Unprofessional Foul


January 24, 2011

Fair Play Franchises?

Dave Mackay Thinks This Place Sucks

The word “franchise” isn’t as dirty a word in US sporting circles as it is across the pond.  In a nation where Cardinals flew south from Chicago to Phoenix– with a stop over in St. Louis–and a plucky Athletic Club moved west throughout the 20th century from Philadelphia to Kansas City and Oakland, US sports fans have witnessed countless clubs leaving like thieves in the night in their Mayflower moving vans.

Now, just because these relocations occur more frequently in the US than in England doesn’t mean they are less acrimonious.  Certainly there are fans still fuming about the Braves leaving Milwaukee, the Sonics departing Seattle, and the Browns slinking away to Baltimore.  Likely there are generations of baseball fans in Brooklyn who never saw the Dodgers but are still miffed about the club moving to southern California.

It’s just in the US, we are more accustomed to the unending demands of franchise owners upon local authorities to pony up some cash to build a new stadium with the threat that the club will leave the area otherwise.  When Wimbledon FC moved to Milton Keynes for a new stadium and higher revenues it was derided as “US-style franchising” and the club’s name appears to be the footballing equivalent of a Scarlet Letter.

The furor over the MK Dons was re-ignited when the England 2018 World Cup bid included its stadium as a potential venue for hosting matches.  A petition was drafted to remove stadium:mk from the bid and there were gripes that–if England had won the bid–it would be essentially rewarding the Dons for what most consider to be a despicable decision.

English football supporters, though, are getting another round of potential “US-style franchising” when it comes to which London-based clubs inherit the stadia left over from the city’s hosting of the 2012 Olympic Games.  Contention surrounding Tottenham Hotspur’s potential move has been mentioned and to a lesser extent Chelsea’s flirtation with Earls Court.

About to Be Trashed Anyway

At least for Spartak fans though, a future move to Earls Court would be less dramatic than a previously-rumored move across the Thames to Battersea Park.  Earls Court is less than 2 miles from Stamford Bridge whereas the Battersea project is in a completely different area of London.

And besides–if the Pensioners moved to Earls Court they could still be known as Chelsea FC as opposed to FC Battersea and sound like a menu item from a seafood joint.

You might be asking–why would Premiership clubs like Tottenham and Chelsea be searching for a new ground?  Sure, the capacities at White Hart Lane and Stamford Bridge don’t match the Emirates or Old Trafford, but neither of these clubs has to move to avoid extinction, right?  Each has ample income–why else could Spurs continue to pay Peter Crouch to hang around?

Here’s where the good intentions of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play Rules meet the grubby belly of local economy.  In his Open Letter to Fans regarding the Stratford plans, Spurs Chairman Daniel Levy mentioned this ominously.

If you look at the stadium capacities of the top 20 clubs in Europe, they all exceed ours. The new Financial Fair Play rules will mean that we shall only be able to outlay income generated through the activities of the Club – increased match day revenues play a major role in a club’s finances and we need to ensure that we are in a position to thrive and to continue to compete at the highest level.

Reviewing what is included in the break-even stipulation of the Fair Play Rules (PDF file, didn’t link), revenue surrounding activities from the stadium is indeed the primary income source UEFA will weigh against a club’s outlays when determining if the club “broke even” during a reporting period.

Thus, the desire to have a 60,000 seat stadium that can “host major concerts and other sporting and cultural events” throughout the year is Tottenham’s plan for increasing its revenues to fund future runs at Champions League qualification.

And construction costs of a “fixed, tangible asset” for use of the club’s football activities is one of a scant number of items that can be excluded when calculating whether a club broke even.  Along with expenses related to community development, renovations to a club’s existing stadium or costs associated with new construction are omitted, thus encouraging clubs to build it for UEFA to come.

As for Chelsea, it’s been down this road before, being linked to a move to Earls Court back in 2006 before Michel Platini and Co. even breathed the words “fair play.”  The motivation then was likely the same as it is now–for the club to stop asking for Papa Abramovich’s credit card and instead become self-sufficient.  When Peter Kenyon spoke of CFC being profitable sans-Romana by 2011, it was noted that neither expansion of Stamford Bridge nor a relocation was in the works, but that Kenyon expected the club to be at the Bridge “for at least the next two years.”

That is less than a solid statement that Stamford Bridge is its long-term home and more of a hedge that Chelsea will see how the chips fall in the battle for Olympic hot spots.  In the end, both Tottenham and Chelsea could stay put if local councils or London Olympic committees disapprove of their bids, but the very idea that either large London club would leave its ancestral home highlights the top-down pressure UEFA’s Fair Play rules are already having for English clubs.

Again, the situation in London is unique–the hosting of the 2012 Summer Games has presented the possibility of relocation within the city–but the concept of franchising could become a more regular topic for English football to chew upon.   With aspiring European club competition participants all having to abide by Fair Play rules soon, one of the only ways to level playing fields will be how much cash can be generated by butts in the seats–and not just on match days, but throughout the year.

Arsenal and Manchester United are ahead in this race whereas Manchester City won its own new stadium lottery when it completed a transition from Maine Road after the 2002 Commonwealth Games.  And while Olympic Stadium and possibly Earls Court present Spurs and Chelsea with the opportunity to relocate within the city limits, it could still be an uprooting of a club from its community.

Over 100 years Chelsea and Tottenham have each called one neighborhood, one community, and one stadium, home.  Within the span of a few years, both might move in the blink of an eye.  MK Dons might be able to have that Scarlet Letter removed from its kit soon.

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