By Jason McKeown
These are such unusual times for Bradford City. As the 2019/20 season returns to a conclusion for the upper echelons of the 92 and for play off teams, the Bantams and most League Two clubs are left planning for a future of unknowns.
We don’t know, yet, when the 2020/21 campaign will begin. It’s unclear when supporters will be allowed to go to games again. So at Valley Parade at least, season tickets remain off sale. And with the vast majority of the club’s playing, coaching and non-playing staff furloughed, preparing for next season is a real challenge.
But there’s also another huge potential unknown that makes it really difficult to make plans – the possibility of a salary cap being introduced. Back in May, it was publicly revealed that League One and Two clubs were being asked to vote on capping player salary budgets. With League One potentially capped at £2.5 million, and League Two £1.25 million. Clubs would only be allowed a squad of 20 players – and eight of them would have to be homegrown.
It was reported that the salary cap was discussed at an EFL meeting last week, with a resolution agreed that a future vote on whether to implement it would need a two-thirds majority (previously a 75% majority was needed). It’s unclear whether any agreed salary cap would be introduced straightaway, but it remains a possibility that it will be in place for 2020/21.
If a salary cap of this level is introduced for next season, it would have a huge impact on clubs – especially Bradford City. For 2019/20, City operated with a playing budget of £2.6 million. A salary cap of £1.25 million would mean the Bantams would be forced to halve their playing budget. Given they already have 14 players on the books with a contract for 2020/21, this might effectively stop them making any further signings. Especially with any extension to the homegrown rule.
WOAP understands that League Two clubs were presented with possible salary cap budget limits that in future they could be asked to vote for – with £1.25 million the lowest scenario. So if a salary cap is to be introduced, it might be closer to £2 million. Nevertheless, it would still represent a drastic reduction.
City’s £2.6 million budget was amongst the top quartile of League Two, but not the highest. In February, Swindon’s Richie Wellens revealed that Salford, Northampton, Plymouth and Mansfield had the biggest budgets in the division. So a salary cap would impact on other clubs too.
The thinking behind a salary cap, with the crisis of the lower leagues escalating due to the Covid-19 lockdown, is to help protect clubs from their own worst impulses. Reduce the pressures of having to spend and spend on players, to compete with other clubs who have the resources or the greater risk appetite to push the boat out. Studies show that spend on player wages is highly correlated with league position. In other words, if you don’t spend as much as other clubs, it will quickly push you to the bottom of the league table.
The other potential benefit of a salary cap is that all clubs become more equal. Morecambe can operate on the same budget as Bradford City, even though they get a fraction of the crowds. And so a football season where everyone can only spend the same gives everyone an equal chance of going up or going down.
The free market approach that football largely follows right now ultimately rewards the clubs with the deeper pockets. It’s how Manchester City and Chelsea emerged from middle of the road Premier League clubs to become regular champions of England. It’s why Paris St. Germain have won seven of the last nine French league titles. It’s how Wolves have become a force over the last few years. But a free market structure also allows clubs who are prepared to take risks to progress up the ladder. Brentford currently have a great chance of getting promoted to the Premier League – a big reason for their impressive rise has been a willingness to risk building up huge debts. Bradford City would not have reached the Premier League in 1999 without being able to push the boat out.
Under any salary cap approach, a club’s financial advantage/greater risk and reward tolerance goes away. So if you’re Morecambe, Carlisle or Cambridge, you’d probably vote for a salary cap. Or if your an owner of a club like Mansfield and you’re spending a fortune every year, you might vote for it just so you can cut costs and not look bad because everyone else has to do the same. It brings others down to your level.
But whilst this all might sound noble, a salary cap could be a really dangerous thing for League Two clubs. Clearly, as Covid-19 reshapes football at all levels, players wages are going to come down. 1,400 players out of work will leave a scramble for contracts that gives clubs the upper hand in negotiations. But there are still other options. Players might find National League clubs would be willing to pay more than League Two (assuming they don’t bring in a salary cap), or they could just go abroad. Some might even have to take a pragmatic decision to change careers and give up on full time football, especially if they’re in their 30s.
According to a Daily Mail report in April, in League Two the average player wage is £2,191 a week. If you were to build a squad from scratch under the potential £1.25 million salary cap, you would have to pay an average wage of £1,200 a week. Most clubs would have a legacy of players in contract earning more than this average, which would really squeeze how much could be offered to potential signings.
