The money game

Officially, the new soccer season begins today. Off the field, nothing has ever stopped. Since the end of May, British transfer fees have totalled almost pounds 120 million. The football itself is now only part of what used to be called The Glory Game; as often as not, it plays second fiddle to a huge money-go-round. Managers fight over exorbitantly-priced players, clubs sell tickets and merchandise for astronomical profits, the tabloid press feeds off the game's scandals, and the poor supporters try to keep up. Jim White reports
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Of all the quaint historical snapshots paraded every Wednesday night this summer in the BBC's Match of the Seventies, one has stood out. It was not the length of football shorts, the cut of commentators' lapels, nor the way sideburns used to entwine romantically under players' chins. The thing that told us most about how things have changed since those long-forgotten days when there were still miners in this country, was a news item relating to negotiations between club chairmen and the television companies over a new contract for the 1973 season.

"There is a possibility", said a newsman reporting the talks while wearing an improbable arrangement in sheepskin, "that cameras will be banned from grounds next season." The prospect of television cameras being banned from football grounds nowadays is about as likely as Alex Ferguson solving his current player crisis at Old Trafford by asking me to turn out. In less than five years, football in this country has undergone a total revolution. Everything has changed since the time of Match of the Seventies; nothing, except the shape of the ball and the construction of the managers' after- match cliches, remains the same: ageing stadiums have been re-built, players now cost more to buy than Lear jets, international stars ply their trade here, the middle classes - heaven forfend - have taken to watching the game. And the catalyst that wrought all the change is television.

The football revolution began in 1990 when the Taylor Report was published. Ninety-six Liverpool fans crushed to death on the terraces at an FA Cup semi-final in 1989 made it clear even to Mrs Thatcher's government that one of the most conservative businesses in the country had to be forced to change. Lord Justice Taylor's plan to ensure there would be no more Hillsboroughs recommended that football grounds were made all-seater, the building work financed in part by money from the Football Pools. Somewhere in the small print of his report was the rider that clubs should not use this as an opportunity to increase the price of admission. Some hope.

Throughout the Eighties a new market had developed in sport: corporate hospitality, companies paying large amounts in order to schmooze clients away from the office. Yet no self-respecting businessman was prepared to entertain at football, standing up on terraces fearful of flash-floods of urine cascading over their Church's. But in new stadiums, all-seater, with restaurants and bars and monitors presenting instant television replays, it was a different proposition, and chairmen would have to be blind not to see the possibilities. Especially if someone else was paying. Even better, here was a chance to price out the unwashed and unsavoury who had trampled all over the game for 20 years with their lewd songs and unpleasant boots, and exchange them for those with better manners and deeper pockets.

In 1992, the chairmen of the top clubs, watching their new facilities take shape, thinking of the money that might be generated and alarmed that they might - through an out-moded egalitarian arrangement - have to share some of it with those less fortunate than themselves in the lower reaches of the football league, formed their own organisation: the Premier League. And it was then that television really arrived. The Premier League signed a deal with Sky Television: unprecedented coverage for an unprecedented injection of more than pounds 60 million a year.

Back in 1973, the received wisdom was that television would kill the game, because, if it was on the box, nobody would bother paying to watch the thing live. Experience has proven the exact opposite: live football is on television every night of the week, and yet attendances are buoyant. The vast sums the clubs received from Sky was not a compensation for declining income through the turnstiles, it was a delicious supplement to it. Because what the old-time chairmen had not appreciated was that information feeds appetites, it does not suppress them. Every second on television was an advertisement for their brand.

Moreover, since Rupert Murdoch had paid so much for football, he was not going to let his investment go under-nourished. The back pages of his papers, already dedicated to football, could be used to remind readers of the need for satellite access to it. The Sun has three pages a day, 12 on Monday, incessantly presenting the game as gladiatorial combat, the slickest, smartest, sexiest thing around: if you don't watch, you're missing out. And in the new era of hype, football got lucky. Two televised moments sealed its pre-eminence: Gazza's tears and Cantona's kung fu.

From the quantum leap provided by Murdoch's cheque book, all else followed. Since our players had been hyped into such heroes, it followed, for instance, that we would want to dress in their clothes. Last year, pounds 330 million was spent by Britons on football shirts: the built-in obsolescence of changing the style annually merely increased the feeding frenzy. It wasn't just shirts: duvet covers, his-and-her beach towels, dangly in-car mini- kits; endless ways of buying into the dream were invented. Edward Freedman, merchandising manager of Manchester United, predicted three years ago that the football souvenir business would be the growth industry of the Nineties. Even he did not dare suggest that his own business would turn over pounds 24 million, as it will this financial year.

