A game of two halves: the rich and the poor

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The Independent Online
You have just been woken up by your Manchester United alarm clock (pounds 10), and you peer from beneath your Manchester Utd duvet (pounds 30) at your bedroom wall, papered, of course, in Manchester Utd colours (pounds 7 a roll). Switching on your Manchester Utd lamp (pounds 17), you go into the bathroom, wash and dry off with your Manchester Utd towel (pounds 10) ... and so on, until you turn in for the night and take off your Manchester United sports watch (pounds 25).

This is modern day football. Gone are the days when you picked up your scarf and your rattle and headed for the ground to claim your usual square foot of the terraces for about a fiver. Today, you are more likely to wear your pounds 40 replica shirt and head for your pounds 25 seat in the stands.

Football is big business. Yesterday, when Manchester United chairman Martin Edwards said he might consider selling the club if the price were right, he hinted that bidding should start at pounds 400m. And there appears to be no shortage of takers.

The improvements in English football grounds imposed after the publication of the Taylor report into the 1989 Hillsborough disaster were the catalyst that began changing the face of the national sport. Making stadiums all-seater not only improved the game's image, but it also made clubs treat supporters like customers and not simply as terrace fodder.

Then, more importantly, came the formation of the Premier League and the injection of hundreds of millions of pounds - pounds 670m for the next four seasons alone - from BSkyB in return for exclusive rights to broadcast live games. Football has been dragged into the satellite age.

With the money came the big-name players from abroad, increased attendances - up 33 per cent in 10 years - and a huge growth in sales of club merchandise. Manchester Utd alone shifts more than pounds 20m worth of branded goods, from mugs to its own lager. Across all 92 clubs, the figure runs into hundreds of millions of pounds.

Crucially, it is this money, together with catering and conference incomes, that now has City investors circling for the first time.

In the past, results on the pitch could lead to wild fluctuations in the share prices of the six quoted clubs - Manchester Utd, Tottenham Hotspur, Celtic, Chelsea, Preston North End and Millwall. These, with Leeds Utd, whose owners, Caspian, are stock-market listed, have a total market value in the region of pounds 670m.

"Large investors have been waiting in the wings to see what happens with football, but now they are coming in and buying," said Victoria Wearing, assistant director of the Share Centre, a telephone trading service. "They used to be frightened off by the volatility of share prices because of on-the-pitch results, whereas now there is more stability because of the off-the-pitch business."

And it isn't only the big City types who are buying. Small investors, too, are grabbing a piece of their favourite club. Since the Share Centre set up its football investors' service last February, sales have increased by 700 per cent.

So, all the Premiership clubs are now rich, right? Wrong. Last season, the downside of the big time began to bite. In the search for more success, bigger crowds, higher television fees and a greater income from merchandising - the upwards spiral achieved by Manchester Utd - clubs were forced to spend more than ever before on players.

Between them, the 92 Premier and Football League clubs spent pounds 110m on transfer fees - a record. More than pounds 30m went to buy foreign players. But that wasn't the end of the story. Across the four divisions, the wages bill raced ahead of inflation, rising by 14 per cent to create a total pay packet of pounds 243m. And in the Premier League, wages increased by 22 per cent. Some Premiership players - like the pounds 15m Newcastle striker Alan Shearer - can command wages in excess of pounds 20,000 a week.

Transfer fees and higher wages forced many clubs - even some in the Premiership - into the red. Across the board, English clubs made a pre- tax loss of pounds 14.1m from a total income of pounds 468m.

Even Everton, one of the richest clubs in the country, fell pounds 9.4m into the red after splashing out pounds 12.7m on players. And it's tougher still in the lower divisions. Only 20 per cent of clubs in the First, Second and Third Divisions made a profit. The future for them looks grim as the Premier League continues to increase its share of all football income.

"It may well be that clubs in the lower divisions have to go semi-professional and, at some point in the future, they may form regional leagues," said Jason Hargaden of Deloitte & Touche. "But even the Premiership clubs are divided between the big clubs like Manchester Utd, Liverpool, Spurs, Everton and Arsenal, who have big crowds and lots of supporters, and the others who are struggling to keep up."

So what does the future hold? Where will the drive for profit drag the English game? Onwards and upwards, say the optimists. Into a financial mire, say the cynics.

The next big development will be pay-per-view channels owned by the clubs. You may no longer be able to take your son to the game - if you did, you wouldn't get much change out of pounds 60 - but, with the expansion of cable and fibre optic technology, you will be able to have games beamed into your home live on a Saturday afternoon. At between pounds 5 and pounds 10 a game to view, the clubs stand to make a fortune.

After that, at some point in the next century, the experts predict that the superclubs' insatiable appetite for more money and more glamour will lead to the formation of a Euro-league. When that happens, the future for the likes of Grimsby doesn't look promising. And, unless you have deep pockets or regular access to the world of corporate entertaining, you can forget going to away matches.

The fans, those who remember standing for a fiver in the pouring rain, will again be the ones who lose out. The games will be televised - probably pay-per-view - and gate prices, which have already risen by 300 per cent in the past 10 years, will go up further.

"Clubs have never treated fans well," said David Blatt of the Football Supporters Association. "But now they are taking advantage. Among football fans, there is a brand loyalty that Coca-Cola would kill for. Your team can lose, you can be given lousy seating, blocked views, poor toilets and dreadful catering facilities but you will still go back because it is your team.

"Now that they have improved conditions, they are taking advantage by hiking up gate prices and worrying more about corporate hospitality than true supporters getting in to see their heroes.

"They exploit fans' loyalty and they'll carry on exploiting it because they know they can. They know it goes way beyond rational behaviour. It's true love."

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