Crossing the thin line …..

“Greed, for want of a better word, is good ….”

….so said Gordon Gekko in the 1987 movie “Wall Street”, and greed does seem to me to drive some of the less than wonderful things that I see going on in my adopted country. You will know from my previous writing that I have wondered from time to time to what extent the accumulation of vast sums of money in the fastest possible time seems to have become for some the only value in town these days, but it was a sporting headline this week that attracted my attention on this subject.  

Now there are those who in response to feelings such as this start quoting that great Scottish writer Adam Smith from his famous 1776 treatise “The Wealth of Nations” – who said:

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self interest.

However – a closer reading of this august work shows that he was not claiming that all self-interest has beneficial effects for society, rather he was arguing against the premise that self-interest is necessarily bad.

Today’s musings were triggered by the news that the NBA basketball team the Seattle Supersonics will be upping-sticks and moving some 2,000 miles south east to Oklahoma City… Not because they lacked for support in that wonderful town, or were in a parlous financial situation – but because the owner’s demand that the city finance and build a new sports arena for the team had been politely turned down….

European sports fans are quite frankly gobsmacked that a city’s team – an institution that has become an important part of the very fabric of life there – can be treated as nothing more than the chattel or plaything of a wealthy owner. We all watched with some incredulity as the Grand Old Duke of York himself – Al Davis – moved his Oakland Raiders team to Los Angeles and then back again 13 years later…

For those of you on this side of the water who may be unfamiliar with the English children’s nursery rhyme about this military leader from the late 18th century, it’s opening verse goes:

The grand old Duke of York,
He had ten thousand men.
He marched them up to the top of the hill
And he marched them down again.

Those last two lines seem particularly apposite here….

Some research I have done shows that American major league sports teams have made quite a habit of relocating over the years. Since the beginning of the last century there have been moves by some 12 baseball teams, 12 American Football teams, 8 hockey teams and no fewer than 22 basketball teams. Usually what appears to happen is that an owner – who is already making a lot of money thank you very much – sees an opportunity to make even more somewhere else…. Frequently, as in Seattle, there will be a dispute between owner and hosting city about the provision of a new stadium or arena, which ends when the owner – having behaved like a spoilt kindergarten student and thrown all of their toys out of the pram (baby carriage for readers here) in an attempt to get their way, gathers them up and pushes said pram to a new destination where oodles more money can be made….

Readers here in The States may be surprised to learn that a sports team moving locations in Europe is exceedingly rare and almost unheard of – and when it does, it is usually a team that is not competing at the top level. There are a number of reasons for this:

First – the competition system used means that most teams can be either relegated to a lower league, or promoted to one above depending upon their performance that year. Imagine how much more competitive my own favourite American sport – baseball – would be if at the end of each season the worst performing team was sent down to the minors, and the best AAA team was promoted to MLB !

Second – the background of many clubs is that of social and community organisations rather than being primarily a commercial venture by a rich owner… Football teams (sorry America but for me ‘football’ will always be the game played with a round ball – the game with the oval ball is ‘American” football) are invariably known as ‘clubs’ – hence probably the best known team in England internationally is Manchester United Football Club, despite it being a private corporation that is actually owned by an American ! (Malcolm Glazer – who also owns the NFL team the Tampa Buccaneers).

Finally – it is highly unlikely that the sport’s governing body would allow it (and if the team was competing in a pan-European tournament they would almost certainly require approval from EUFA – who would inevitably refuse).

This is not to say that in many ways football isn’t treated like any other business. England has one of the best leagues in the world – thanks to money from subscription TV it is certainly the wealthiest ! As a result large numbers of the best foreign players in the world play in it – to the detriment of the England national team…. There has been more than one occasion where a top-flight London team has taken to the pitch without a single Englishman being present. Great for that team’s fans, but lousy for the success of our country’s side ! After some fairly miserable and totally inept performances, we (deservedly) failed to qualify for this year’s European championships… Much of the blame for this can be laid at the door of an ever shrinking number of home-grown players competing in the Premier League. The reason for the high numbers of continental European players in particular is that football IS treated as just another business, and under European Union rules there is free movement of labour between countries.  

The most recent and highest profile team move in English football was the case of Wimbledon FC, who in 2003 moved 60 miles north east to the town of Milton Keynes. They were able to do this because they were totally bankrupt and had lost their stadium some years previously, so hadn’t actually played in Wimbledon for some years. Moving in this case was the only way to ensure the club’s survival – but even bearing in mind conditions like this, they were vilified by other English football fans for doing it. To really rub salt into the wounds, they were disparagingly referred to as “Franchise FC” as if this common American way of describing a sports team was anathema….

Let me again stress that I am in no way anti-capitalist in principle, but it seems to me that there is a very fine line between making a good living from a business (of whatever sort) and sheer naked greed.

This kind of thing to me crosses that line.

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