Most English professional football clubs were founded before 1890. Many are relics of the industrial revolution, left behind in shrinking northern towns after the economic tide receded. Clubs have survived world wars, recessions, corrupt chairmen and incompetent managers. Their latest challenge is coronavirus. Big clubs will cope: fuelled by television broadcast revenues, they can keep their players in Ferraris. But smaller clubs rely chiefly on football’s oldest form of financing — ticket sales — and stadiums stand empty during the pandemic.
This is unprecedented. Even during world wars, British clubs welcomed some paying crowds. Now many smaller clubs are preparing to “cease playing . . . and put their business into administration”, as several prominent figures, including two former Football Association chairmen, wrote to the government last month. A plan by Liverpool and Manchester United to bail out small clubs in return for more power for rich ones was binned this week, because other big clubs opposed it.
Small-town English football needs a short-term rescue. Long-term, though, clubs will survive the pandemic, as they have all past crises. True, many will probably go into administration. Some might even be liquidated. But football clubs have folded before, only to revive as if by magic. That’s because a club is just a name. If the business enfolding it goes bust, fans can simply create a new company, give it the club’s name, and restart in lower-league football with a new team playing in the same colours, usually in its old stadium. This process is known as phoenixing: the new club rises like a phoenix from the old one’s ashes.
Tiny clubs such as Aldershot, Maidstone United and Newport County went from liquidation to phoenixing, and now stumble on somewhere in English football’s pyramid. Accrington Stanley’s rebirth was the most drawn-out: it resigned from the Football League in 1962 with debts of £63,000, got liquidated in 1966, was recreated by fans in 1968, and re-entered the league in 2006 — its brand only enhanced by the drama — with a new sign above the turnstiles: “The Club that Wouldn’t Die.” Stanley now play in League One, English football’s third tier. Similarly, Bury, which folded last year, is already back in the tenth tier. Eventually, it will probably return to the Football League.
Macclesfield Town, the first English club to close during the pandemic, has just been bought by a local businessman, who plans a phoenixing. No English professional club has vanished forever since Wigan Borough in 1931. Even then, its successor Wigan Athletic was founded a year later. Note that Wigan, Macclesfield, Bury and Accrington Stanley are among the industrial-era clubs struggling for modern catchment areas in the post-industrial region around Manchester.
Football clubs are so sustainable that they survive even liquidation. Still, they will need a bridge over this crisis. Happily, society can afford it. Clubs are rare sources of community and pride for hard-pressed towns, but they are also tiny businesses that can be bailed out cheaply. The English Football League’s 72 clubs lost a total of £50m last season because of coronavirus and stand to lose another £200m this season, says the EFL’s chairman Rick Parry. Compare those sums with the aviation industry: Virgin Atlantic alone needed a £1.2bn rescue package just to keep going until 2022.
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The government should help small clubs. Others will, too. Premier League clubs are offering grants and interest-free loans worth £50m, on top of £27m paid earlier this year. Banks traditionally avoid foreclosing on clubs. During the pandemic, the EFL needs to abandon its practice of expelling the bankrupt. Once stadiums reopen, clubs can slowly repay loans. After all, they have proved their local viability since Victorian times. The league should also compel them to buy insurance against financial misfortune.
Meanwhile, clubs will cut players’ salaries. In a revolutionary move, those in Leagues One and Two have agreed salary caps. The second-tier Championship is considering following suit. Small clubs should switch to employing mostly part-time and amateur players. Stefan Szymanski, an economist at the University of Michigan, and my co-author on Soccernomics, says: “The dirty secret of the football labour market is that almost every player is paid above his reservation wage — defined as the minimum amount he would accept to do it.” Indeed, even in the tenth tier, Bury received 750 applications for the job of manager.
Prof Szymanski says: “Bury could exist in the Premier League or as a pub team. That’s the ultimate scalability of football.” An amateur or part-time team can still be a pillar of a town. Even the biggest German clubs were semi-professional until 1963.
Small football clubs don’t need full-time playing staffs. They don’t need to compete with Liverpool or Manchester United. Bury haven’t won a national prize since the FA Cup of 1903. Fans of small clubs don’t expect trophies. They just need them to survive. And — allowing for temporary collapses — they will.
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