Suddenly League Two clubs would struggle to attract the same level of talent as they might have before, which sees standards drop all round. Especially when clubs get injuries, and their 20-person squad means they’ve got no real depth.
As Yahoo soccer columnist Leander Schaerlaeckens wrote recently, “The salaries are where they are because market forces have dictated that this is where they should be. No club has ever been forced to offer a high salary; there are two sides signing those contracts. Begin to undermine that simple but effective mechanism, and you complicate things needlessly and invite even more corruption into a sport that already struggles badly with transparency.”
But for fans, the real issue is how it would affect the spectacle of lower league football. Because as much as we football fans like to complain about the injustices of rich clubs vs poor. In truth it is these disparities that make the sport so compelling to watch. Big club vs small club. David vs Goliath. With David winning more often than you might expect.
In the excellent 2010 book ‘Why England Lose’ by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski, the pair argue that leagues which are predictable (in that it has a mixture of big and small clubs, with the big clubs more likely to succeed) attract more interest than leagues where all teams are a much of muchness. Their several pieces of research presented in the book shows that balanced leagues actually attract fewer fans.
As part of their thesis, they compared attendances in the top flight during a 20-year period where English football was more equal (1949-1968, when 11 different clubs won the league) to a period where football was less equal (1989-2008, when only six different clubs won the title). During the first period – where it was more equal – attendances fell from 18 million a season to 15 million. During the second, attendances rose from 8 million a year to 13 million. There was a lot of factors at play, but the fact Manchester United dominated English football during the latter period did not deter fans of other top flight clubs.
When it comes to being at the ground to watch our team, all that matters is winning. We don’t care that Bradford City and Morecambe aren’t equal – we are happy to financially dominate them, as it means we have more chance of beating them. And conversely, Morecambe fans will prefer us to be financially bigger than they are. So on the occasions they do topple us, it’s more of an achievement.
Indeed, part of what makes football so interesting is that small clubs on tight budgets can overturn bigger clubs full of players on huge wages. It is brilliant for everyone but Mansfield Town fans that they have had a top three budget for four years in a row and haven’t got promoted out of League Two (they came 18th in 2019/20).
When Watford beat Liverpool earlier this season we all laughed. When Man City were defeated by Norwich it was a great story. Even when Man City beat Watford 8-0 in the next game it is more interesting than every match being really close. It’s popular for all football fans to hate the Premier League big six for their dominance. But imagine taking them all out? The league might be more balanced, but would not be as appealing to watch. The same if it was a league of just the big six.
A salary cap breeds mediocrity. Makes everyone the same. Stops football clubs from having their own individual character. And a salary cap threatens interest in lower league football, at a time when clubs cannot afford to lose fans. As When Saturday Comes writer Ian Plenderlith wrote about the MLS, where a salary cap operates that keep clubs equal, “MLS is crying out for a couple of big, successful teams. Teams you can hate. Dynasties you really, really want to beat.”
For Bradford City, it’s hard to see how any good can come from a salary cap when they’re stuck in League Two. Whilst the playing budget might naturally fall for next season, given the financial hit of Covid-19, that would be the same of other clubs too. Relatively speaking, you would expect City to have a higher budget than the majority of other clubs in the league. So any attempts to cap that would only hinder our chances of promotion.
And more importantly in the long-term, operating under a salary cap in Leagues Two and One would see the gap to the Championship grow bigger, and make it even harder for City to return to the higher divisions. It keeps everyone where they are – including the Bantams. It sucks that Macclesfield Town can’t control their costs, but that doesn’t mean City should not be allowed to make use of their greater financial means.
That is clearly self interest talking, but as football fans self-interest is what we are all driven by. Indeed, Kuper and Szymanski sum it up well, “Most fans at the ground are hard core: they simply want to see their team win…they do not really want a balanced outcome.”
The new world of post Covid-19 will see football have new priorities and approach to risk and reward. And that probably gives some clubs a tougher future, as they prioritise just surviving. But capping everyone to protect the weakest risks undermining what makes lower league football so compelling. Clubs need to learn to be more responsible within their own parameters, but also be allowed to have more ambition that to just merely survive.