As part of a fascinating six-month assignment with a leading football organization in the Middle East, I got the chance to attend and engage at Leaders in Sports' Abu Dhabi Summit. I am now back home with a fresh view on things I had always considered to be true.
I haven’t undergone any Damascene conversion or been persuaded to shift my world view on matters of fundamental rights and beliefs, but I have been awoken to a genuine opportunity for sport to transform people’s lives.
Today, there is no doubt sport - and football is probably at the top of the list - is one of the most significant economic growth engines available to communities, cities and nations.
The money available within the game is staggering. Currently, there is a bidding war to take control of Manchester United FC with valuations pushing $6billion. That gets you a run-down stadium requiring hundreds of millions in refurbishment, a pile of inherited debt, a team which let its superstar talent leave for free earlier this year and is in the process of expensively rebuilding a squad under a manager who is less than 12 months into the job.
The majority of that valuation is to acquire the brand.
For that you get to own a household name, with a global fan base, worldwide broadcast deals and potential merchandise and commercial partnerships a plenty. The largest, most lucrative and well-known brands in the world are clamouring to be partners and associates with the best players, clubs and tournaments. They want to align their values and brands with those of the most authentic, successful, and significant entities in the beautiful game and, in doing so, connect with the billions of Instagram, Twitter, TikTok and SNAP followers of the biggest stars and clubs.
For this privilege, they will pay.
Everywhere in the game there is money. Players are traded for 9-figure sums, paid 6-figures weekly, and negotiate their own image rights and sponsorships. They are surrounded by agents and lawyers taking 20% of everything the player earns and always angling for the next move or new contract which will see a flash of cash come pouring in.
Broadcasters sell subscriptions to games, advertising and sponsorship opportunities, and generate even more money to plug back into the football economic ecosystem. Apple is in the final stage of inking a deal to be the broadcaster for U.S. Major League Soccer, opening a new front in the bidding wars for the best broadcast rights.
And the billions of fans worldwide seem happy enough to spend thousands on cable access, season tickets, new shirts, replica kits and memorabilia to fuel much of this largesse.
For nation states, football offers a tantalising opportunity, too. The top five leagues in the world are all European. The English Premier League is by far away the most powerful and successful, followed by Spain’s La Liga, Germany’s Bundesliga, Italy’s Serie A and France’s Ligue Un. Nations know having billions of people tune in regularly to watch your national game is a big win in the soft power game for attention and favorability ratings.
For similar reasons, the top clubs in many of those competitions are owned or controlled by sovereign wealth funds, only a short back-pass from the ruling governments and monarchies of some of the richest nations on earth.
Some appear to just be playthings for the rich and famous, others are part of a national economic diversification strategy, and others are a beacon for change and repositioning on the global diplomacy and international affairs map.
And then there is the big stuff. Hosting tournaments. The game’s global governing body FIFA has long been scrutinized for how it determines who gets the rights to play host to the most watched and eagerly anticipated sporting and media event in history.
We assume there must be some formula and algorithm used to choose the host nation - based on growing the global reach of the game, ensuring all corners of the earth are included, and leaving a legacy for the domestic game after the quadrennial tournament moves on – but it’s seems unlikely that finance and money aren’t going to be a massive multiplier in that equation.
National governments through their football associations, sports ministries and international networks invest billions to be the chosen one, with mixed success, but such is the allure of potentially welcoming the entire football family to your shores.
You could be forgiven for seeing everything above as a negative, a sign that the Corinthian spirit of football had finally been eroded and the swaggering power of the dollar, the yuan and the riyal would now rule the roost. I think you’d be wrong, though.
What I discovered, or perhaps rediscovered, in my short blast in the sand, was how much football still means to people.
How ‘Saturdays’ around the globe can still be ruined by poor officiating, frustrated by the tactical void of a management team, or set alight by the sublime wizardry of a star player.
I was reminded how you couldn’t walk past a café without there being a TV tuned into a game – any game – or a table of young men staring at their phones and hollering as goals, fouls and saves played out.
So, what really fascinated me, sat there at the Summit - at the nexus of all that money, amongst the powerbrokers of the game, and surrounded by the passion of the people – was how can it all be brought together for good cause?
Back home, I am now talking to a number of organizations who are also pondering that challenge.
While I am working on specific plans and projects to bring powerful brands and businesses together for good, there are already some groups doing fantastic things in this space.
I will highlight one, The Last Stand.
Based in west London, The Last Stand is uniting communities and breaking down social barriers through the power of street football. Street Football is a blend of ‘cage football’ played on many of the toughest estates in Britain’s urban heartlands, mixed with the rules of a million pick-up games on school playgrounds and playparks across the country - "Five minutes a game, two-goals wins, winner stays on."
I spoke with the business’ founder, Gundeep Anand, about growing this exciting, accessible, and inspiring format of the game.
He shared their story and the success they have enjoyed over the past five years hosting tournaments in London and Birmingham, where they bring pop-up tournaments, DJs, fashion food, and music to places where the residents have felt left behind or taken for granted by Big Football.
He recounted how street football had brought youths together from different boroughs and districts, diverse ethnic groups and backgrounds from across the city to play football, enjoy being in each other’s company and share stories.
As Gundeep spoke, I thought: ‘If it works across city lines, how great would it be to have teams of boys and girls from one community in the Middle East play against boys and girls from an international community?’ They could explore how each other live, share their love of football and feel that they belong to something bigger and more powerful than they ever imagined.
I wondered out loud: ‘Which brands wouldn’t want to be involved in helping make that happen? To be seen as helping unite the global football tribe? And, in return, have the compelling stories and content this project would deliver?
And I asked colleagues: ‘What support could broadcasters and media channels provide to tell this story, spread the message, and help make The Last Stand famous so they could continue to grow and spread their good work not just across UK but worldwide?
Finally, I started constructing a mental list of the leagues, clubs, players and national associations who could take The Last Stand under their wings, connect them with their global fan and follower bases, and in the process perhaps uncover new heroes and superstars in their own backyard?
Football will continue to be the biggest business in sport, and long may it reign, but it faces new challenges in the years ahead.
Its audience is global and diverse, they are digital natives, and consume the game in a different way than previous generations. And while they are just as passionate, they demand to be engaged, more involved, not just mere spectators.
Street Football, as practiced by The Last Stand, might be one way to help the beautiful game stay in touch with that fanbase – Do you agree?