Today, the U.S.-owned Fenway Sports Group, owners of top-flight U.K. soccer club Liverpool and Boston Red Sox, announced that they were furloughing their non-playing staff at Liverpool.
Fenway is the third richest sports group in the world, valued at $6.6 billion last year by Forbes, with Americans John Henry and his partner, Tom Werner having bought Liverpool in 2010 and Boston Red Sox for $380 million in 2002.
At a lower level, they also run Roush Fenway Racing from NASCAR and minor league baseball sides the Pawtucket Red Sox and Salem Red Sox.
And yet, as Covid-19 threatens to terminate this season’s remaining fixtures, they have chosen to furlough those people without whom there would simply be no soccer matches, instead, relying on 80% of those wages being furnished by the U.K. taxpayer under the government scheme to support those workers laid off due to the coronavirus.
Liverpool, one of the top 10 richest clubs in the world, are not on their own in the Premier League; Tottenham, Bournemouth, Newcastle United & Norwich have all furloughed their non-playing staff, whilst Manchester City have elected to maintain their non-playing staff wages.
Unbelievably, the U.K.’s Professional Footballer’s Association, (the player’s ‘union’), has actually had to negotiate to get players to take a pay cut, leading to disputes which are still not settled.
Whilst accepting that some lower league clubs are facing unprecedented financial difficulty which could seriously harm their prospects of survival, some of the most prosperous clubs are seemingly having to reach out with the begging bowl for government money to pay the men and women who keep them in the riches they feel they deserve.
Whilst there have been generous charitable donations by individual soccer players to the likes of food banks and the U.K’s National Health Service, it is the owners making the big decisions, and some of those decisions are making for unpalatable PR right now.
Kevin Brennan, the U.K.’s shadow Sports Minister described top tier football as operating in a ‘moral vacuum’, last week, and it’s true to say that the decisions taken now by clubs will have a lasting impact on their integrity, and indeed the soccer institution as a whole, long after this crisis is over.
Lionel Messi, widely regarded as the world’s current top player, voluntarily gave himself a 70% pay cut at the weekend. It would have been good to see all U.K. Premier League players follow suit. Alas, no such effort ensued, and as they struggle to survive on their average salary of £3.5 million a year, one can only wonder how out of touch with ordinary people this sport really is.
Even as this article is being written, it has been announced that England’s head coach, Gareth Southgate, (pictured below), has taken a 30% pay cut, of his £3 million a year salary.
The ordinary soccer fans who pay their hard-earned money to follow watch these clubs are looking on in disbelief at some of the morally-corrupt decisions that are being made right now. The social media backlash is entirely a result of soccer’s own making.
It is these fans who will ultimately decide the future of soccer in the U.K., not the owners, who would like to think that they run the show. Yes, those are the fans who’ve followed you for decades, scraped to find the money to buy their tickets and transport and accommodation both home & abroad and just those who pay their Sky and BT Sports subscriptions to watch from their armchair at home.
Those same fans and their families, many of whom will be facing real financial hardship because of this crisis and for who the possibility of affording tickets to watch their club next year will become a pipe dream.
As a lifelong Liverpool supporter, I would send this one message to John Henry and other owners adopting the ‘government bailout’ stance; adjust your moral compass right now and pay your non-playing staff in full or risk facing the wrath of those who really matter.
UPDATE – LIVERPOOL F.C DO A U-TURN
Liverpool F.C.’s CEO Peter Moore tonight issued a public statement to fans on the Liverpool F.C. website, citing an immediate change in policy with regard to furloughing their non-playing staff;
Following a vitriolic social media backlash over the issue, Mr. Moore stated;
“Dear Liverpool supporters,
“First and foremost, on behalf of our ownership, Fenway Sports Group, we would like to emphasise the thoughts and concerns of everyone are with those suffering from the dreadful COVID-19 pandemic and the families of those affected“
“We would also recognise and pay tribute to the heroism of the incredible health service and key workers locally, nationally and internationally. All other worries should be placed in that context first.”
He went on to state;
“We believe we came to the wrong conclusion last week to announce that we intended to apply to the Coronavirus Retention Scheme and furlough staff due to the suspension of the Premier League football calendar, and are truly sorry for that.”
“We are therefore committed to finding alternative ways to operate while there are no football matches being played that ensures we are not applying for the government relief scheme.”
“We would like to acknowledge the great army of staff and casual workers who work tirelessly to ensure Liverpool is a club that operates to the highest of standards.”