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Will Football's Gravy Train Be Derailed?

By: Bill Osborne
Date: 11/11/2001

MR PETER FURNEAUX, Chairman of Grimsby Town Football Club, said in a recent interview: "The NTL and TV deals may be short-lived, and if this money is removed then some players throughout football may find their income has been drastically reduced."

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Mr. Furneaux went on to say "We at Grimsby have been prudent, in that no contract exists longer than the current TV deal. Therefore the monies that we're spending have been covered by that."

Earlier on in the season Mr. Furneaux made it clear that the board were committed to strict fiscal controls and the reference to the player's contracts is a clear indication of that commitment being adhered to.

"...The gravy train for football is coming to an end..."

Recent reports indicate the wisdom of that philosophy at Grimsby Town as a warning has been issued to football clubs relating to the TV income they receive. This warning was aimed specifically at those clubs like Grimsby who would be unable to balance their books without the current level of TV income.

Former Manchester United director Greg Dyke, now the BBC director-general, said "The gravy train for football is coming to an end," adding, "There will be serious consequences for everyone in the game as their TV paymasters slash their football budgets."

"Don't go signing five-year contracts with players at inflated salaries on the assumption that the next time the television rights come up there will be another big jump in the price. I believe the opposite could happen and there could well be a big fall in the amounts paid."

"The cost of TV rights for football over the past decade has grown at a ridiculous rate. These sums, which have seen BSkyB paying £6million for each of its 66 Premiership games - have funded 'an amazing boom' in players' wages.

'Now that boom is coming to an end, increases in players' wages, will also have to come to a stop. The only trouble is I don't think they will stop - and some clubs will end up with financial problems. Some could actually go bust."

Dykes prediction come at a time when concern is mounting that ITV Sport will attempt to either withdraw or renegotiate the £315m deal to screen Nationwide League games.

This will have serious consequences for clubs who are already poised on a financial knife edge and relying on the TV money to keep them afloat.

We are fortunate that the board of Grimsby Town Football Club have made a provision should this eventuate as many clubs, who have made no similar provisions, may go broke. The TV money has been a lifeline for many clubs and football in general but it has inflated the wages of "star" players, which, realtively speaking, has flowed on to clubs in the lower leagues who are the ones who could afford it the least.

The bubble had to burst sometime and it will now be very difficult for clubs to resolve this problem if the predictions of reduced TV income eventuates. It is always difficult to negotiate wages downwards and some players may not accept new terms that see their income reduced and we may see an increased exodus of some of Britain's best players to the continent.

So perhaps the football world should now take a leaf out of the corporate sectors' book and look at making players' pay, performance related. Sure there are some of those components in the present arrangements with win bonuses etc. but it seems somewhat ridiculous that some players are paid premiership or first division wages for third division performances.

My suggestion may not be the answer but if it is, it may not happen today or even tomorrow, if it ever happens at all. But some things will have to change. Everything is relative in football. Increased performance usually means increased income and it is fitting that players should receive just rewards for their efforts but clubs may not be able, in the future, to make financial commitments to players of the magnitude seen in the past and that alone may eventually produce radical changes in the world of football.

In the meantime, clubs should be looking at their plans for the future in the event that TV money is reduced significantly and Grimsby Town appear to be one of the leaders in this area with their provisions for the future already in place and for that we should be duly thankful.

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