As the money poured in, clubs found ever more ways to make more. Now they could afford to hire fancy foreign stars we had seen on television in the World Cup, and whom we would pay fancy money to see in the flesh. Now they could open their grounds on non-match days for "heritage" guided tours (125,000 people, paying pounds 4.95 each, went round Old Trafford last year). Now they could send the team on pre-season foreign tours, charging huge sums to play in Hong Kong, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, in front of fans who had seen the lads previously only on satellite television.

"A whole new ball game" was Sky's selling line when its coverage of football began. The terminology was not a coincidence. For what has happened is that, in the past five years, football has become Americanised. When the revolution is over (and, in truth, we are about halfway through), football matches, in the American fashion, will have become events: hyped-up, inflated, over-exposed, played by millionaires, watched in the stadium by the rich, and at home, on pay television, by the rest of us.

The new Premier League season begins today: "The most exciting season ever", trumpeted a noisy advertisement in the Evening Standard. But you would be forgiven for thinking the last one never stopped. Now that football is the biggest leisure industry in the country, the summer is no time for rest. While the players have been lying in the sun, acquiring tans which will nicely off-set their new, jade-coloured away shorts, the administrators have been working, readying themselves for the money-making ahead.

Here are three stories of the summer, stories indicative of the new football, stories that wouldn't have happened in 1973 when television was the enemy and Brian Clough, looking about 40 years younger than he does today, saw the future.

"You lot have a choice," he lectured the reporter in the sheepskin. "If you want football, you either pay what you do now and get nowt, or you pay a fortune and get the lot."

The transfer

Bad team, bad image:

so Arsenal reached for

their wallet. Now they look like champions

At the end of June, football shirts began appearing on the streets of north London bearing the legend bergkamp, the surname of the great Dutch striker, Dennis Bergkamp. These were not the shirts of some fancy foreign team; these were, amazingly, Arsenal shirts. After the season Arsenal had just had, the kind of thing you expected to see on the back of a Gunners' shirt was bung.

Arsenal had a miserable season. George Graham, the team manager, was sacked for allegedly taking cuts or "bungs" from transfer fees; Paul Merson, the local hero, was revealed as a hopeless addict, hooked on everything from cocaine to gambling; and Ray Parlour, a young midfielder, was arrested during a tour of Hong Kong for assaulting a taxi driver after a drinking binge. In May, Arsenal fans were so miserable, they made neighbouring Tottenham's traditionally gloomy support look like a glee club. Then, abruptly, all changed. Bergkamp was signed, and (also from Italy) David Platt; Paul Merson re-emerged fit and clean; and now Arsenal are being spoken of as potential champions. What a difference a transfer makes.

Indeed, Bergkamp's transfer from Internazionale was a thoroughly modern affair: several agents were involved and several languages spoken, the most significant of which was money (the player will receive pounds 25,000 a week, plus a pounds 2-million share of the pounds 7.5-million transfer fee). This was, as is the new way of football, a transfer as public relations exercise.

All summer long we have seen them: players bought for reasons beyond their footballing ability. Frantic buying in June preceded, by no coincidence at all, the requirement to renew season tickets. What the transfers said was: "We are a club going places, so that's why your season ticket has gone up 30 per cent." The ludicrous inflation in prices was part of the public relations drive: "Come see our new striker: he only has one foot, isn't interested on wet nights in January, only scored three times last season, but, hey, he cost pounds 4.2 million."

Even if a club couldn't actually afford to buy a player, the mere fact that they were looking might, they hoped, engender sufficient optimism in the fans to make them part with their cash. So, throughout June, the newspapers, always the willing conduit of football gossip, were alive with rumours. On 19 June alone, for instance, the Sun reported as certain that Palace's Armstrong was going to Everton; Spurs's Anderton and Barmby to Blackburn; Sheffield Wednesday's Walker to Leeds; and Arsenal's John Jensen to Galatasaray (this last was clearly a leak by Highbury: sometimes the removal of players rather than the arrival sends out positive signals). All were wrong.

