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I must be getting old, great article, but how have we come to this, i see charlton Heston in planet of the apes, my god, the fools. Then being a villa fan in the south now, i have freinds who are portamouth fans, and listening to who is a major creditor and who is S%*t upon, i.e players image rights against a small business trying to survive. There will come a time, that even the top four, will realise, that other clubs in europe willl have more money and the players and agents will just move there, leaving a big hole, filled in by loyal fans

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I've been watching The Wire recently (just finished Season 3) and it occurs to me that there is sort of a parallel between football's recent dalliance with exorbitant sums of money in the past few decades and the Bell/Barksdale organization.

It is true that North American professional sports have almost continuously been run as for-profit businesses (even if Hollywood-style accounting makes their franchises show almost continual losses) from the beginning: the National League in baseball formed in the mid-1870s (and at some level inspired William McGregor) when the owners of some of the top semi-professional touring sides realized that if they broke away from the National Association of Base Ball Players, there was a lot of profit in playing a regular schedule of games. The North American sports leagues have become, through over a century of practice, adept at milking every revenue stream there is: despite the fact that far more people in the world could name five players for Manchester United than for the Dallas Cowboys, New York Yankees, or Boston Celtics, the Americans' respective leagues are all more profitable than the Premier League. It's sport as big business.

Football, of course, is a bit different. Sure, there have always been wealthy chairmen who poured money into the clubs (as a poster by the name of Damocles points out in the Man City threads), but the biggest point of difference between the football model and the baseball model (for all the North American sports organizations essentially use the model pioneered by the National League) came when the Football League was founded: unlike the baseball owners who declared complete independence from the original parent Association to become a law unto themselves, the football chairmen remained under the umbrella of the Football Association. Even with the breakaway of clubs to form the Premier League, they still owed allegiance to the FA and to UEFA and to FIFA (indeed, in some ways the breakaway may have been orchestrated by the FA!). In structural terms, football has hardly changed from when it was a largely amateur sport played by middle class gentlemen. And so it is that the Premier League finds itself with one foot firmly planted in the football tradition and one elsewhere: if it's not in the North America then it's at least in Ireland and the face is looking somewhat wistfully to the west. Why can't those fantastic riches be ours?

In The Wire, Stringer Bell gazes from West Baltimore to downtown. He adopts some of the practices of the "legitimate" business world and devoutly studies economics. Yet he hangs on to a number of practices, most notably a willingness to bribe and trust to get his way, that served him well in the drug game but make him an easy mark for Clay Davis. Viewers of The Wire know how those delusions ended for Stringer.

So what are the practices that the PL (and football in general) hold on to that work well in the world that the powers-that-be want to leave behind?

The biggest is promotion and relegation, which has been in one form or another the cornerstone of football league organization since soon after McGregor set up the Football League, combined with the difference in finances between the PL and the lower leagues. The North American leagues are static. The Pittsburgh Pirates recently set a record by having 17 consecutive seasons where they lost more games than they won; one strongly suspects that a club which finished in the top 3 in 1992 (relatively comparable to where the Pirates were before their era of futility) and then had such a run of poor results would be in League Two or lower by now, yet the Pirates remain in the National League, drawing fans largely because of the most beautiful of the recent-vintage stadia (and only Red Sox and Cub fans would include the "recent-vintage" qualifier) in the sport. In football, those who lose are punished severely for daring to come up short; in North America, they're treated with benign indifference (as in baseball and to a lesser extent ice hockey) or rewarded by being given preference in signing the top young players (as on the gridiron or basketball court).

It's scarcely more secure for those at the other end of the table. The rewards of promotion to the Champions League effectively mean that clubs which miss out on a Top Four finish are handicapped for the next year. Not every league has the fixed Top Four (or however many Champions League places a given league awards) phenomenon observed in the Premier League, but in all the major footballing countries, there are clubs that are nearly always in the CL, even if a few clubs get to rotate places between themselves: in Spain, Barcelona and Real Madrid; in Italy, Inter, Milan, and Juventus (barring matchfixing scandals); in Germany, Bayern. Indeed, the recent Top Four phenomenon is probably attributable to Roman Abramovich injecting massive funding into Chelsea around the time that the England were awarded a fourth Champions League spot: without those injections (the parallel with Platini's "financial doping" is not unnoticed) it's not hard to imagine Manchester United, Liverpool, and Arsenal being CL perennials, with the likes of Chelsea, Villa, Spurs, Manchester City, Newcastle, and Everton passing the fourth CL spot between themselves. Relegation from this elite mini-league is as painful as relegation from the Premier League, as Liverpool are learning.

