The Obscurer

Month: June, 2005

United They Fall

Manchester United fans are continuing their protests against the Glazers taking over their club, and understandably; I would be pretty unhappy if a similar scheme to buy my club was being undertaken and I was forced to sell my shares in Manchester City.

But I don’t think that many United supporters in general, and the Shareholders United group in particular, are doing themselves any favours. Quite apart from the anti-Americanisms some fans are coming out with, in this report the Shareholders United vice-chairman Sean Bones calls the Glazers “the enemies of Manchester United”; he says they are “disgusting and repulsive” and “the Glazer brand is toxic and tarnished”. Bones actually makes me feel a bit of sympathy for Malcolm and his boys. Later on he says “in the long-term the Glazer brand will be suffocated. The previous Manchester United brand was peerless in terms of sporting brand names.”

Another report, from the Manchester Evening News, states that Shareholders United are demanding government action and are to submit papers to the Office of Fair Trading. The article cites a number of their concerns regarding the takeover of the club; here are few that caught my eye, along with my own knee jerk responses.

“Glazer’s purchase of the club weakens competition and harms the consumer…the initial £265m of debt saddled onto the club – which could more than double in the next five years – will weaken United’s ability to compete with the other top teams.”

Nice of the United fans to be so concerned about the effect on the competitiveness of the League. I don’t remember hearing many concerns when United won the Premiership for three years in succession during the Nineties. If competitiveness is an issue, where were Shareholders United and their ilk when the TV rights were carved up, when the Premier league was formed, and when the decision was taken for home clubs to keep 100% of their league gate receipts, which hugely benefits the larger clubs?

“The intention to hike prices by 52 per cent over the next five years, as revealed in a leaked Glazer business plan, is “an abuse of market power,” as United supporters are a captive audience.”

Mmm. On the one hand, (with my devil’s advocate hat on) there are other football teams to support (such as the newly formed FC United), but even if you cannot contemplate following another football team (and personally, I will be “City ‘til I die”) no-one is forcing you to buy tickets to see United. In business terms, following a football team could be seen as an extreme form of brand loyalty; is it the role of the OFT to defend your right to cheap Levi’s or Coca Cola?

“Revenue raised by increased prices will not go to improving the team but to servicing Glazer’s debt.”

But if Glazer owns the club, surely he can run it as he sees fit.

“Some of the individuals and bodies associated with the takeover are “not fit and proper persons” to be involved with an institution with United’s history and heritage.”

I am not fully acquainted with OFT procedures, but does “history and heritage” fall under their remit? And have United not compromised their “history and heritage” by stretching their “brand” across different products and continents, and by redesigning their logo club badge so the words “football club” are omitted?

The problem as I see it with Shareholders United complaints is that they are getting drawn into the whole matter of whether football clubs are simply businesses or are something more. By arguing about United’s peerless brand and their captive market they seem to be arguing the business case; but from a business viewpoint surely the Glazers’ actions make perfect sense? As businessmen, they have identified a great global brand, one that they feels they can make money from, and they have obtained it. On the subject of ticket prices; of course United fans don’t want them raised, but from a business point of view tickets for Old Trafford are ridiculously under priced. This is proven by the fact that OT is sold out for every Premiership match weeks in advance; in a perfect business model the last ticket would be sold at 3 o’clock on a Saturday afternoon (assuming United ever played at that time, of course) and so would eke out every available economic efficiency from the market.

By fighting on the battleground of business, Shareholders United seem to be falling into the assumption that in the market the customer (or fan) is king, but this is too simplistic. Have you ever heard anyone say something to the effect that “I am sick of just walking to the top of my road to go to the bank. No, I would much rather it was shut down, and I can ring up a central number, navigate ten recorded menus of information before finally being given the option to speak to an operator, then hanging on the line for a further twenty minutes before eventually speaking to a service adviser, in India”. Nobody says that, nobody wants that, but it still happens because it can be more profitable to piss off your customers a little in order to make savings elsewhere. The customer is not king, he or she is merely a consideration; in business it is profits that are sovereign.

