If there is one phrase that we keep hearing when talking to other people in the game, it is that “football is different to other businesses”. Granted, you never see employees kissing the logo of their company shirts, but it seems to be used as an excuse for unsustainable business models, concentrating power in a small group of individuals, ignoring broader stakeholders and propping up outdated, often sexist cultures. Throughout my career, I’ve witnessed signals that indicate an opportunity for disruption in other industries; travel in the late 1990s, dating and financial services in the last 15 years. I think those signals are strong in football today.
As this education into the realpolitik of football ownership continues, one example of where these signals are strong is around player transfers and contracts. Deals in the transfer market are relatively boring because once a player is identified, the only variable that really counts is price. Beyond the binary (and relatively uninteresting) nature of these conversations I think this is problematic for a bigger reason in that it reinforces to some clubs that the contracts they are creating are commoditised in nature. This has come up again and again in the way players are viewed or at least discussed in transfer conversations. As the philosopher Simon Critchley says, football’s “form is association, socialism, the sociability and collective action of players and fans, and yet its material substrate is money”.
This creates an unsatisfying power dynamic for buyers and sellers. As we looked to bring players to Grimsby this summer we knew some of the clubs we approached had smaller budgets and resources than ours and so we could potentially take key players away if we paid a high enough price. Equally, teams from higher divisions can target our players based on the order of magnitude of difference in their finances. To feel like your strategy and culture is subsumed by conversations about money feels grubby and unsatisfactory as decisions about people’s lives and families are reduced almost entirely to someone else’s decision on a price.
Fans want success but they also want integrity and longevity. More often than not money talks loudest to lower-league owners and players. Financial power gives the strongest voice to those who have the greatest share of the conversation already and can fuel a type of arrogance that we saw with the Super League debacle. A conversation that is very much still alive in investor circles today.
In contract conversations it has been expressed to me that, once a player registers with a club, that club “owns” that player. The connotations of this are really uncomfortable and the logic that supports it even more so. You sign a player on a contract that is personally very lucrative from a financial point of view but that implicitly makes the player that club’s property. When you consider the mathematical improbability of becoming a professional football player you’d assume that those physically gifted and lucky enough to reach the rarefied air of becoming an elite athlete should entirely control their own destinies. This is clearly not the case and, overall, the conversations around players’ futures leave something to be desired as clubs and agents often make decisions for players.
It’s impossible for players and managers to take a more expansive view on what is best for players while operating in the “substrate” of finance and knowing that careers are both precarious and finite. Add into this the fast pace that deals tend to happen and it makes it difficult for players to assess the culture of an organisation and the opportunity cost of not staying at a place they are established, where they are developing and are often loved by becoming part of the community. While teams from higher divisions can stack their under-23 squads with talent from lower leagues, clearly those players cannot all break through to the first team, but logic dictates that a move makes sense. The inclination is that you have to back yourself in the ever-expanding development squads of Championship or Premier League teams, particularly if the money is there.
In his book The Second Mountain, David Brooks’ response to this is to say purpose, togetherness, relationships and belonging matter more than we realise in our hyper-individual world. As we get older we begin to understand that individual success is entirely pointless unless connected to family, community and a bigger picture (whatever that might be). England’s victory at Euro 2022 opened up an image of what is possible when excellence and team cohesion are the drivers of success. We now know that culture is the thing that drives success in any organisation, and while money helps, buying success does not allow you to “win deep”, as the former Football Association psychologist Dr Pippa Grange states.
With careers short, there is a huge opportunity for clubs that can show a collective home for individual brilliance
For any players or agents reading this, I’d suggest that when thinking about a move, you assess not only the financial side of it but also the culture of the organisation involved. The personal values and behaviours of owners will have a massive influence on how people are viewed and treated and will be a good indication of how commoditised and valued a player will be. One way to do this is to look at who controls the money, how they got it and how they act in their other businesses.
A second suggestion is to speak to the manager or head coach about who makes the decisions on playing and coaching. Unless you have that expertise I’d suggest owners shouldn’t be involved unless asked. This is most often not their domain of expertise and exerting control in this area is a sign of a lack of empowerment and trust in those they work with.
In a career that is short and where top talent is incredibly scarce, there is a huge opportunity for clubs that can authentically show a collective home for individual brilliance. Brooks states you should “never underestimate the power of the environment you work in to gradually transform who you are”. That works in both directions. Football isn’t that different to any other organisation; culture trumps everything and that culture starts with the right shareholders and owners for our community assets.
Jason Stockwood is the owner of Grimsby Town