The financial rewards for success and the financial penalties for failure increase the importance of money in the sport that preserves certain relics of an amateur, gentlemanly past compared to the sports that completely sold their souls to Mammon, for whom profit became the sole raison d'etre for the clubs. Returning to The Wire, football is gangs fighting over corners. The North American model is the cartel that Stringer Bell and Proposition Joe set up.

Combine those rewards and penalties with the degree to which money can be used directly to improve a team in short order (thanks to the transfer system) and it's a recipe for what football is now. Success begets money which begets success and so ad infinitum. If football is to be fixed (ignoring the important question of whether it needs to be fixed), it must either reduce the financial rewards and penalties in play or reform the transfer system.

Transfers in US sports differ in a multitude of ways. Transfers for cash are generally banned or severely limited: the most that a team can include in cash is the amount owed in wages on a player being sent by that team in a swap deal (this generally occurs when a team is so desperate to get rid of an underperforming/overpaid player that they're willing to pay part of his wages while plays for another team... the deal that sent Alex Rodriguez to the New York Yankees is an example). Spending massive amounts of money requires splashing out for the equivalent of Bosmans: paying large wages to free agents who are out of contract. Those two limits make it very difficult to keep a run of success going for a long period: the only ways to improve your squad are to convince another club that they're better off with a player that you deem expendable than a player that you deem valuable or go through the occasionally slim pickings of free agents. The most common case for such a swap is for the team in the part of the "buying club" to give up young players who have their best years ahead of them for the experienced players who are in peak form. Doing this excessively is often known as "mortgaging the future": the buying team is hurting their chances of success down the road in exchange for an increased chance of success now. Good young players are rarer than money, and this constraint effectively limits the ability of a club to go on a buying spree.

FIFA/UEFA could solve a lot of issues, IMO, by capping the cash exchanged in a transfer at, say, 5m euro. No other move would increase the importance of developing young players or open up predictable competitions to the extent that such a change would.

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Fantastic article. Our of curiosity, do you write for a living OBE?

I think that last pre-season MON and Randy sat down and decided that the team was capable of finishing 4th and that they could gamble on making a few more big money signings to try to see through this ambition. We were close, again, but unfortunately missed out.

Perhaps we were trying to hitch a ride on a gravy train that we couldn't afford a ticket for? So as the dust settles on last seasons and we watch Spurs celebrate finishing 4th and Man City blowing massive money on world stars, the two, Randy and Martin perhaps concede that we might have missed our chance? Actually scratch that, I don't think MON will ever concede that, but realistically I think we all know the top 4 is out of our reach for the next season at least. So we 'sell to buy' and try to balance the books a bit.

That's no bad thing, we might not have signed anyone and we might not still. However the gaps left by the lack of signings can be filled by an incredibly talented generation of academy graduates. Delfouneso, Bannan, Albrighton, Weimann and Delph (although we pinched him from Leeds). It's not ideal, but perhaps these guys can offer us something different. We'll never know unless we try them anyway.

Milner or no Milner, personally it makes no difference to me, I think we'll still do okay this season. I'd be delighted to finish 6th again but I think we might slip a bit and might well be looking at 7th (or even 8th if Everton have a better season).

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I've only just finished reading your article Scott. I'm sat silent and contemplative, awed by your passionate eulogy to the game I love.

A copy of this article should be displayed in the foyer of the Premier league headquarters, and be made compulsory reading for all board members and employees at each Premiership club.

Well done mate.

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Brilliant article.

I of course appreciate Randy's commitment to our cause, but why oh why did we spend as much as we did last season and allow our wage bill to increase by nearly 300% in three years?

It's gone from one extreme to another now. I suppose the lack of patience amongst a great deal of our fan base will have played a part in speeding up this process, but it could be argued to be very poor business.

However, I'm optimistic that because we seem to have realised and addressed the situation before it really was too late, we can get out of this mess. Getting rid of the likes of Davies, Luke Young and NRC would certainly make our squad overall weaker, but it sure would benefit us in the long-term. Sidwell and Heskey have to go if they really are on £5.2m a year between them. I feel that MON will be placing much more faith this season in our young players, which I look forward to, even if it will be frustrating at times.

Keep the faith, UTV.

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All I can say is that deserves a bigger audience than VT!

Its overview and assessment are not the sole concern of us, rather every team in the division, even the land.

Nice one Scott!

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best thing i've ever read on here. probably the best thing i've ever read about football on the internet to be honest. cheers obe.

shame martin doesn't see it that way? whatever the reason, i'll miss him.

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I didn't stop nodding all the way through reading it. Fantastic.

You should get that put into one of the national news papers or all of them, I think that's worthy of everyone who is connected to football reading.

You've opened my eyes up to more than just watching 22 guys kicking a ball around a pitch....I've never really put too much thought into the business side of the game.

All I can say is thanks for posting this!

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