Here is another, real life example from my wife’s work. Recently another company bought her firm; call them venture capitalists, asset strippers, whatever. The result has been that recently the customer service aspect of the firm has been relentlessly squeezed to concentrate on sales; customer service advisers are being forced into selling, regardless of aptitude, so they can wring every last penny out of their existing customers, mithering them with outbound sales calls at all hours resulting in my wife having to deal with numerous complaints from hassled customers. No doubt sales overall are improving as a consequence, but what about the people who haven’t been persuaded by the pestering, and whose good custom has been squandered? That doesn’t show up on the sales figures. Is this a good way to run a company in the long run, and a good way to treat staff and customers? Who cares; in around twelve months the intention is for my wife’s company to be sold on again, no doubt on the basis of a short-term increase in sales and per capita customer spend. If the chickens eventually come home to roost with cancelled and reduced subscriptions it doesn’t matter, because the current owners will have moved on by then. But this is the way business often works.

If Shareholders United really want government action, I think they will have to try a different tack. Perhaps they should argue that football clubs are more than just businesses, that they are historic entities, that they belong to their communities, and that as a result there should be specific regulations amounting to some sort preservation order that restrict what owners can do to their clubs. It may be too late for United, but this may be the only way forward. As it is, Shareholders United seem to be urging the government to step in because a businessmen has bought a business and intends to run it as a business; and I don’t really know what the government could, or should, do about that.


Taken For IDiots

In the long battle over ID cards, the argument that they would tackle terrorism was abandoned long ago. Now Home Secretary Charles Clarke is quoted as saying that “the cards would help tackle serious and organised crime, although not street crime.”

With the actual benefits of ID cards seemingly disappearing before our eyes like chilled pints of Stella on a hot summer day, Clarke has apparently thought of a new reason why we should sign up for their introduction.

Mr Clarke hit out at civil liberties’ fears, stressing: “There would be no compulsion on anybody to show their ID card in the street.” They would also help people identify themselves and help attack the “Big Brother society” where a lot of information was already held about people, he said.

Quite brilliant. In one fell swoop, Clarke has taken on the criticism that ID cards could infringe our civil liberties by arguing that the cards would actually act as a guard against just such a development. Genius.

Presumably, if this tactic doesn’t work it will next be revealed that there are other hitherto unforseen benefits of ID cards; that they are vital in tackling global warming, or in making poverty history. Who knows? They may be required in finding the cure for the common cold.

Personally, I would be happy if Mr Clarke could just explain, if there is already a fear about our personal information being kept on databases all over the place, how can yet another database of information possibly remedy the situation?

By The By

Following the sad death of my MP, Patsy Calton, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives are gearing up for the by-election that will soon be visited upon the Cheadle constituency. Both have recently dropped leaflets through my door.

They are the usual fare, with both side saying pretty much the same thing. They want more police on the beat, they want the A555 by-pass completed. Only the Liberal Democrats say they are “fighting for local pensioners”, but I dare say the Conservatives could say the same.

Things get a bit more interesting, however, with a third leaflet entitled “Community In Touch”, a title suspiciously similar to the name of the traditional local Lib Dem leaflet “Keeping In Touch”. With the headline “Local Cheadle Hulme Man Snubbed” it suggests that there is discontent at the selection of Mark Hunter as the Liberal Democrats candidate in preference to Stuart Bodsworth, Patsy Calton’s “former right-hand man”. Well, that may well be true, but as this leaflet has also been printed by the Conservatives (as the tiny writing at the bottom of the leaflet confirms) I doubt the authors of this gem are really in the know. Indeed, the leaflet flaunts its ignorance by saying that Stuart Bodsworth “must feel devastated”; i.e. they don’t actually know one way or the other. As for Mark Hunter, they say that “all we know is that he leads a deeply unpopular Council and it is his decisions that brought about this unpopularity”; this will be the same council (Stockport) that was solid Tory during the Seventies and is now solid Lib Dem, and becoming more of a Liberal Democrats stronghold year on year.

But the main complaint about Mark Hunter is that he is from outside the area. We get an unattributed quote saying,

“Fancy the Liberal Democrats talking about a local candidate – their candidate
doesn’t even live here. Perhaps if he lived here, and cared about Cheadle, he
wouldn’t charge us so much in council tax. He’s an outsider”.

We then have a rather neat Q&A.

