In the Belly of the Beast: ‘Money and Soccer’ by Stefan Szymanski

In the language of commerce, Soccer clubs are in the entertainment business. However, that is almost as profane as saying that the Catholic Church is in the counselling business.

I’m convinced online commerce is one of 20th century’s greatest gifts to mankind, and Jeff Bezos’ brainchild Amazon is one of its best proponents. Rummaging through the mountain that is Amazon’s collection of books, I spotted a blue number which had the word ‘Soccernomics’ as part of the subtitle. I checked for the author and saw Stefan Szymanski’s name (one-half of the brains behind Soccernomics, the definitive study football’s relationship with economics). Reflexes took over and ‘Money and Soccer’ was ordered even before the process of ordering registered on my brain.  

Professor Stefan Szymanski, author of Money and Soccer and co-author for Soccernomics© Dries Luyten for De Tijd.
Professor Stefan Szymanski. © Dries Luyten for De Tijd.

The full major course that Soccernomics was, Money and Soccer is the de-facto textbook for one of its credits, and probably the most important one. It beautifully explores the impact of cold, hard cash on the sport of football and as a result the fans and the culture around it. The personality of the book exudes the author’s academic background. Stefan Szymanski is currently the Co-Director for the Centre of Sports Management at the University of Michigan. The focus of his current research is sports management and economics.

For the casual reader, the book demands conscious attention and focus to fully appreciate the amount of research Stefan has put into it. A cursory read would make you think that some of his hypotheses and resultant conclusions are rather obvious. So if you’re looking to get something out of the book, be warned it’s not going to be for a quick laugh, or a fun fact to show off over a beer with the buddies. You might, though, end up with a knowing smile. In the day and age of Snapchat, Vine and 7-second attention spans, it’d be easy to chug your way through such a book, but a larger gratification lies in relishing each page, graph and table like a single malt from 1973.

The author uses all statistical tools available to him to illustrate his points and explain the basis of his interpretations, practically studying the subject with the reader. Jargon and rigour can bog down a reader uninitiated in the wicked dance of statistics but in all honesty, Stefan has visibly gone massive lengths to make it skip along. However, it would be unfair to call it just a book of economics. The author also expertly sheds light on chunks of history through anecdotes sprinkled through the chapters, each of which goes on to illustrate how the hypotheses that were statistically proven a page before actually plays out in the real world. However, a common thread through the book, be it in Stefan’s theories or in the anecdotes he narrates, is how monetary inflow is highly correlated to success in football and how football clubs are not businesses in the conventional sense of the term.

Blips in the general trajectory of football as a sport are usually related to the rise and fall of clubs. Stefan refers to these as the Dominance and Distress within such teams. In a chapter titled the same, he lays out the foundation and works around the same theme consistently across the whole book. He touches upon the myriad ways in which money can lead to crests and troughs for football clubs of all sizes and statures while delving deep into every one of those. There are chapters dedicated to Players, Stadiums, Revenue and Debt, illustrating how each of these lay in the forefront of how a football team functions. The Premier League is one of the world’s most popular domestic football tournaments, but Stefan does a tremendous job in explaining how finances incurred from building stadiums really change the club, something that might miss the naked eye while watching Theo Walcott run down the wings at the Emirates.

The book gives explicit answers to some common, uncommon and also seemingly illegitimate queries. Some things fly past a vastly experienced economist’s brain too, but Stefan promises you’ll be a little closer to understanding the factors behind the gulf in Kyle Walker and Leonardo Bonucci’s respective transfer fees after you’re done with this book. And he does it in some style. The use of The Merchant of Venice to explain debt financing leaves you with a smile on the face of the literature major. Stefan seamlessly segues from players to owners and how the influx of sugar daddies and oligarchs have virtually transformed the running of football’s business side. He delves into their psyche, ownership patterns and serial loss of economic acumen once they get hands on their new toys. As Simon Kuper rightly remarks in his foreword, “Buying a soccer club is like buying a Picasso”.  Football has for long been an unregulated market, and with it come the inefficiencies of its corporate side.

Shylock had his own interpretation of Financial Fair Play. This is Al Pacino as the silver-tongued moneylender from the drama, Merchant of Venice [2004]
Like the grand finale of a Hans Zimmer composition, Stefan builds a gripping crescendo through the book, touching each topic of with utmost care and the right amount of detail, as he finally lands on Financial Fair Play. On the way, he gives a thorough overview of the closed-league framework running the North American leagues and how it changes things for clubs and club owners. The parallels between these clubs and OPEC (Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries) lights up the touchpaper of your brain whose existence you are usually oblivious to until then. He closes out wondering if this will ever replace the structure of promotion and relegation. The current European system is the cause of Dominance and Distress, but it is also the reason behind the undying hope of millions of football fans across the world who believe that someday their club will make it big.

Target audience.

Reiterating what’s been said before, the book can seem more like a textbook than one meant for casual reading. Largely because it deserves all the attention of the reader. It does have its light spots of sarcasm and a fair share of anecdotes to hold on to so your thoughts don’t meander. The parallels and quotes used throughout aren’t ones you would expect in a football book – right from the Soviet Union’s policy on loss making enterprises and George Orwell’s thoughts on your language and folly, to The Merchant of Venice and OPEC. However, after the journey that has been this book, let me leave you with a question which I believe, modern football management and fans are both trying to answer.

“A football club is fenced on every side. Markets determine how much success it can achieve and how much revenue it can generate, history determines where the club is today, and the future is determined by the breadth of the owner’s ego, and the depth of his pockets. But what if the markets can be beaten by something more than luck? Can skills be brought to bear in order to outperform the market?”

While we bask in the glory of our clubs and grieve their losses, we rarely stop to wonder how much of it is deterministic. Is the dice loaded? Or is there something that beat the voracious beast of the market? The first step to even start thinking about this is to fully comprehend the nature and workings of this beast. Money and Soccer is a study of its anatomy through analysis and anecdotes.

Multiple level failures of BP in the Deepwater Horizon drilling operation is eerily akin to how football clubs are often run.
Stefan Szymanski’s global reputation has been built as a consultant to government and to major sports organisations such as the FIA (motor sport), UEFA (football) and the ICC (cricket). His books include National Pastime: How Americans Play Baseball and the Rest of the World Plays Soccer; Playbooks and Checkbooks: An Introduction to the Economics of Modern Sports; Fans of the World, Unite!: A (CapitalistManifesto for Sports Consumers; and the seminal work, Soccernomics: Why England Loses, Why Germany and Brazil Win, and Why the U.S., Japan, Australia, Turkey–and Even Iraq–Are Destined to Become the Kings of the World’s Most Popular Sport. Follow him @sszy.
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Vikrant Hatwalne

Liverpool FC supporter. Reveres Steven Gerrard. Electronics Engineer. Copywriter. Poet. Passionate about Football, Writing and Marketing.