But the thing that really sets fans reaching for their wallets - as Chelsea have proved with the purchase of the Dutch genius, Ruud Gullit - is to buy a foreign player we have all seen in the World Cup. This would not have been possible five years ago, when clubs couldn't afford to match Italian salaries. But now the lira is less strong against the pound, and England has become a happy hunting-ground for foreign stars. The new career path is this: make a name for yourself in Holland or Germany. Get a big transfer to Italy, where you earn a fortune. Spend three years there, facing the toughest defences in the world. Then go home via a year or two in England, where our generous defences will enable you to rehabilitate yourself as a goal-scoring force, and where they are more than willing to pay you handsomely. The pioneer of this was Tottenham's Jurgen Klinsmann.

Thus, in May, when Inter made it clear to Bergkamp that he was surplus to their requirements, his agent made contact with two Spanish clubs and three English (Newcastle, Chelsea - managed by the player's boyhood idol, Glenn Hoddle - and Arsenal). Arsenal could scarcely believe their luck. Here was a player who would score goals, would reinvigorate the fans and, best of all, given their recent problems, was even more clean-cut than Gary Lineker. So they outbid the rest, hugely. Meanwhile, David Platt, England's captain and Bergkamp's equal as a role model for head boys, also made it clear he would be happy to come back from Italy and help himself to what was on offer. Arsenal snapped him up, too.

This completed a triumphant summer of Highbury PR. The architect was Bruce Rioch, the new manager. George Graham, his predecessor, used to be so paranoid about the press that he banned all contact. Rioch combined his buying spree with a spirit of glasnost: players were made available for interview, cameras were invited to the training ground for the first time in years - he even returned journalists' telephone calls. And it worked. The astonished press could not stop writing nice things, and the fans were fired up for the new season.

The new excitement at Arsenal was manifest before a pre-season friendly against Inter, organised as part of the Bergkamp deal. It was only as the game progressed that reality began to impinge on their fantasy close season. The result was a dour 0-0 draw.

The Owner

Lowly Leyton Orient struggle every season.

So what's in it for sports entrepeneur Barry Hearn?

Leyton Orient's Brisbane Road ground - out, as its name suggests, in the more exotic reaches of London's East End - can be found directly opposite a council tip and re-cycling centre. Uncharitable jokes have it that for years local householders have been dumping their rubbish in the wrong place. Instead of filling the skips over the road, the detritus of modern life has fetched up on the Brisbane Road pitch where it has spent the past few seasons masquerading as a football team.

And when the fans chanted "what a load of rubbish" at Orient last season, they had a point: 1994-95 was about the worst in the club's undistinguished history. Down they sank into the Endsleigh League third division, hamstrung by losses of pounds 500,000 a year, attracting fewer paying customers than the nearby bingo hall, saddled with a stadium that was confounding the demolition men by falling down of its own volition; things were so bad, the club was even banned from the transfer market as a punishment for being unable to pay back a loan from the Professional Footballers Association, borrowed to fund the staff wages. At the back end of last year, Orient were a living (just about) rebuttal of the theory fondly adopted by the Premier League that the new money pouring into football would eventually trickle down to the smaller clubs. Bankruptcy seemed inevitable. A couple of tears were prepared to be shed.

And then Barry Hearn came along.

A slick, successful 46-year-old promoter of snooker and boxing, Barry Hearn cuts an unlikely figure as saviour. He has, throughout his career guiding money-makers like Steve Davis and Chris Eubank, unfailingly sniffed out the opportunity to make money from sport; and of all the smells pervading a decaying Brisbane Road, money isn't one of them. Yet, in March this year, Hearn bought the club from Tony Wood, who had pumped pounds 2.5 million of his own money into the bottomless pit that was Orient's accounts and lost the lot. It was not a bitter take-over; no one was more relieved than Wood. In a way that was somehow typical of the club's luck, Wood's business had recently been savaged by an unforeseen development: he imported coffee from Rwanda.

And so throughout football's hectic summer, as other club chairmen have been spending millions on new talent, or handing out contracts to players worth pounds 10,000 a week, Hearn has been ensconced in Orient's boardroom, telling the team that next season there won't be any overnight stops on trips up North: the club can't afford the hotel bill.

"There's no such thing as a close season round here," says Hearn, galloping around his new manor. "This is Orient, son."

You reach Hearn's boardroom by stepping through the puddle caused by a leaking over-flow flooding the entrance to the family enclosure. There, the new chairman greets visitors with a bonhomie so extravagant it is as if he hopes that by enthusiasm alone he can transform his acquisition's fortunes. But the question is, as you settle into the boardroom's plastic leather-effect, circa 1969 armchair, why has a failure-proof businessman committed the classic fiscal mistake of buying an ailing football club?

