The Premier League and the immigration debate: lessons from 2015

A very British success story

Off the pitch, the Barclays Premier League has enjoyed another record-breaking summer. Depending on what is defined as transfer spending (fees paid directly to clubs but not fees paid to agents, or to players in bonuses and wages – much of which remains secret) and which source of information you use (many transfer fees remain educated guesswork), it is broadly understood that summer transfer spending by the twenty Premier League clubs approached £1billion in 2015 – more than double that of the second highest spending league in the world – Italy’s Serie A.1

The league has been buoyed by promises of a huge rise in income after a new UK television rights deal begins in summer 2016. This will guarantee £5.136 billion to be divided evenly between the twenty clubs over a three-year period (2016-2019) and represents a 71% increase on the previous three-year deal, which itself was a 70% increase on the three-year deal before that. To put this into perspective, come summer 2016, domestic broadcasting revenue for every premier league club will have almost trebled in six years to nearly £100 million per club, per season.2

This massive influx of TV money, together with the fact that the British Pound is the strongest it has been against the Euro (the currency used by most of the teams that supply the Premier League with players) since the start of 2008, goes some way to explaining the willingness of Premiership clubs to expend unprecedented amounts on acquisitions. Transfer budgets that used to be the preserve of the petrodollar-backed Man City and Chelsea, or ‘world’s biggest club’ Manchester United are now being spent routinely by mid-sized clubs like Newcastle and West Ham (the third and sixth biggest net spenders this summer).3

There is nothing fundamentally new about any of this. The Premier League’s global financial dominance is well over a decade old and the upward trajectory of spending on transfers and wages (both in gross and net terms) was frequently remarked upon in the years preceding the financial crash of 2007/8. Indeed, total spending by the League’s clubs only managed to surpass the pre-crash total (in gross and net terms) in 2014, thereby mirroring the travails of the broader British economy which only managed to recover to its pre-crash size (measured by Gross Domestic Product) in mid-2014.

The parallels between the Premier League and broader British economy do not end there. The Premier League is one of the few domestic industries that is considered to be genuinely world leading: the financial and university sectors, armament, beverage and pharmaceutical industries would probably accompany it on a very short list. Its financial performance is a useful indicator of national economic performance and offers an insight into the kind of economic model that leading industries in Britain are adopting.

The Premier League is a recognised global entertainment brand attracting massive television audiences that translate into advertising and broadcasting revenue. This in turn attracts foreign owners and companies who invest heavily in British football clubs – Roman Abramovich‘s purchase of Chelsea in 2003 was the first major example of this. In this sense, the Premier League has become the kind of product that most industries aim to produce: a product in high demand at home and abroad that attracts significant direct investment to further its development.

These two symbols of the Premier League’s economic success – worldwide demand and capital investment – are not without controversy as the combination of foreign ownership and foreign support for clubs has occasionally antagonised historic, localised fan bases that feel both ignored and exploited. As the economic foundation of the clubs has shifted from this regional fan base to a global marketplace, demand for the product has grown and the new ownership – who frequently have no emotional or historic ties to the area – react by charging the old fan base the market rate for what has become a premium global product.

Such issues surrounding the economic impact of the Premiership’s global success on local fans have been ably covered in recent years by sober investigative reporting on the ‘state of the game‘ and I do not aim to add to this body of work.4 The main concern of my article is to consider a less frequently acknowledged aspect of the Premiership’s global appeal and global success: its voracious appetite for foreign labour and what this can tell us about the kind of economic model that is being adopted by leading industries in twenty-first century Britain.

A league built on mass immigration

When we think of foreign labour in the Premier League we of course think of the players themselves who are the focus of most media attention. However, the players themselves are merely the most visible element in a vast supply chain of foreign-born labour in the Premiership from the managerial and coaching staff to the physiotherapists, cleaners and security guards. Foreign-born workers are intrinsic to the whole edifice. In this sense it is comparable to the finance industry, NHS or university sector for its heavy reliance on non-British workers.

