Football is not the only game where the rich are getting richer

'Football is the most global sport in that it supplies a large part of the world with a common culture'
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Even by the standards of our celebrity-dominated world, football is astounding. The Brazilian hero Rivaldo reportedly earns £8.5m a year for the four remaining years of his contract at Barcelona, the highest-paid footballer in the world - making you almost feel sorry for Roy Keane, who has to rub along on only £2.7m a year at Manchester United.

Even by the standards of our celebrity-dominated world, football is astounding. The Brazilian hero Rivaldo reportedly earns £8.5m a year for the four remaining years of his contract at Barcelona, the highest-paid footballer in the world - making you almost feel sorry for Roy Keane, who has to rub along on only £2.7m a year at Manchester United.

But actually these stars are grossly underpaid: the transfer fee system is, in all probability, about to be swept away by the European Commission. That would mean that instead of clubs being able to extract part of the market value of players for themselves, all the value would go to the players. No one knows quite how a market unencumbered by long-term contracts and transfer fees would work, but the odds are that fees for top stars would at least double, maybe triple. So Rivaldo could come in at something like £25m a year.

This "winner takes all" culture is just as evident a bit further down the scale. As the annual report in the industry from Deloitte & Touche pointed out yesterday, the gap between the top clubs and the rest is widening relentlessly. This is apparent in terms of the wages they can pay, with Premier League clubs increasing their wage bill by 28 per cent last year, while the wage bill of Division One clubs actually fell.

This phenomenon of larger and larger rewards going to a smaller and smaller group of people is by no means just a football phenomenon. In other sports - tennis, Formula One, golf - exactly the same divergence is taking place. It is happening in the entertainment industries, in the City, in the law, in industry - and most recently in authorship, witness Harry Potter's domination of the world book market.

When such diverse branches of human endeavour as football and bond-trading exhibit the same characteristics you look for some kind of socio-economic explanation, some big change in society that is common to all. As it happens there are three. There are two obvious ones - globalisation and the communications revolution - and one that is harder to pin down - some change in our value systems that rewards victory, however it is achieved, above "playing the game".

Football is perhaps the most global of all sports in that it supplies a large part of the world with a common culture - the only significant region to exclude itself is North America, and that seems set to change. The soccer revolution may well sweep across the US in the next couple of years.

Meanwhile the World Cup rivals the Olympics as the world's largest television event, and top clubs have become a global brand. Football not only draws its talent from virtually the whole world, but sells its output just about everywhere and sells it continuously throughout the year. Buying foreign talent is one way of extending your brand into a foreign market. Pick up a South African player and suddenly you become huge across half a continent. Buy a Japanese one and you are on every billboard in the world's second-largest economy.

The process of globalisation has been immeasurably helped by the communications revolution. The key aspect of this is that the entertainment industries need products to pump through their global TV networks. Sport is the ideal TV product, as any sports event has to be watched at the moment it is created. People will pay a premium for immediacy. It is quite unlike a film which, by its very nature, can only be seen after it has been manufactured. And while some people are prepared to pay a premium to watch live theatre or live opera, neither activity works well when repackaged by TV - nor do these performances have as wide a general appeal as many sports.

Globalisation and the communications revolution have created vast revenues for the top football clubs. By the 2001/2 season, Deloitte & Touche reckons that the turnover of the Premiership clubs will reach £1.3bn. But to be global product you have to be tops. Technically it costs the same to show the world a European Cup game as it does to show a Third Division one. But only the former would attract the audience to justify the costs, so that is where the money goes.

But I think there is this further cultural change that accounts for the way the spoils are shared - or rather not shared. It has always been more fun to win than to lose and in conflicts that really matter - the Second World War for example - winning can be crucial to the future of humanity. But in most areas of human behaviour winning is incidental to happiness. You can have a lot of fun skiing fairly badly or playing a musical instrument in an amateur group or, if you like that sort of thing, playing golf off a handicap of 18. The handicapping system is one of the keys to golf's success as a competitive sport: it allows people who are not the tops to have a good game.

The idea that while winning mattered, what really mattered was having a good game, has however become deeply unfashionable. People sneer at it as a John Majorish characteristic of a Britain of warm beer and bad cricket on the village green. Now winning is all. No matter how badly the winners behave in human terms, they still attract adulation. Only when they fall from the narrow pinnacle of their technical skill do they get kicked.

I'm sure this will change - social attitudes go in cycles and the market will start to swing again soon. So the stars that have admirable human characteristics will be the ones that attract the sponsorship and those that don't will suddenly find the cheques get smaller. You can catch a bit of this already: athletic stars who are done for drugs find their sponsors run scared. Meanwhile, the attractive second-raters get to sell the products. Think of Anna Kournikova.

Eventually, too, the hard-working local football clubs that cannot afford the stars will win through. But they will have to do so by looking to their communities. They will, for example, have to work with the community by helping train local talent, by working with local businesses, by trying to combat local social problems and so on. They will have to play a clever niche game.

That needs a rare mix of managerial talent. Football is akin to theatre. While the greatest rewards will continue to go to the global blockbusters, the Cats or the Lion Kings, there is a living at all sort of levels. The key to success, as in virtually all businesses, is to push the product up-market.

That is happening. The very fact that footballers are paid so much changes the nature of the game. The top clubs have moved from sport to showbiz. The rest have to become service providers, using glamour and publicity instead of cash. A tough call? Sure it is, but at least football is a boom industry. Better to be a minor player in a boom than a major one in a slump.

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