British INEOS Group chairman Sir Jim Ratcliffe looks on prior to the French L1 football match between OGC Nice (OGCN) and Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) at "Allianz Riviera" stadium in Nice, southern France, on October 18, 2019. (Photo by Valery HACHE / AFP) (Photo by VALERY HACHE/AFP via Getty Images)

Follow the ball

The British needs to embrace football


This article is taken from the March 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Sir Jim Ratcliffe is arguably Britain’s top industrialist, with estimates of his net worth heading towards £15 billion. Given his remarkable business career, government (and ex-government) ministers would be wise to pay attention to his latest moves. They might even learn why some countries have successful economies and others do not. 

Last month Ratcliffe’s company, Ineos Group, let it be known that it is entering the investment process for Manchester United. The football club is for sale. Its existing owners, the Glazer family from the United States, are said to be ready to hand over control for £5 billion. Ineos Group is only one of a number of potential bidders, with newspapers reporting that other contenders come from North America, the Middle East and the Far East. 

The Glazers — whose original fortune came from shopping malls — made a shrewd decision when they bought Manchester United in 2005 for $942 million. They could see that a media revolution was under way, with the advance of technology making it feasible to broadcast programmes all over the world. In other words, the potential audience for Manchester United was not the capacity crowd of 74,000 at Old Trafford, but — theoretically — the world’s entire adult population. 

Of course, a proportion of that population does not like football, and in poor countries many people do not yet have a television set, computer or mobile phone. But the beautiful game is acquiring more followers, including in the USA. Moreover, assuming continued catch-up improvements in living standards in developing countries, practically everyone is likely to have access to a screen within 40 years from now. 

According to FIFA, the audience for the 2018 World Cup was more than 3.5 billion or “over half the world”. The Glazers’ insight was that the broadcasting rights to one of the UK’s top teams would soar as a global audience emerged. As they borrowed to buy Manchester United, the value of their investment has probably increased ten-fold since 2005. 

If Ineos does buy Manchester United, will its value increase five-fold or ten-fold in the next twenty years? As the Glazers are selling, they have plainly decided that it won’t. Ratcliffe’s interest may be sentimental to a degree, and perhaps he will be happy if Manchester United wins more matches and does not lose money. But a serious commercial motive should not be overlooked or under-estimated. 

The globalisation of the world economy may be going into reverse, but the globalisation of broadcasting is in its early stages. English is the world language, and England’s Premier League has fans in North America, the Middle East and the Far East … as all those possible foreign investors realise.

I watched the World Cup final at the Four Seasons Hotel in Marrakech, surrounded mostly by France fans. The CNN sports programme gave the results of the English Premier League matches, but not of top matches in other countries. Language must be the heart of the explanation. Premier League clubs have an incumbent fan base in dozens of countries. 

As I said, Sir Jim Ratcliffe may be Britain’s most outstanding industrialist. What does the globalisation of football have to do with his industrial strategy? The answer is “a great deal”. Growth and prosperity have been hampered in the North of England, as in other parts of the UK, by an anti-business Conservative government which, particularly since 2016, has loaded extra energy and labour costs on companies year after year. 

The commercialisation of football is a remarkable achievement

In this context the commercialisation of football is a remarkable achievement and a positive development for the future. Britain would be lucky if Ratcliffe could do with football, and perhaps international broadcasting, as he has done with petrochemicals, where Ineos is a world leader. 

The British state has done next to nothing to promote football as a source of employment and added value. Market forces and greedy investors have done their work, and any supposed government “industrial policy” has been beside the point. As football is part of the service sector, its rise might be seen as an aspect of the de-industrialisation of the UK. And so what? Is a Manchester of football stadiums worse than a Manchester of cotton mills? 

However, some politicians do not see it that way. Greg Clark, business secretary from 2016 to 2019, has just written the foreword to a pamphlet Making the Change for the Centre for Social Justice. The pamphlet laments that manufacturing has fallen, as a share of national output, from 25 per cent in the 1970s to 9 per cent today, with the decline proceeding “more rapidly than any other industrialised nation”. 

Does Greg Clark or the CSJ believe the nation’s prosperity would be greater if the ratio were 15 or 20 per cent? How do they know? Is it not obvious that, since the 1970s, people and companies in all rich nations have moved away from low-value-added manufacturing in order to keep themselves relatively rich by global standards? 

Mr Clark should take note that one of Britain’s top industrialists is switching some of his attention from petrochemicals to football.

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