Q. Who decides how much council tax we pay?
A. The Local Council.

Q. OK, so who is the leader of the Council?
A. Mark Hunter

Q. Mark Hunter? Who’s he then? I’ve never heard of him.
A. Exactly. He doesn’t live in the Cheadle constituency but he does decide how much people in Cheadle pay in council tax. He’s an outsider.

So, we have now been informed that the local council sets the council tax rate; bet you didn’t know that. Needless to say, Cheadle doesn’t have a unique council tax separate from the rest of the borough, the council sets the same rate across the whole of Stockport. I am not too sure what the Tories are suggesting here; that Cheadle should have it’s own council? I haven’t seen that as a suggestion in either of their leaflets.

Anyway, just how much of an outsider is Mark Hunter? Fortunately, the Tories are on hand to inform us with this handy map.

Would you look at that! Miles away! Those tricksy Lib Dems have parachuted in a stranger to these part! Don’t let them get away with it!

I don’t know just how stupid the Tories think I am, but it seems they think I am very stupid. You would think that by mentioning that Hunter is leader of the council, most people would get the impression he is fairly local, even if he doesn’t actually live next door to them; but the map to me just suggests that he is, in fact, very local indeed.

In contrast, the best the Lib Dem leaflet can do is announce that “our next MP will be local campaigner Mark Hunter, or Michael Howards’s Conservative”. Pathetic. If they really want to fight it out on this whole “local” versus “outsider” business then they will have to try harder; perhaps by employing Edward and Tubbs in their campaign team.

Clan Did Know!

In case you haven’t noticed, I don’t really have either the time or (more importantly) the inclination just now to write anything on this blog. There just seem to be more important things to be getting up to at the moment.

Such as spending a glorious day at Llandudno, for example, where the accompanying picture of my son was taken. It sure beats sitting at a computer, bashing out a post, I can tell you.

So, until inspiration hits me, and I come up with another derivative post where I repeat myself once again original, intelligent and well observed post, I will leave you all with this image. See you soon…

Office Politics

Curiosity got the better of me, and I have now had the chance to watch the American version of The Office (courtesy of BBC3 who are broadcasting it as The Office – An American Workplace) and I actually thought it was quite good. It would be easy to pick holes in it, and it goes without saying that I didn’t think it was a good as the original, but it is only fair to bear in mind that a) the US version was designed for a US audience, and so I would always expect to find it more difficult to relate to, and b) the original version of The Office, across the 12 episodes and 2 Christmas specials, was a near perfect sit-com, and to top it would be almost impossible.

A few observations; first that the actor who plays Jim (Tim in the British version) appears to have studied Martin Freeman down to every slight tic and mannerism, and so that looks a bit laboured. The NBC version also seems to be making the whole Tim-Dawn relationship a bit more obvious, but perhaps it is only obvious to those who have seen the original. After watching the opening episode I got out my Office DVD and I was surprised at how much busier the script seemed in the British version. Although the basic plot of both episodes was the same, it was interesting to see what had been changed (a reference to Camilla Parker Bowles becomes Hilary Rodham Clinton; wanker becomes jerk; trifle is flan) and what had just been dropped altogether. The result is that the US version generally seemed slower and more sparse, but I still liked it; perhaps because of what they could have changed, but thankfully didn’t.

It will be interesting to see where the American writers take it from here; future episodes look as if they won’t be such straight copies of the British version. I am particularly interested to see how the Pub Quiz episode works when it is transformed into a game of Basketball.

If nothing else, I think the US version of The Office, if not as good as the British version, is certainly not as bad as many people seemed to expect, with their tired arguments that “Americans don’t do irony”. You would think that the existence of The Simpsons, Cheers and Larry Sanders would have put to bed such lazy thinking, but no. As for the other argument, that the American networks are bound to sap the originality out of any imported idea, just remember the sort of rubbish our own homegrown broadcasters come up with sometimes. Can you imagine what ITV would turn out if they decided to do a British remake of Seinfeld? They’d probably cast Bradley Walsh as Jerry and Joe Pasquale as George. God knows who would play Kramer and Elaine; probably the golden handcuff pair, Ross Kemp and Sarah Lancashire.

No, don’t laugh.