Of Playthings and Business

Amidst the tumult bedeviling the A-League this month, Football Federation Australia’s CEO Ben Buckley argued that “Clubs and teams are not playthings.”

Responding to Nathan Tinkler’s Hunter Sports Group’s decision to revoke their license and pull their funding out of the Newcastle Jets, Buckley said, “we will continue to pursue the Hunter Sports Group to meet their obligations, but if they don’t we reserve the right to take action…You can’t sign a contract and walk away from it. That’s simply not the way business is done.”

Buckley is right in one way, of course – Tinkler’s group apparently signed a contract that saw them funding the Jets through the 2020 season, and now seem to be trying to weasel out of the deal. However, referring to an A-League franchise as a “business” rather than as an owner’s “plaything” is completely misrepresenting the worth of a soccer (“football”?) team in the 21st Century Australian sporting landscape.

According to the ABC, FFA’s own financial reports show that the A-League clubs lost $27 million last year, with similar projections for 2012. Even Buckley would likely struggle to argue that A-League teams should be considered sustainable “businesses” in such a climate.

Not that A-League franchises are alone when it comes to being misrepresented in this fashion. Malcolm Gladwell, of The Tipping Point and Outliers fame, argued on Grantland last year that all sports teams aren’t businesses, no matter how often people may refer to them as being so:

“Basketball teams, of course, look like businesses. They have employees and customers and offices and a product, and they tend to be owned, in the manner of most American businesses, by rich white men. But scratch the surface and the similarities disappear. Pro sports teams don’t operate in a free market, the way real businesses do. Their employees are 25 years old and make millions of dollars a year. Their customers are obsessively loyal and emotionally engaged in their fortunes to the point that — were the business in question, say, discount retailing or lawn products — it would be considered psychologically unhealthy. They get to control their labor through the draft in a way that would be the envy of other private sector owners, at least since the Civil War. And they are treated by governments with unmatched generosity.”

Gladwell goes on to quote Diego Della Vale, the CEO of Italian football club Fiorentina.  When asked whether or not buying the club was a decision made from the heart or for business reasons, Della Vale replied, “With football, business reasons don’t exist.”

Of course, a businessman as successful as Tinkler, and a group as big as the HSG should have, as the FFA argue, done their “due-diligence” and worked out that taking on the Jets would result in the loss of some serious cash.

But that fact alone doesn’t excuse Buckley from arguing that A-League is a sustainable business, nor that the teams that run around in the league aren’t the owner’s playthings.

Gladwell’s position is that people purchase sporting teams for the same reason that people purchase famous artwork: they are searching for the psychic benefits that are sought after by people who have far too much money to be overly concerned with the financial loss that is usually incurred by owning a sports franchise.

Whether Tinkler saw the Jets as a purchase that was going to benefit his bankroll or his psyche remains uncertain. Either way, the most depressing aspect of this turmoil will be its impact on the supporters of the Newcastle Jets. Sure, one could easily argue that a sporting club is a relative plaything for owner and fan alike, however for many fans the relationship between supporter and club develops into something far more spiritual and long-lasting.

Meanwhile, as Jets fans, players and staff find themselves in limbo, the people of Western Sydney find themselves the beneficiaries of an $8 million government grant and a new A-League franchise to be funded by the FFA for the next two seasons.

Viewers of TV news broadcasts this week saw Julia Gillard announce the grant and the new team simultaneously, and could be forgiven for combining the two in their minds, as it appeared as if the Federal Government were providing the money to fund a new A-League team in Western Sydney. However, it turns out that the entire grant is going towards the development of grassroots facilities and programs in the region. No matter what one thinks of the ALP’s general financial nous, one cannot argue that they are dumb enough to see an A-League franchise as a good investment.

And so, the FFA will now spend the next two years hoping that a person or group who are searching for some goodwill and psychic benefits will show up ready to spend some serious money by funding Western Sydney’s A-League team off into the future.

Until then, best the kids of Campbelltown not become too attached to their new local business.

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One Response to Of Playthings and Business

  1. Liz says:

    Very glad to see EPO back in action!! Looking forward to more…

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