For fans of Washington’s NFL pro football franchise, this has been the autumn of their discontent. On gameday Sundays, their soulless stadium sits half empty. Their losing team is once again wasting away a season. Their best player won’t play — after team management mishandled his potentially life-threatening tumor. Their rookie quarterback is making bonehead moves. The future looks as bleak as the present.
Who deserves the blame for this mess? Fans are blaming the team’s billionaire owner Dan Snyder. They have good reason. Snyder has spent the last 20 years overcharging supporters and disrespecting players and coaches at every opportunity. He’s micromanaged and populated his executive ranks with fawning puppets. He’s stubbornly defended a racist team name — “Redskins” — that horrifies native and immigrant Americans alike.
Hometown fans who do show up at Washington games have taken to chanting “sell the team.” Surely, they believe, some other billionaire can come in, restore civic trust, and rescue the franchise.
No rescue appears near. Snyder’s fellow owners could, if they saw fit, pressure him out of their exclusive billionaires club. But that would send a message these billionaires don’t want to send: that fans ought to have some say in who runs their beloved hometown teams. The fan furor in Washington, the NFL’s arrogant owners believe, will eventually die down.
Maybe not. Fans are stirring, and not just in Washington. The billionaire lockgrip on sports is becoming a worldwide political hot-button issue. The political leader giving that button the biggest push: the UK Labour Party’s Jeremy Corbyn, the next UK prime minister should his party gain a majority in the fast-approaching December 12 British general election.
“Football clubs are part of the social fabric that binds us together,” Corbyn proclaimed earlier this fall. “They are too important to be left in the hands of bad owners. Under Labour, fans will have a say in how their clubs are run.”
“Football” in the UK refers, of course, to the sport Americans call soccer. The British invented the sport, now the world’s biggest fan-followed pastime, and billionaires firmly run the UK football show. The Labour Party wants to see that change, and so do growing numbers of UK football fans.
Avid supporters of the Newcastle United football team have been organizing boycotts against the team’s billionaire owner, and Corbyn met with a group of them earlier this fall.
“Sport must be run in the interests of those who participate in it, follow it and love it, not just for the privileged and wealthy few,” Corbyn noted after that meeting.
UK Labour is campaigning for the upcoming general election on a political platform that includes an innovative sports plank. Labour wants to give “supporters trusts” — nonprofit fan organizations — “the power to appoint and remove at least two members of a club’s board of directors” and the right to purchase ownership shares when clubs change hands.
Labour also wants the Premier League — British football’s top level — to invest at least 5 percent of its lucrative TV contract revenue in grassroots-level football programs. This call to share the nation’s football wealth extends to stadium staff. Labour wants all workers at football matches guaranteed a living wage.
“Let’s take the beautiful game away from the billionaires,” sums up Corbyn, “and hand it to the fans.”
Could any of Labour’s reform proposals actually work their way into law? Can big-time football flourish without billionaires calling all the shots? Corbyn cites one particular reason for optimism: the alternate sports universe that’s already thriving in Germany.
In Germany, billionaires don’t run the show. To compete in the Bundesliga, the top league in the German football firmament, a club must have a nonprofit association in control. These associations must have at least a “50+1” percent ownership stake.
“In essence,” journalist Alexander Scheuber explains, “this means that private investors cannot take over clubs and potentially push through measures that prioritize profit over the wishes of supporters.”
Germany’s football club ownership rules, says Borussia Dortmund club CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke, are keeping fans from getting “milked” for money “as is happening in England.” Clubs in the Bundesliga, Goal.com’s Ryan Kelly added this past March, regularly dominate European football’s attendance charts, and German football ticket prices overall remain “relatively affordable for fans.”
Until recently, German football clubs have held their own at the highest levels of international competition. But billionaire fortunes — in the UK and elsewhere in the football world — are increasingly stacking the deck against the more democratic German club ownership model. If current trends continue, billionaires will simply outspend the German clubs into competitive oblivion.
That makes this fall’s football reform efforts in the UK all the more important — and all the more feared by billionaires and their media flunkies. One British news outlet has blasted Corbyn’s football reform plan “as nothing more than another hugely expensive plot to nationalize another of Britain’s most loved industries.”
“Communism and football,” the chair of one UK think tank has chimed in, “don’t mix.”
The billionaire owners of American football would undoubtedly agree, as would the billionaires who run Major League Baseball. The red menace baseball owners see in their nightmares even has a new leader, Democratic Party White House hopeful Bernie Sanders.
The Vermont senator last week blasted baseball’s Major League hierarchy for a just-revealed proposal that would shut down 42 franchises in baseball’s minor leagues. Minor league ballplayers, Sanders points out, “make as little as $1,160 a month” while the billionaires who run Major League Baseball — and set policy for the minor leagues as well — “have a combined net worth of more than $50 billion.”
Instead of paying minor leaguers a living wage, Sanders charged last week, baseball’s super rich would rather throw minor leaguers out on the street “no matter how many fans, communities, and workers get hurt in the process.”
But fans and the lawmakers they elect, Sanders notes, can play hardball, too — and push for Congress to “rethink and reconsider” all the cushy benefits that government has bestowed upon baseball, starting with baseball’s antitrust exemption.
This could get interesting. Play ball!
Sam Pizzigati co-edits Inequality.org. His recent books include The Case for a Maximum Wage and The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class, 1900-1970. Follow him at @Too_Much_Online.