Can French football go bankrupt?


Can French football go bankrupt?

It’s a risk for some small clubs

Pierre Rondeau

Professor at the Sports Management School and responsible for the sports observatory at the Jean-Jaurès Foundation

The defection of Mediapro is the last straw that overflows an already full camel for professional clubs. They have suffered the decline in ticketing and sponsorship revenues, and are coming out of a catastrophic transfer window where they have sold their players very badly. The accounts are at their lowest.

If we do not have to worry about the big clubs like Lyon, Paris SG, Marseille or Saint-Étienne, which will always find people to put money back in the cash registers, the situation is very dramatic for small clubs, in Ligue 1 or in Ligue 2. Without television revenues, we have to expect a cascade of social plans, late payments to suppliers, wage cuts, sales at a loss for players… In the long term, This will result in further lowering the value of French football, which is already very far economically and sportingly from its English, German, Italian or Spanish counterparts.

This is, moreover, the problem: the amount committed by the Mediapro group (over 800 million per year) is totally disproportionate. French football is not worth so much. To recoup its costs, Mediapro should garner 3.5 million subscribers at 25 €. But it is an impossible objective to achieve: BeIN Sports did not succeed, nor did RMC Sport. These are figures that correspond to the blessed period of Canal +, the time when this channel alone occupied the niche of paid football.

From the start, the economic equation did not hold up. The worst is that the French Football League is committed without any real financial guarantee from Mediapro, being satisfied with the joint guarantee of the Chinese shareholder of the company. In 2017, moreover, the Italian championship refused an equivalent proposal from Mediapro precisely because of this lack of financial guarantee. French football has had its eyes bigger than its stomach, and it pays for it today. The Covid has nothing to do with the case, contrary to what the CEO of Mediapro claims: the pandemic caused this default a little earlier than expected, that’s all.

Ultimately, there will necessarily be a renegotiation of the contract. At best, this will lead to lower income for everyone. At worst, a new call for tenders could lead to the arrival in force of Gafa, Amazon, Apple or Facebook. These companies have been eyeing the European market for a long time and could take advantage of the windfall to invest en masse, but in a sports system that would correspond to their culture: a sort of closed league with only known big clubs. If that were to happen, the European model, with a mix of big and small clubs in the same league, will have lived.

Collected by Jean-François Fournel

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Can French football go bankrupt?

The French economic model is not in question

Antoine Feuillet

Teacher-researcher in sports management, lecturer at Paris-Saclay University

That the defection of Mediapro is causing real concern in French football is not surprising. It comes in fact at the worst time, the clubs no longer being able to benefit from ticketing revenues due to the Covid and coming out of a transfer period less remunerative than usual.

However, this episode does not seem to me to reveal a particular fragility of French football. Is Ligue 1 remote? Certainly, but like all foreign leagues. The model has been working very well so far. He’s upset, but I’m not sure the coronavirus is completely calling him into question. In this case, the main error lies in the choice of Mediapro as broadcaster, because doubts existed from the start on the financial strength of this operator. But no one imagined that difficulties arise so quickly.

Faced with the latter, what solutions can be envisaged? Renegotiation with the Professional Football League for a staggered payment is possible. The other track is a repurchase of the rights of Mediapro with a new call for tenders which could consecrate the return of Canal + in the game. Obviously, the rights would undoubtedly then be revised downwards, but not in crazy proportions, because Canal + or any other operator – we are talking about the digital giants, but I am skeptical – would have no interest in weakening the football product too much by putting clubs in difficult positions. It is in everyone’s interest to offer a worthwhile show.

All is not grim, moreover, in the current situation. French clubs retain a capacity to train good players, who are in demand all over Europe. This resale model is still a strength, even if currently, the market is contracting because of the coronavirus and can generate difficulties in the medium term. Clubs like Lille, Saint-Étienne or Brest all the same pulled out of the game this summer.

The loans taken out by the LFP also help cushion the shock. If the situation continues, the hardest part will undoubtedly be for the smaller clubs, especially in Ligue 2. But I believe that we must be careful not to mention a general bankruptcy of French football. Bankruptcies in football happen very rarely, and ultimately, historically, even affected clubs do come to the fore.

For my part, the major concern is elsewhere and in the longer term: a championship which only exists on television, with matches played behind closed doors or almost, is only tenable for a few months. The public risks gradually losing interest, or even losing the habit of going to the stadium. This aspect seems to me the most worrying.

Collected by Jean-Luc Ferré

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