Indeed, like those other leading industries, a key measure of the Premier League’s global position at the top of the pile is its ability to attract the ‘best and the brightest’ from around the world. This is not just a cliché wheeled out by well-heeled managers to justify their own large pay rises. A fundamental tenet of free market capitalism, of the kind that has been at the heart of the British economy since the ‘Big Bang‘ de-regulation of the financial industry in 1986, is the free movement of capital, goods, services and labour so that the market, not government, can set their value most efficiently.

By this standard of measurement, the Premier League is the poster child of what has been dubbed ‘neo-liberal’ capitalism. It sells its goods in relative freedom to the rest of the world, sucks in foreign capital with virtually no moral or legal restrictions – Thaksin Shinawatra‘s purchase of Manchester City in 2007 is a case in point – and brings in workers from wherever they happen to be; the days of work permits threatening to scupper a player’s transfer are long gone despite the efforts of the Football Association (which supposedly regulates the Premier League) to create ‘home grown’ quotas and make work permit applications more stringent.

Its undoubted success in attracting foreign talent and money is what makes the League a perfect case study for free market theorists but places it in a very awkward position politically. The British government is vocal in its praise of industries that export their products across the globe and attract foreign investment – think of ‘UK PLC’, ‘Britain Open for Business’, ‘March of the Makers’, etc. However, they are also cheerleaders for lower immigration and the need to reform welfare and get people born in this country into work.

Prime Minister David Cameron has repeated his desire on many occasions to get immigration down to the levels of the 1980s and 90s and blamed missed targets on the influx of economic migrants from EU countries.5 Theresa May, the Home Secretary, suggested at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester that the economic benefits of mass immigration are ‘close to zero. This was a strange comment to make in the self-proclaimed capital of football, home to two of the most successful clubs in the Premier League who are both under foreign ownership and regularly field sides with just one or two British players.

If one takes the Premier League as a case study of the benefits of mass immigration, the importation of huge numbers of players into the Premier League in the last decade seems to have actually fuelled its attractiveness as a product and driven the cost of labour higher – in terms of transfer fees paid and player wages. Far from undercutting the domestic labour market, the arrival of large amounts of foreign competition has actually driven up wages and increased demand for the end product. The government would surely protest in this case that when they talk of cutting immigration they do not mean to stop elite footballers from entering the country, that they are instead seeking to control the numbers of refugees and economic migrants from the EU and beyond.

In this attitude towards immigration they would seem to have the sympathy of a large section of the British public. The mixture of ambivalence and hostility that greeted the voyage of hundreds of thousands of ‘boat people’ across the Mediterranean this summer cemented the conceptual division between the deserving and undeserving immigrant in the public imagination. An anti-immigration zeitgeist, highlighted at its most extreme by the widely circulated suggestion of Katie Hopkins in The Sun that the boats should be sunk by ‘gunships‘. The message is clear: there is no room for low-skilled economic migrants or even desperate refugees who serve only to (and here I paraphrase Theresa May) strain public services like schools and hospitals, depress wages, push people out of work and generally undermine attempts to build a cohesive society in Britain. Footballers and other people of ‘exceptional talent’ get the red carpet treatment; the rest can get in the sea.

However, I would argue that a closer look at the nature of Premier League transfers from this summer alone demonstrates how short-sighted and paradoxical this Janus-like attitude to mass immigration is.

Challenging anti-immigration narratives

Of the 1536 players acquired on loan or permanent transfer by Premier League clubs this summer, 38 have African parentage. Given that it is immigration from Africa via EU countries (primarily Italy and Greece) that is considered a major part of the immigrant ‘problem’ faced by Britain, I will briefly consider the case of these handsomely paid, high-demand African-origin immigrants who represent a quarter of all signings by Premier League clubs this summer and a fifth of all spending.7

What initially jumps out from any consideration of these 38 players with African parentage is the fact that only 15 were actually born in Africa, 23 were born in the EU and five more have acquired EU citizenship.8 This relatively even split between African and EU-born players reflects quite well the nature of general immigration to Britain in recent years with roughly half of all arrivals being EU citizens and half coming from beyond the EU’s borders.9