"The bland answer is I bought the place because I used to be here when I was a kid," says Hearn, in an unreconstructed East End accent which suggests he probably was. "Every time I come in here, I think, blimey, I used to stand on the terraces over there. So, there's a bit of heart in it, sure."

However, not enough, he insists, to plough any of the Hearn fortune into the place. Jack Walker may have proven what a large injection of capital can do for a back-water (and in the process what saving the local football club can do for the saviour's reputation), but there won't be any of that sort of thing down Leyton way.

"I put in a few hundred thousand, not a lot," Hearn says. "And that's it. No more where that came from. I've told everyone that I ain't Jack Walker. It's a relatively straightforward thing to go out, spend pounds 50 million and buy a good team. You could put your house on it, if I did, that we would be promoted from the third division at the end of the season. But I ain't going to. I'm a chartered accountant. On the opposite side of my heart is my wallet. This is a business for me. I like running businesses. I can't score the goals, I look at sets of accounts. That's how I get my buzz. "

In any case, Hearn claims that what a football club down on its luck needs is not so much a sugar daddy as a good accountant.

"This was a terribly run organisation," he says. "Terrible. It had no management, no cost control, nothing. And that, believe me, is typical of football. All this money coming in and they don't know how to run the thing. What we've done here is draft in proper, full-time working executives; that's how you run a business. How can you expect to run a business part-time? What we have here is a challenge. But this place can make money."

Excuse me? Orient?

"Not like I'm used to, perhaps, but make no mistake, this place can make money. Look at Michael Knighton at Carlisle - got it right from the start, and the money's pouring in.

"We've got a 17,000-capacity stadium here and we got 3,000 a week. "I looked at the 14,000 empty seats and thought, 'How do you fill them? Where is there a gap in the market?'"

Well, where is it?

"Think about it: there's a huge gap. You talk to the average Spurs fan and what's on his mind? The cost. What we are saying is, we can offer the live experience at an affordable price. And nothing beats the live experience."

But surely that was always the case: Orient was always there to mop up those unable to afford Spurs. Why is he so confident?

"Well, my team and I are motivated individuals who can sell sport. We've gone out into the community and said, 'we're your club'. We've sold acres of sponsorship and acres of advertising: the commercial income has quadrupled in six months. And, most important of all, we targeted the kids."

Orient have for a long time run the country's most popular football-in- the-community scheme. Every Saturday, every day during the holidays, parks throughout east London are full of small boys, dressed in Arsenal, Spurs and Manchester United kit, being coached by Orient staff. Eighty thousand boys went through the scheme last year. As soon as Hearn took over, he turned it into a direct mail advertising campaign; lads were returning from their day out burdened with Orient material, including a free match ticket for a family of four.

The results have been surprising. Last year, Orient sold 750 season tickets; for the new season, despite playing in a lower division, more than 3,000 have been sold; endless numbers of "suck-us-and-see" one-off deals have been arranged.

Hearn's enthusiasm moves into overdrive. "We'll be marrying someone on the pitch at half-time on Saturday, we're going to have celebrity walk-ons like we do at boxing, we're going to kick balls into the crowd and the kids can keep them. I'm coming in with a great deal of experience in how to exploit sport, commercially and through the media. And I find this very motivating. That's why I'm in it: for me. You see, I'm not a football fan, I don't think I can sit through 90 minutes. It's the business that's the buzz."

Business, marketing, modern accountancy practice, all will make a difference at Brisbane Road. But only if the team stop playing like a collection of refuse. "The bullshit stops the moment that bugger blows the whistle," admits Hearn.

But as he went off to another appointment, one of Orient's football-in-the-community staff had just pulled up in his car. Out of the back seat climbed one of his charges, an eight-year-old East Ender dressed in his football kit. It was a Blackburn Rovers shirt. The Top Ten transfers in the close season

pounds 8.5 million Stan Collymore (Nottingham Forest to Liverpool) pounds 7.5 million Dennis Bergkamp (Inter Milan to Arsenal) pounds 6 million Les Ferdinand (Queens Park Rangers to Newcastle) pounds 6 million Paul Ince (Manchester United to Inter Milan) pounds 5.25 million Nick Barmby (Tottenham Hotspur to Middlesbrough) pounds 5 million Andrei Kanchelskis (Manchester United to Everton - pending) pounds 4.75 million David Platt (Sampdoria to Arsenal) pounds 4.5 million Chris Armstrong (Crystal Palace to Tottenham) pounds 4.3 million Paul Gasoigne (Lazio to Glasgow Rangers) pounds 4 million Warren Barton ( Wimbledon to Newcastle)