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Sunday, June 16, 2024

Billionaires and banter wars: modern football’s script is stuck on repeat

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Admit it, when Erik ten Hag walked out holding a microphone after Manchester United’s final home game on Wednesday night you also thought he was going to start saying things like “Your job now is to support the new manager”, before marching off to write books containing anecdotes about Richard Branson.In the event the most notable part of Ten Hag’s speech was how convincing he is when he frowns into a mic and says things. Ten Hag could stab himself in the eye with a kebab skewer and stand there in the centre circle, kebab skewer pyoing-ing up and down, explaining why this is actually a really good thing and a sign of genuine progress and you’d think, yeah, kebab-skewer-eye-guy really is on to something. He just needs time. Maybe with patience and a proper process he can stab himself in the other eye too.This is of course unfair on Ten Hag, who is not the source of United’s wider problems, and who may win another trophy one week from now. But there was a circularity to that spectacle. Here is a man talking sternly about the future to the same clanky stands, almost 11 years to the day since the Sir Alex Ferguson original, with Jonny Evans still on the pitch and a disappointed Wayne Rooney looking on from the bleachers.The season after Ferguson’s departure United would finish seventh. In the decade since they’ve spent £1.2bn and are currently eighth. A succession of really dramatic things have happened (it feels like it, but … did they?) in order to stay basically standing in the same space. And yes, we are still watching.This is not a column designed to sneer reductively at Manchester United, although those often do very good numbers. It is instead a column designed to sneer reductively at the state of the entire Premier League.Here’s the thing. The final table is going to be almost exactly the same as it was last season. No one seems bothered by this. But basically nothing has changed. And it feels significant. Let me break it down. With one weekend to go it’s clear the top two will be the same as last year, most likely, for all the talk of sizzling last-day drama, in the same order. The three teams being relegated are also the three teams that came up, so total stasis there. Seven of the top eight are the same. Six of eight above the relegation spots are the same.All that has really happened is Aston Villa climbing from seventh to fourth (rightly hailed as great work) and Chelsea’s move from 12th to sixth. On the numbers the third most interesting thing in the Premier League is Brentford going from ninth to 15th.Instead the season has been about drama, related content, the endlessly scrolling sidebar of rage. And that part has been very exciting. Here is Evangelos Marinakis looking ominous. Manchester United were almost bought by a stock photo. Big Sir Jim Ratcliffe has sent a huffy all-staff email. Ange Postecoglou is emotionally intelligent. Wait! Now Ange doesn’t understand anything at all. Meanwhile Gary O’Neil doesn’t just hate VAR, he’s having a series of soul-searching meetings with referees, and is, on some level, getting divorced from VAR.Perhaps the degree of unease at some Spurs fans taking the view they hate their nearest rivals more than they love beating Manchester City has its roots in this strange sense of stasis.Is the mixed reaction of Spurs fans to their defeat by Manchester City a reflection of the Premier League’s sense of stasis? Photograph: Julian Finney/Getty ImagesIs this what it’s going to be now? Sub-drama. Banter wars. A series of glossy exhibition matches while YouTubers in swivel chairs shout rage-adjacent thought-blurts for advert likes? Was it even worth the expense of actually playing the season? Maybe it could have been simulated instead. Or TV companies could offer a subscription where you get to engage with the banter-content and pundit zingers without having to sit there for ages watching pressing happen.It is important to know why this is happening. There has never been so much money in sport, or so much of it stratified at the top. This is a mark of success. It’s what the Premier League was designed to do, bringing in money for its members and becoming in the process something close to a breakaway super league.There is a lot to enjoy in this. The basic technical standard is dizzyingly high. Manchester City are, all things considered, the most unbeatable club team of all time. This is the golden studio age of football. We will look back on it and marvel.But it is also part of the complete billionaire-ification of sport, a trend that threatens to change fundamentally what it is. Sport has always been dominated by the richest and shoved around by despots. This has now reached a state of critical mass. Things seem to be happening all over the board.Most major governing bodies are currently altering their leadership terms, taking their lead from Fifa, so you can basically stay in charge for as long as you want. Saudi Arabia will, we already know, be awarded the 2034 World Cup. We’re getting seeded draws in the Champions League.skip past newsletter promotionafter newsletter promotionThe UK’s football governance bill will exempt hungry propaganda states from scrutiny so long as they have trade deals in the offing. The biggest counties in cricket will be the biggest for ever because this is what works for private equity. There is less here that looks random, unfenced and open to challenge. Quite a lot more that looks closed and static.Again, this is structural and deliberate. Hedge funds and autocratic states run Big Sport now. They have one major thing in common. They want certainty. For capitalist reasons: the reliable investment return. And for reasons of propaganda and soft power. Jeopardy, uncertainty, an open field. These are the absolute opposite of all this.Instead the billionaire-ification of sport is about stasis, about creating closed loops of power. Why would you want relegation from a European Super League when it represents an illogical degree of commercial risk?There is an argument that the best way to create greater sporting social mobility is to junk all the financial rules, to let the billionaires run free and wild, to embrace “the free market”. But this only makes sense if you don’t know what a free market is, or what the people interested in sport actually want. Nation states overspending on a PR project is not “the free market”. This is the opposite of that. It’s a command economy. It’s market distortion for political ends. It’s closer to nationalising an industry, just as, say, Newcastle have in effect been nationalised by Saudi Arabia.And yes this has always been the pattern, if to lesser degree. And yes if you just like consuming good content this won’t matter in any case. Why should it? With some smart styling even a stodgy Premier League can feel like it has some jeopardy. This could be a phase, a blip, an oddity. Everything goes in cycles. Kind of.But there are also things that get lost along the way. Why is sport interesting anyway? Because it is about energy, freedom, a balance of control and opportunity. Sport is interesting because it tells us that talent and heart and work are what is required to succeed, that within this model the world is open to us, and that even watching this happen for others is beautiful and uplifting.The problem is, you can also kill those qualities by monetising them out of existence, creating simply product, closed loops of power, a song that remains, in the end, always the same song.Wait. Everton also had a good season. Stay tuned for the real battle this summer as they take on the Final Boss. Total financial collapse!

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