When Wentworth’s golfers heard this week that they would have to pay a fee of £100,000 or lose their membership of the ancient English club, many were shocked. They should not have been. The demand from Wentworth’s new Chinese owners expresses a contemporary truth, in sport as well as beyond: everything glorious is being taken over by the 1 per cent.
Money began pouring into European sport only in the 1990s, when commercial television magnates Rupert Murdoch and Silvio Berlusconi discovered the lure of live action. Football, previously considered violent, grubby and working-class, benefited most. Stadiums were spruced up. Ticket prices rose, and in many provincial towns, the lounge of the local football club on match day replaced the Rotary Club as the gathering-place of the town’s businesspeople. In 2000, these new fans became known as the “prawn sandwich brigade”, after Manchester United’s then captain, Roy Keane, complained that the club’s home crowds were too busy scoffing said sandwiches to follow the game.
Today it is more of a caviar-blini brigade: after the gentrification of the 1990s, we are now seeing the plutocratisation of sport. This is not because sport has become big business. While Real Madrid last month declared annual revenues of €660.6m, the highest of any club in any sport in history, in terms of revenues it is only a mid-ranking business.
While sport may not be big business, it is now a venue where big business meets. The 1 per cent displays an international class solidarity that Marx could only have dreamt of. Its members like to gather in convivial spots in big cities, mingling play, food and networking. Where better than a sports stadium?
If you want to meet the French presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy, for instance, head for one of the VIP salons at Paris Saint-Germain’s stadium. To meet dozens of global business leaders in one place, either go to the World Economic Forum meeting in the ski resort of Davos, or to an Olympics or a football World Cup. Even leaders who do not like sport will be there to schmooze.
France now has a strategy of bidding for every big international sports event, partly because it wants a slice of the business that gets done at the stadium. Sports chatter helps smooth the awkwardness of elite networking, and of elite interactions with ordinary Joes, to the point where even David Cameron has to pretend to be a football fan, although in the last election campaign he publicly forgot whether he supports Aston Villa or West Ham.
In China the elite gather at golf courses, where government officials with “golf tans” ostentatiously display their wealth. Many new Chinese rich live on golf resorts. In fact, most Chinese golf courses are built chiefly in order to sell luxury homes, writes Dan Washburn in his book The Forbidden Game: Golf and the Chinese Dream. He quotes from a billboard for golf villas: “Leading the dance of business philosophy, one villa can conquer the world.” Wentworth’s future could be pretty tacky.
The plutocratisation of sport is causing irritations. Before this week’s Arsenal-Bayern Munich game, Bayern fans protested against the ticket prices. Arsenal’s tickets (the cheapest season ticket is £1,014) are probably the most expensive in global football, partly because the club is close to the City of London.
This is an awkward issue, since one thing that football still sells is nostalgia for a working-class past. The game cannot become unabashedly 1 per cent, like the luxury travel sector, because that would clash with its “brand values”. And so, after the Arsenal game, Bayern’s manager Pep Guardiola, himself of course a multimillionaire, promised: “We will take care of Arsenal fans in Munich with a good price.” A similar desire to appear in touch with football’s roots may have motivated ex-players Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs to let homeless squatters stay in their planned luxury hotel in Manchester over the winter.
It was a kind gesture. However, it cannot disguise the new 1 per cent reality. That two ex-footballers are converting the former Manchester Stock Exchange into a luxury hotel would have been unthinkable just 25 years ago. Meanwhile, Mr Guardiola’s club boasts possibly the wealthiest supervisory board of any institution in Germany, featuring the chief executives of Deutsche Telekom, Adidas and Audi plus the recently departed chief executive of Volkswagen, scandal-tainted Martin Winterkorn, who also claims to support Volkswagen’s own football club, VfL Wolfsburg.
The 1 per cent and traditional fans are in direct conflict here. That is because top-level sport is a limited good. Only 60,000 people can watch Arsenal-Bayern, and even fewer can become a member of Wentworth. As we are seeing at Wentworth, the most intimate access now goes to the highest bidders. Rich people are prepared to pay a lot to play sport at top venues, and to meet famous athletes and coaches — or at least to hear them give “business speeches”, usually on the theme of there being “no ‘I’ in team”. The former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson is the most sought-after figure in this budding industry, even if there is little evidence as yet that he can convey his managerial genius to anyone else. Harvard Business School, where he now teaches, is effectively offering students the perk of meeting him — something that few United fans can afford.
Football, in short, is returning to its 19th-century origins as an upper-class game. But there is one thing in sport that money cannot buy. “Men capable of governing empires,” wrote the British author PG Wodehouse about golf, “fail to control a small white ball, which presents no difficulties whatever to others with one ounce more brain than a cuckoo clock.” The best athletes will still come from the poorer classes, because to become very good at a sport, you need to spend your childhood playing it almost nonstop without distractions, like homework, holidays or violin lessons. All the 1 per cent can do is watch.
The writer is an FT Magazine columnist and co-author of ‘Soccernomics’