Indeed, the focal points of the debate about the ‘swarms’ of immigrants arriving in Britain for over a decade have been the EU laws permitting freedom of movement for workers and the supposed status of Britain as a soft touch for those seeking refuge from discrimination and persecution. Time and again representatives of UKIP, the Conservatives and even Labour have insisted that we have been operating an effective ‘open door’ policy which is bad for British society and the British economy. Indeed, the Prime Minister has repeatedly stated his aspiration to cut net immigration ‘to the tens of thousands‘ (a third of its current total) and has made legal discrimination between EU workers a key demand of ongoing treaty re-negotiations ahead of the referendum in 2016.

However, for all the outrage about the arrival of Eritreans, Somalians, Nigerians, Syrians and Iraqis via Calais, or Bulgarians and Romanians via Heathrow, there has been precious little vitriol directed at the Premier League’s cohort of African-origin signings, even when they seem to match the profile of those whom politicians and commentators insist we are better off without:

  • Take Christian Benteke, whose parents fled the Congo to Belgium in the 1990s thus enabling him to gain Belgian citizenship ahead of his move to Aston Villa in 2012 where he displaced English forward Darren Bent before a move to Liverpool this summer which displaced a second England player, Rickie Lambert.

  • Or, take Victor Moses, who came to England as an adolescent asylum seeker after his Nigerian parents died. His arrival at West Ham on loan this year is only the latest stage in an eight-year Premiership career during which he has kept many a native-born player out of a job.

Benteke and Moses both escaped political and religious violence and secured safe residence within the EU as children; children who were not ‘exceptional talents’ in receipt of work visas when they crossed into the EU but nevertheless developed into professional footballers. No doubt as professional footballers in the Premier League they displaced English-born footballers but the market determined Benteke and Moses to be worth millions in transfers fees and wages and identified a need for their talents to aid production in one of Britain’s most successful export industries, an industry that considers the ethnic origins of its workforce to be irrelevant.

Many other examples like these can be drawn from this summer’s cohort of African-origin signings. Yet, the government talks of tightening immigration rules to ensure that it is even harder for children like Benteke and Moses to arrive and stay either in this country or within the EU more generally. The reason given is that Britain is full and that such migrants are of ‘zero net benefit’ to paraphrase our Home Secretary.

The clear problem with this evaluation of the merits or otherwise of immigration is the timeline on which the judgement is being made. There are 28 African-origin players signed this summer by Premier League clubs who already had EU citizenship due to being born within the EU or coming here in their youth. Their talents have been given a value in the region of £124 million (not including wages and various other signing fees). No one would have said that of them or of their parents when they first arrived in the EU but now this small group are some of the highest per-capita contributors to the British economy, not just in value created through labour on the field but through direct taxation of their wages.

These valuations are not produced by some pro-immigration, civil rights advocacy group. This is the valuation arrived at by ruthless, profit-driven sporting businesses hardly renowned for their charitable instinct. They are businesses that have chosen to place a high value on immigrant labour and the offspring of African immigrants and in so doing represent a teachable example of how immigration to Britain and the EU more generally should not simply be talked of as a charitable almost selfless act; it is smart business in the long run.

In case you think I am focusing disproportionately on players of African origin, there are plenty of other players signed by Premier League clubs this summer who can shine a clear light on the hypocrisy of those who claim that those seeking refuge or simply seeking a better chance in life have nothing to offer this country:

  • Xherdan Shaqiri was born to Albanian-Kosovan parents in what was then Yugoslavia. His parents left for Switzerland on the eve of the Kosovan war of independence along with hundreds of thousands of their countrymen and women seeking safety in Western Europe. Their son grew up a Swiss citizen, has played 49 times for the national team (scoring 17 goals) and was bought this summer by Stoke City for a fee of £12.5million.

  • Raheem Sterling was born in the drug and crime-stricken area of Maverley in Kingston, Jamaica. His mother brought him to England as a child. He joined the Queens Park Rangers football academy before making his name at Liverpool and then moving on to Manchester City this summer for almost £44 million. Not only has he demonstrated his value at club level but has followed in the footsteps of Jamaican-born legend John Barnes to become an England international.

