Latest FT book review

In: Daniel In The News

5 Sep 2017

My review of James Montague’s The Billionaires Club: The unstoppable rise of football’s super-rich owners was published by the Financial Times last Friday (1 September).

In The Wire, the acclaimed US television crime drama, Detective Lester Freamon says: “You follow drugs, you get drug addicts and drug dealers. But you start to follow the money and you don’t know where the f*** it’s gonna take you.”

This is the explicit premise of James Montague’s book The Billionaires Club: The Unstoppable Rise of Football’s Super-Rich Owners, which opens with the quote and goes on to follow the stories of these wealthy buyers.

The Wire starts as a tale of the Baltimore police department battling drug dealers but soon turns into something bigger. In the course of its five series, it covers not only the drugs trade but also life in the docks, city politics, education and the media. Many of its ardent fans see it as revealing a deeper truth about US society.

Montague attempts to emulate this model. His focus is the entry of super-rich individuals into the ownership of English Premier League football clubs. Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich set the pattern in 2003 with the purchase of Chelsea FC.

Since then, foreign owners have taken control of many teams including Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, a member of the Abu Dhabi royal family in the United Arab Emirates, at Manchester City, and John Henry from the US, who made his fortune as a commodities trader and is best known for purchasing the Boston Red Sox baseball team, at Liverpool. The diverse international origins of these owners allow Montague to discuss developments in eastern Europe, the US, Asia and the Middle East.

Most billionaires who buy football clubs are not motivated by the hope of a direct financial gain, they say. Abramovich, for example, described it as a hobby in a BBC interview on the subject in 2003. “No, it’s not about making money. I have many much less risky ways of making money than this. I don’t want to throw my money away, but it’s really about having fun and that means success and trophies.”

So whereas the average football fan might buy tickets for a match or purchase team merchandise, someone as wealthy as Abramovich can afford to buy the club.

Sometimes wealthy individuals who are not necessarily avid football fans see broader advantages to buying clubs. For instance, it is widely known that Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, is passionate about the game. As a result, several members of the Chinese business elite have made huge investments in foreign football clubs in an apparent attempt to curry favour with their nation’s leader.

The main exceptions to the rule about money being secondary are American. The Glazer family’s purchase of Manchester United, John Henry’s of Liverpool and Stan Kroenke’s acquisition of a large stake in Arsenal were all commercially driven, they say. Another thing they all have in common is the ownership of US sports franchises.

Montague presents the American billionaires as wanting to introduce US-style sports practices into the UK. These include accessing public subsidies by persuading local authorities to finance the building of new stadiums. He also suggests US owners would favour abolishing the system in which teams that perform poorly are relegated to a lower division.

The Billionaires Club is likely to be a fascinating read for the many football fans interested in developments off the pitch. Although they will often be familiar with their own team’s owner, the book provides the back stories to many more. But as an attempt to reveal deeper truths it is less successful. It is undoubtedly the case, as Montague suggests, that the world is highly unequal. It is also true that many wealthy individuals are involved in murky business dealings. At best the book adds details to a story that is already known in the outline.

Unlike in the The Wire, it is always fairly clear where following the money in football will lead even if the journey is an entertaining one.


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