It was once my job to brief Boris on football. Then he was very much a free marketeer, now it is amazing to see that he wants to play the socialist sports lord, a task that defeated Tony Blair. The briefing took place on a Sunday afternoon in September 1998 when news emerged that Manchester United’s directors were planning to sell the club to Rupert Murdoch’s BSkyB. Boris had decided to devote his column to it. His problem was he did not know anything about the deal, or for that matter much about English football, and as the chief sports news correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, he rang me to be sure of his facts.
He was intrigued as to why the Manchester United fans were so hostile to the bid. Would it not, he asked me, bring in a lot of money for the club? I told him of the special bond fans had with their club and how Murdoch was seen as a money grabber. I was impressed by how quickly he understood the intricacies of the proposed takeover. However, his piece, while balanced, did not agree with the view of many fans that there should be government intervention to stop the bid on monopoly grounds, something Tony Banks, the sports minister, had hinted there might be. As it happened the bid was stopped by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission.
For Boris to play the football socialist, he would have had to reverse nearly 50 years of free market policies that have made this country a haven for foreign owners, many of whom the fans feel no affinity for. Five of the six English clubs who signed up for the Super League are owned by foreigners, the sixth by an English tax exile. Britain, the most lucrative football market in the world, imposes virtually no controls on a foreign takeover and in one instance taxpayers’ money helped the sale of Premier League club to a foreign state.
When Thaksin Shinawatra, the disgraced former Thai prime minister, wanted to sell Manchester City to Sheikh Mansour, a member of the royal family of Abu Dhabi, his sales pitch included the fact that the stadium City played in was a new one. The stadium had been built with taxpayers’ money for the Commonwealth Games and had been rented out to the club at a very reasonable rent. Shinawatra says the fact that Sheikh would not have to spend money to build a stadium, leaving him more for player purchases, proved very appealing.
As London Mayor, Boris himself did a similar deal when he rented out the Olympic stadium to West Ham for a 'ludicrously generous' price, according to the Taxpayers' Alliance. The club contributed a mere £15 million towards the £272 million that it cost to convert the site for use as a Premier League ground, with taxpayers paying many of the running costs of the stadium. Like City, this could make West Ham very attractive should the owners want to sell it to a foreign buyer.
To be an effective football socialist, Boris should take inspiration from the American sports model. Four of the six clubs who signed up for the Super League are owned by Americans and the reason they find English clubs irresistibly attractive is because they can do things in this country that they could not in their homelands. When it comes to sport, America does not believe in a free market. Income is shared equally, clubs are restricted in where they market their products and changes of ownership require the consent of all the clubs in the league. The financial deal the Glazers did to buy Manchester United, one of the leading advocates of the Super League, would not have been allowed in their homeland, something many United fans will not forget nor forgive.
Boris, like Tony Blair, may soon discover that it is easier to sound like a football reformer than actually be one.