My argument, of course, is not that every immigrant should be welcomed because they could be the next Christian Benteke or Raheem Sterling. My point is a narrower, more economically-minded one.

An immigration success story

Immigrant labour is now regarded by one of the most globally dominant British industries as hugely valuable, even fundamental, to its continued success. The Premier League is not a refugee charity advocating for open borders out of moral principle. It is a hard-nosed, market-driven, capitalist business. It is precisely the kind of business that our political leaders claim we must listen to on a whole range of hugely significant social matters from the future of our children to the future of our state.

The only time such masters of industry are not called upon to speak on behalf of the national interest is on the question of immigration. When mass immigration is discussed, world-renowned major industries like the Premier League, the universities, or the financial sector are ignored or purposefully misrepresented because they abound with practical examples of how mass immigration can actually be good for business, the economy and society.10

Instead of having nothing to offer modern Britain, the ‘boat people’ flailing in the waters of Italy and Greece, the children gazing through the barbed wire in Calais, may well be your next big signing, or they might become a local doctor, cleaner, or security guard and make their contribution that way. The point is that we know the potential of every single person – whatever their origin – is limitless and there is a mountain of evidence (not just from the world of football) which suggests that open labour markets tend to increase wages, profitability and productivity because they treat people on merit not prejudice. The Premier League is a model case for this centuries old economic theory of comparative advantage whereby free trade, free labour and free movement of capital leads to greater specialisation, production and consumption of a given product, the benefits of which, if properly regulated, are felt by wider society.

People will tend to agree at a certain level that equal access to the labour market is not just fair and right but makes us all wealthier in the long run. To artificially limit the pool of applicants for a role or erect unreasonably high barriers to a profession by blacklisting workers or requiring the completion of lengthy unpaid internships, is generally, and rightly, denounced as a bad thing for the health of the economy and society. Yet few are willing to extend this logic of localised experience in the jobs market to a national or international scale and so fail to envisage what a genuinely free international market for labour might look like. What is denounced as restrictive practice or nepotism in a particular profession or industry is too often regarded as common-sense protectionism when clothed in nationalist garb.

I therefore suggest that there is significant merit in holding up the Premier League as a working example of a free-market, free capital, free labour system in action. It is certainly not without its problems but these are symptomatic of a global industry operating in a national age. By most measures of a twenty-first century globally competitive business, the kind we are told are the harbingers of the future, it is a success – a success built on the back of mass, open immigration. As such, for all its faults, it provides a useful counter example to hold up against the impoverishing anti-immigration rhetoric that threatens to dominate the political landscape in 2016. And in case anyone should doubt the potential power of modern football as an immigration success story one need only to observe the masses of British people who can be found week in, week out, cheering on immigrant workers who are doing what many regard as their dream job.



1 Several news sources (reporting on Deloitte’s figures) put the figure closer to £870m but adding up transfer fees reported on other specialised football transfer websites suggests a figure of around £1billion:  SoccernewsTransfermarkt ; Daily Mirror ; News World India
2 With the ongoing and highly secretive auction of overseas TV rights set to exceed the current £2 billion deal the £100 million per club figure will be easily surpassed. See Reuters.
3 See ESPN for individual club net spends.
6 The figure of 153 players is from Soccernews. Transfermarkt lists 139 not including loan signings and loan returnees.
7 Soccernews figures suggest 22%, whereas Transfermarkt suggests 19%; If, one were to include Kevin de Bruyne, who was born in Burundi and is thus eligible to play for them, in this group then the African-origin footballers would represent 25% of total transfers and 25% of total spending, making them completely representative.
8 France is the most common country of birth, with 12 players.
9 The latest figures demonstrate roughly even numbers coming from inside and beyond the EU: See the official Office for National Statisitcs Quarterly Report (August 2015) and ONS graph re-produced on the BBC (November 2015)
10 See, for example, the University of Sheffield’s response to the government’s proposed immigration cap in 2013.

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