Since the Premier League era, foreign ownership of British football clubs has become ever more prevalent with an increasing number snapping up a new plaything. It would be foolish to brand all such overseas investment as bad for our clubs, as plenty of teams have benefited from financial support and ownership that has been respectful of the clubs traditions and values, however the number of manipulative and destructive take-overs we have seen on these shores of our clubs outweighs them and the plights of Portsmouth and Cardiff over the last few years are worrying.
One result of this modern footballing culture of letting anyone get their hands on a club as long as they tell you they have the money to do so, means we see a situation where Cardiff’s Malaysian owners, led by Vincent Tan, are holding the club to ransom over their whim-ish desires to see the club turn out in red, despite their 104 year history of blue kits.
The situation regarding Cardiff is a complicated one with many years of mismanagement and dubious dealings meaning that the club has been in the clutches of serious debt for some time and prior to Tan’s intervention, the Bluebirds were bleeding £1 million a month (this appears to still be the case). In return for their continued support and a £100 million investment package designed to improve their training facilities, upgrade their new stadium and wipe away the troublesome debts that have shackled the club since the murky Sam Hamman days.
Is it right that Tan can hold Cardiff at ransom over his personal wish to wear red, despite the overwhelming fan opposition and the fact that he will stamping all over 104 years of tradition? The club’s Malaysian owners have tried a couple of fairly transparent PR tricks to smooth this move namely by changing the clubs badge to a red dragon from a bluebird, attempting to play on fan’s patriotism by declaring the shirts/badge will be representative of national pride (wonder how that will go down in Swansea?) and claiming that the red is vital to help crack the Asian supporters market. This last point, which they have based much of their argument on is particularly fanciful and is disrespectful to the clubs rich tradition and history.
Tan and his board insist that the move to red is to ‘exploit and maximise its brand’ especially in Asia. The wafer thin argument for this decision is that red is popular in Asia and is seen as lucky in some countries. Chow mien is extremely popular in Asia and bird mess is seen as lucky in some countries, but you don’t see Manchester United playing in a strip flecked with pigeon poo and a club crest depicting a bowl of noodles do you?
In all seriousness though, how on earth does Tan honestly expect to generate fans half way around the world on the basis of a colour? Based on that logic he is pitting the club in direct competition with Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United, all teams with considerable established so called fan bases. Does he realistically expect to compete with those clubs for peoples hearts at the moment?
When quizzed by the BBC on the subject, Tom Cannon, a strategic development expert at the University of Liverpool Management school reasoned:
"I don't see any evidence that Cardiff playing in red will put them in position to compete against those giants who have the advantage of being successful in the Premier League.”
"The logic is to build on success - and evidence suggests there are three things that drive your market in Asia.”
"That is success on the field and Manchester United have built up their Asian business because of their 12 Premier League titles while Liverpool were successful during the 1970s and 1980s.”
"The second element is television exposure but that is closely related to success.”
"The third important element is the development of academy programmes in Asia and taking a longer-term view and United have an academy in China while Liverpool are in Indonesia."
The key to breaking new markets is undoubtedly through sustained on field success aided by clever PR strategies. For example, have you ever wondered why Real Madrid bought David Beckham at the height of his fame despite already owning Luis Figo and Zinedine Zidane at the same time? The answer is as likely to be for his ability to shift hundreds of thousands of replica shirts at a great profit as his legendary dead ball skills. However, with Beckham we are talking about the most famous and popular footballers of all time and the sad fact is that excited teenage fans will not being queuing up around the block to get their hands on a brand new Cardiff shirt complete with Don Cowie on the back.
With all due respect to Cardiff, a side that has been away from the top flight of English football for 50 years and has no household international stars, there is no way they are going to build any kind of noticeable following in the East on the current status quo based on the three criteria above, regardless of what colour their shirt is.
This then seems an even more ridiculous business model from Tan when you realise that in chasing Asian fans, of whom there is absolutely no guarantee they will line the pockets of the club, Cardiff’s Malaysian owners are ostracising the most important people to the club, the supporters who pay to come and see the team play week in week out. Cardiff will not get money from a few counterfeit shirts being sold overseas, but putting bums on seats on a Saturday afternoon is a club’s primary source of income. This summer’s controversial rebranding has already seen 70 season ticket holders receive refunds as the club, the lifeblood of the team begin to say ‘no thank you’. Can any side afford to make decisions that result in fans turning away from watching live football?
So how have we got to the point where centuries of club tradition and sources of local fan pride are being callously ignored by millionaires who view clubs as their personal playthings, rather than the lifebloods of local communities?
British football on a wider scale has painfully fallen victim to the money men who have had a hand in ensuring our leagues are littered with exciting foreign talent that is being paid silly money to do so, as a result of the gargantuan TV packages sold to countries around the world. The effect of this is that once the money men have got their feet under the table and a cycle of ever escalating wages, transfer sums, season tickets and £7 burgers at half time has been established, the common supporter realises it is powerless to affect the things when the whims of business men stray from what the paying football public want.
There is a middle ground to be found between raising substantial investment and respecting the needs and wishes of the most important people in football – the fans. Unsurprisingly, it is the Germans who lead the way in this respect and the Bundesliga has measures in place that mean that no outside investor can own more than 49% of a club, with a minimum 51% controlling stake remaining with club members. It is a system that still allows for interested parties to invest large sums into clubs should they so wish but avoids the poisonous foreign takeovers that have left clubs like Portsmouth and Blackburn on their knees and even major forces like Manchester United reassessing their financial circumstances. The majority fan ownership also avoids farcical situations like that at Cardiff where an overwhelming majority of fans are against an idea such as the red kits and dragon crest, but are being held to ransom by money men who are safe in the knowledge they can, for the time being, do as they please.
How can British football reinstate fan power as a leading factor in the game’s governance? Or have the money men gained too much influence? Is screwing it all up and starting again, as FC United of Manchester have done, the only way to solve this issue that is burning at the heart of our beautiful game?