The response to this, of course, is that this is the least soccer can do. It is a sport, after all, that is awash with money, a sport so rich — at its highest levels, at least — that it can fritter away hundreds of millions of dollars on fees to agents, write off seven-figure salaries as bad investments, and reward (relative) mediocrity with wealth to last several lifetimes.
And yet sports is not the only industry in which that holds true. Phil Neville, now the manager of England’s women’s team, once observed that it was only soccer that came under pressure to help out in times of crisis; the same was never demanded of the financial sector, say, where remuneration can be no less lucrative.
In Britain, at least, there is a tendency at times to contrast how much, say, nurses or soldiers are paid compared to soccer players, rather than — for example — actors or musicians or television stars. They are all part, essentially, of the entertainment industry, but some, it seems, are judged more worthy of their wealth than others. (It should be no surprise that footballers, largely working-class, are the ones castigated).
That perspective is valid, but there is one crucial difference. Soccer — perhaps more than any other sport — sells itself, in part, on the basis of its connection to its community. Clubs do all they can to stress that they are more than just businesses, that their motives extend beyond mere capitalism, that they are simultaneously buoyant, profitable content creation enterprises and august social institutions.
All clubs try to market the idea that their location is part of their identity, and that by supporting them, you are buying in to that identity. They do so not just because, once upon a time, it was sort of true, but because that is what keeps you coming back.
It is the line that divides a customer from a fan, and a fan is a far more consistent generator of cash flow. Banks have customers. Production studios have customers. They are just businesses. Clubs are different. Clubs are more than that. Clubs have identities and meaning, thus clubs have fans.