The serious side of Britain

by Hugh Cortazzi

LONDON — The takeover of the Manchester United soccer (ManU) club by American businessman Malcolm Glazer dominated the news in Britain for some days this month. By May 16, Glazer had managed to purchase more than 75 percent of the shares by paying £3 (£1 equals approximately 200 yen) per share, a considerable premium to the market price quoted before a takeover looked likely. The deal cost £790 million and has been financed largely by borrowing and the placement of PIK, or payment-in-kind, shares. The club will accordingly be saddled with considerable debt.

The takeover has aroused a furor among ManU supporters who fear that Glazer’s sole aim is to make as much profit as he can from the club. He is not known to have ever visited the club or to have shown any real interest in soccer. Fans expect that he will raise ticket prices and do everything to extract further sums from the sale of merchandise, although products such as ManU shirts are already absurdly expensive. Their appeal to the young lies in their association with a famous player, but counterfeits can be bought for a fraction of the official price. Television rights are already very costly, and TV companies purchase them only if the clubs maintain their popularity.

Supporters are also concerned that Glazer will be reluctant to put up cash for the purchase of outstanding players from other clubs. This may be necessary if ManU is to retain its position as one of the leading clubs. A recent transfer is said to have cost £30 million. Perhaps too, they guess, he will try to pare down the club’s huge payroll. Some top players are said to earn over £100,000 a week, which puts their earnings way above those of top industrialists and in the same category as pop stars.

If Glazer adopts any of these means of increasing revenue, he could jeopardize his investment. Fans furious about the takeover have threatened to boycott matches in the future and to tear up applications for season tickets. Players on contract, of course, cannot just walk away, but the club could deteriorate if money to purchase and pay new and upcoming players is too tight.

Competition from clubs such as Arsenal and Chelsea is strong. Chelsea belongs to Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, who seems to prize the club as a major trophy and has been willing to pour almost unlimited cash into it for the purchase of the best players.

The British believe that soccer originated in the British Isles and, to some observers, appear to have become soccer mad, but so have the people in most European countries. British fans have earned a bad name for violence and hooliganism, but so have Spanish, Italian, Turkish and Dutch supporters, to name only a few. To ensure safety at matches local police have to be present in large numbers and care must be taken to prevent known troublemakers from traveling to matches.

Unfortunately, soccer often does bring out the worst in some spectators. At a recent match between British and Spanish teams, Spanish supporters behaved in a racist fashion toward colored British players. In some cities where matches are regularly held, near-riots have broken out. There are, however, some signs that the market for professional soccer may be reaching saturation. If so, Glazer may have a tough time ahead.

Rugby is also hugely popular in Britain, but the crowds at rugby matches are usually better behaved than those at soccer matches. The British public became highly excited and enthusiastic about rugby when the British team won the championship last year. The team was accorded a hero’s welcome when they paraded in central London after their return from Australia.

The Rugby League, comprising 13-man teams, is an 1893 offshoot of the Rugby Union. The game is especially popular in northern counties where there are professional teams, but it has not attained the status of a national sport. This title is claimed by cricket, which Japanese brought up on baseball find hard to understand.

For a long time, cricket was an amateur sport, but over the last century it has become a professional game (although it is still widely played by amateurs in the same way as soccer and rugby are still played at schools and in amateur competitions). Professional cricket in Britain primarily means “test matches” and matches played between county cricket clubs. Some county cricket clubs such as Lancashire, Surrey or Middlesex attract large crowds in the summer months.

The most famous club is the MCC, which until 1967 was the arbiter of the rules of cricket. MCC stands for the Marylebone Cricket Club, which was founded in 1787. It has its own grounds at Lord’s near Regent’s Park in London.

Cricket was exported by the British to overseas dominions, where it was taken up with enthusiasm. Among the best teams are those of Australia and the West Indies, although Indians, Pakistanis and South Africans have also become expert cricketers. Cricket never took off in Canada in the way it did in other British dominions. Teams from British Commonwealth countries take turns touring Britain and other cricket-playing nations to play “test matches” that may last up to five days.

Test matches between Britain and Australia probably attract the greatest interest, and the winning side is said to take “the ashes.” The phrase dates from an obituary for English cricket written in 1882 after an Australian victory: “The body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia.”

Cricket crowds have generally been pretty well behaved. While cricket too has become something of a business as it has become more professional, it cannot compare in wealth and size with soccer.

There are, of course, business aspects to other sports in Britain. Horse racing must count as one of the biggest generators of employment and money in the country. Betting shops have proliferated and bookmakers are often very wealthy. Greyhound racing also generates much gambling. Professional boxing is popular with some, but it has earned a bad name for shady practices.

An important business offshoot of sports has been the hospitality industry. Among the venues that earn a great deal from corporate hospitality are the Wimbledon tennis championship and the Henley (rowing) Regatta. In terms of earnings, automotive racing may top all the others. The sponsors of Formula One have made huge fortunes.