The business of football cleverly explained – from the accountant’s perspective

Kjetil K. Haugen
Molde University, Norway

Kieran Maguire
The Price of Football: Understanding Football Club Finance
206 sidor, paperback.
Newcastle upon Tyne: Agenda Publishing 2020
ISBN 978-1-911116-90-5

What’s the difference between a lawyer and an accountant?
The accountant knows he’s boring.

This old joke on accounting and accountants may represent what many people, including me, feel about accounting. Many years ago, when I got my primary economics education I immediately and instinctively (without hesitation) started to hate the subject.

I must say I always have been puzzled by the fact that accounting is part of the economics curriculum. In general economics contains many extremely interesting subjects: pricing, equilibrium, regulation, incentives. I could keep on talking about interesting sub parts of economic science, but accounting is definitely not one of them.

Some people seem to believe that accountants must have a certain love for math, as it includes number crunching. Personally, I disagree. Accounting is further from math than any other subject one could think of. The reason is simple. Accounting deals with actual numbers, math deals with letters. I was never any good on handling numbers, but doing math with letters, preferably Greek ones, has always been both easy and enjoyable for me. Looking at (or even worse) constructing large arrays of numbers with the aim of minimizing taxes for a company is not my piece of cake.

The book at hand is something as unusual as an accountant’s view on sport finance and economics. Based on my initial confessions about accounting, one might expect a rather unfavorable book review. But wait, maybe it is not that simple. Maybe the book The Price of Football, written by Kieran Maguire, has something new, fresh, and even (god forbid) creative to offer. Read on to find out.

The book is organized in three parts. Part 1 is, as I read it, a general introduction to elementary accounting, covering the three basic elements of the topic: “The balance sheet”, “The profit or loss account” and “The cash flow statement”. So far, the same old boring story. Or perhaps not. The story told in part 1 contains examples from “the beautiful game”. Suddenly slightly more interesting. And it gets better.

The author, undoubtedly a man with considerable and diverse knowledge in the field, has written a relevant and unusual book.

Part II, entitled “The price of football” discusses most interesting subjects of sports economics: player wages, transfer fees, contracts, agents, ticket prices, TV-money and sponsorships and financial fair play. Of course, the discussion is just not how I would prefer it, being a researcher[1]. It is far too “popular” for that. Still, I think this part may fit most football fans not equipped with sports economic expertise. The language is brilliant, and I really believe it would be interesting for most die-hard footballers with at least a minor interest in the game and its financial and economical sides. In addition, the text is filled with up-to-date data on most subjects, clearly increasing the reading value.

In the last part, part III, Football club financial analysis, Maguire tries to gather the threads. Here, analyzing a football club’s accounts is the main message – in close correspondence with both parts I and II. The tools applied, albeit very simple (trend or ratio analysis), are very well described and exemplified through a continuing case. The fact that the case at hand is Manchester United is of course not a bad choice from my point of view, as a dedicated ManU fan[2]. Still, there are good (financial and objective) reasons to choose this club, it being among the financially most important. Anyway, even with extremely simple analytical tools, the author manages to shed light on many relevant problems. As such, parts II and III are in my opinion clearly the book’s strongest contributions.

As the intelligent reader probably already have inferred, I like this book. Perhaps against all odds, but I enjoyed it. The author, undoubtedly a man with considerable and diverse knowledge in the field, has written a relevant and unusual book. His ability to explain quite complex sports economic phenomena in simple words will certainly be valued by non-professionals. In short, I have no problem in recommending the book.

It still remains to establish what market segment the book is meant for. It is clearly not researchers as the book is written totally unscientifically. It could perhaps be meant as a textbook for students[3], but I even doubt that. After all, a textbook of today must contain at least some references. This one (as indicated above) is absolutely reference-free. Hence, it must be meant for the general public, and clearly the football-interested part of the general public, but as I see it, a fairly large portion of this segment might find it interesting. The fact that money plays such a significant role in modern professional football should justify such an allegation. I can honestly not see that the choice of Manchester United as the central case should scare off WBA or Tottenham fans. The same rules and tools hold of course also for them. But obviously, I may be wrong, some people have far more rigorous attitudes towards football fandom than I have.

Copyright © Kjetil K. Haugen 2021


[1] The book contains absolutely no references/citations.
[2] My ManU fandom is a relatively new dedication. I used to be a Liverpool supporter in my younger days. But, after my countryman, Ole Gunnar Solskjær became manager of Manchester United, changing club affiliation turned out to be very simple. Solskjær is not only Norwegian, he is (or used to be) also a resident of the town I was born in – Kristiansund.
[3] It may actually work quite well as a first introductory text for sports economics students.
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