Here is an industry the UK can export. And it seems to have a very hungry audience from the other side of the Great Wall. The industry is called Premiership Football, and the team of Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley, Kenny Dalglish and Steven Gerrard is in the vanguard.
There are some interesting economic implications.
So, China has joined the long list of suitors wishing to buy Liverpool Football Club. Boy, what an opportunity for the Premiership; and maybe, just maybe, it’s an opportunity for the UK, too.
“We will choose Liverpool’s new owner once we have finished weaving this tapestry,” said the football club’s current owners, Tom Hicks and George Gillett. And then, by night they slowly unpicked all the work they did during the day.
Well, if you know your Greek mythology, you may have spotted a similarity with the tale of Penelope, Odysseus’s wife, who tried to stall her suitors with a similar tactic. It is not that Messrs Hicks and Gillett have necessarily been deliberately stalling the sale of the club, but it sure seems like it. For that matter, the Glazers may be trying a similar tactic at Manchester United.
But it is now looking quite possible that one of Britain’s most famous football clubs will no longer have to walk alone, but instead will have just about the wealthiest backer you can get, the Chinese government. All of sudden Roman Abramovich’s billions look like pocket money.
It is not strictly speaking the Chinese government that is homing in on the club. Rather, it’s Chinese sports entrepreneur Kenny Huang, but he is backed by China’s state owned China Investment Corporation.
Why is China interested? Because the Premiership is already hugely popular in China, and they see even greater potential. They want to make Liverpool Football Club a famous brand in China, and in the process the city itself may finally have something that is more famous than the Beatles.
But this is not just an opportunity for the club, it is an opportunity for the Premiership. If Liverpool is to be marketed so enthusiastically in China, then its rivals will see spin off benefits.
And imagine that; when fans traipse across to Anfield, and watch their football team take to the pitch, across the ground they may notice banner advertisements, all resplendent in Chinese characters. Sponsor Liverpool, and your name will reach the biggest audience in the world.
There will be another spin off benefit. The UK will see its own brand gain greater positive recognition in China.
Of course, some point to China’s human rights record and say the deal should not be allowed. We disagree; as China becomes more tied in with the rest of the world, its human rights improve. If you care about human rights, then China’s growth story since that horrendous day in Tiananmen Square in 1989 is one of the real good news stories of the last two decades. And if you want its human rights to improve, then you should encourage more Chinese economic growth, more trade with the West, not less. (Mind you Western/Sino relations would be helped if Chinese students studying in Western universities made more of an effort to integrate with the rest of the student community.)
For all that, it’s bad news for those who like to see the national football team do well.
If you believe the Premiership, with its huge fixture load and its fierce competitiveness, results in English players underperforming during the summer months, then if the Premiership becomes more popular abroad, and starts to draw in massive TV audiences from China, then the needs of the national team will be all but forgotten.
But just imagine that things really do pan out such that the English Premiership becomes this huge source of sponsorship exports, and billions flow into the UK, bringing with them tax revenue for the government. What does that mean for the rest of us? Does it mean a handful of football players will provide our future pension? All of a sudden high salaries for football players seems like a price worth paying.
There is another point; sometimes when a British company is bought by a foreign investor, there is this fear that it will ultimately move overseas. This is why France seems to adopt a fortress mentality to potential acquisitions of its biggest companies from abroad. But presumably Liverpool FC, Manchester United and Arsenal will always be based in Liverpool, Manchester and London.
But there is another interesting point. Will the Premiership grow in size, and reach across the English and Welsh borders? Will Celtic and Rangers finally join the club? Will Europe’s finest follow? And if that happens, can we be sure the Premiership itself remains British, and a source of revenue for the Exchequer?
© Investment & Business News 2013