demonstrate their wealth and prowess. Veblen outlines how:
“In order to gain and to hold the esteem of men it is not sufficient merely to possess wealth or power. The wealth or power must be put in evidence, for esteem is awarded only on evidence…conspicuous consumption of valuable goods is a means of reputability to the gentleman of leisure. As wealth accumulates on his hands, his own unaided effort will not avail to sufficiently put his opulence in evidence by this method. The aid of friends and competitors is therefore brought in by resorting to the giving of valuable presents and expensive feasts and entertainments.”
Soccer clubs are becoming much less like standard profit-making corporations and much closer to resembling the sort of conspicuous consumption here characterized by Veblen. Sheik Mansour bestowing his favor on the people of Manchester by securing for them the deadline day signing of Robinho is, I would suggest, much closer to a roman emperor throwing gladiatorial games to curry favor with the masses than the CEO of a multinational anxiously scrutinizing every line of his balance sheet. Soccer clubs are increasingly not really run with profit as the central objective, but are becoming rather a platform through which successful individuals or prosperous city states can showcase their prosperity, in the hope of gaining the love and attention of an adoring fan base.
This trend started at Blackburn in the 1990s, was accelerated by the Abramovich project at Chelsea and has reached unprecedented levels today at clubs such as Manchester City, PSG, Monaco, Anzhi and QPR. It is no coincidence it has coincided with the triumph of free market economic ideals internationally. These changes are rooted in the creation of an international class of super-rich over the last few decades, itself associated with the drive towards deregulation and privatization and resulting extremes of inequality. Damien Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skull and the hallucinogenic Dubai skyline are emblems of the same process that created the current Manchester City forward line. It is the public display of opulence that attracts modern investors to soccer clubs more than their attractive bottom lines.
The Manchester City project was prepared to lose almost unlimited amounts of money in its first years. Granted, it was the stated intention that this would lead to future profits. It has ostensibly done so, even if the accounting practices which make this possible are of questionable veracity. But this was always conceived of as more of a branding and marketing exercise than a hard headed investment decision. Sheik Mansour is not stupid. He knew it was difficult to make money from a modern day football club while winning trophies. He probably knew that had he invested the same amount of money in any other company, he stood a chance of making a much greater total return. But that was not really the point – he was drawn to the glamor and publicity associated with winning prestigious trophies, and wanted to attach his name and his brand to that glamour. Like modern emperors, modern football owners are prepared to put on lavish games for public enjoyment, by summoning the most glittering talents in world soccer to a field in Manchester, even if they incur losses in the process. Soccer is becoming an elaborate publicity and branding exercise, a spectacle of conspicuous consumption through which the rich can promote themselves and share their success. Therefore, to characterize soccer as becoming increasingly commercial could not be further from the truth.
This is the context in which to understand the current outrage surrounding Vincent Tan at Cardiff. He is being attacked for trying to run Cardiff like a business – carefully limiting outlays and keeping a lid on reckless spending, as would be done in any standard corporation, rather than committing to reckless transfer spending in order to win the approval of the crowd. He is probably being criticized for this by the same fans who would, in another breath, bemoan the commercialization of football.
Soccer fans cannot have it both ways. As fans, we can choose either to be appreciative plebeian masses, basking deferentially in the reflected glory of the emperors who run modern football, or else disgruntled customers of a sensible, profit making (and correspondingly unsuccessful) commercial enterprise. We cannot be both.