Will we blow the final whistle on irresponsible financing of sport?

Nik Darlington 9.12am

I got a shelf life of ten years, tops. My next contract’s gotta bring me the dollars that’ll last me and mine a long time. Shit, I’m out of this sport in five years. What’s my family gonna live on? Huh?

- Rod Tidwell, Jerry Maguire (1996)

We can ignore it, remain locked in romantic nostalgia for a more Corinthian age and be disappointed; or we can accept it for what it is and love it for what it gives.

Sport is not just a game. It can inspire hope from despair, as we have seen attempts at in Sri Lanka in recent years. It can make a lucky cadre of talented individuals very, very wealthy indeed (though even that is as old as sport itself - do you think W.G. Grace made his lucre as a physician?). It offers a comfortable, if short-lived, career for a much larger number of talented individuals. Rod Tidwell is right. What are you going to live on when your shelf life is up? You need to make money, fast.

It was the offer of £175,000 per week from big-spenders Manchester City that prompted Samir Nasri to leave a club, Arsenal, where he was successful and popular, and to turn down a club as big and successful as Manchester United.

And what feeds high wages, high transfers and high expectations? High finance. At the top, sport, and football especially, is becoming an offshoot of the financial markets.

Manchester United’s mooted stock market listing in Singapore is the latest such development. The plan is to raise $1 billion in a flotation, in order to stabilise the notoriously over-leveraged club. There were thoughts that the English champions would try an IPO in Hong Kong, but the canny Cantonese don’t allow listings from companies making a loss.

Football must sort out its debt problem. That is the view of a recent report into football governance by a committee of MPs. It is also the view of UEFA, whose Financial Fair Play regulations stipulate that European clubs must break even by 2012-13. There are signs that some clubs are tightening their belts, although few are confident that UEFA’s regulations can be met, let alone enforced.

Further mimicking the slippery world of finance, Manchester City are being investigated by UEFA for allegedly circumventing the Fair Play rules by over-valuing a £400 million sponsorship deal with Etihad, the state airline of Abu Dhabi, whose ruler is related to Sheikh Mansour, City’s owner.

One would have thought that responsible restraint in this age of austerity would be praised, but no, in football, emotions rule reason. The Times ran a leading article (£) earlier this week about Arsene Wenger, the under-fire manager of Arsenal. It is worth quoting at length:

Arsene Wenger, entering his sixteenth season as manager, has won more trophies for Arsenal than any previous boss… The flair of his footballers is admired around the world. By discovering young talent he has managed to keep Arsenal in the top four of the Premier League without running up a transfer bill the size of Greece’s sovereign debt. And all this while shepherding the club into a new stadium.

And Wenger’s reward? To be booed and pilloried by Arsenal supporters for not opening his wallet more profligately…and to find himself the target of media nutters suggesting that his future at Arsenal may be precarious.

…Wenger’s would be an odd strategy to mock at any time, let alone when his brand of living-within-your-means book-keeping is an example to all governments striving to cut spending without undermining the competitiveness of their economies.

David Dein, former vice-chairman of Arsenal and the man who brought Wenger to the club in 1996, has said today that fans must back him or risk losing him. And so they should. Wenger’s departure under these circumstances, having just had to sell two star players (Nasri and the club captain, Cesc Fabregas), would be a ridiculous message that sustainable management is unappreciated.

It is encouraging that Tony Fernandes, owner of AirAsia and the majority shareholder at newly promoted Queen’s Park Rangers, has said that he will not try to imitate the lavish injections of cash seen at the likes of Manchester City and Chelsea.

"I don’t believe you can run any venture - be it sport or a business - that isn’t profitable. I’m not saying it’s going to be profitable tomorrow, but that would be the ambition."

"I think football is a fantastic business if it’s run well. QPR is in a fantastic location and has huge potential to develop into something special."

It is a lofty ambition (excuse the pun), but three cheers to that, and let’s hope it lasts.

Follow Nik on Twitter @NikDarlington

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