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7 October 2020

What the plight of Gunnersaurus tells us about football’s responsibility problem

Arsenal’s sacking of its mascot has highlighted the lopsided economics of the Premier League.

By Rohan Banerjee

In early August Arsenal announced that 55 non-playing staff would be made redundant, as the club introduced cost-cutting measures to mitigate the revenue lost due to the Covid-19 pandemic. On Monday (5 October), the Athletic reported that these redundancies included Jerry Quy, who has played the club mascot Gunnersaurus Rex, a green dinosaur in full Arsenal kit, since 1993.

Monday was also transfer deadline day. And while Quy’s salary is not public information, it is highly unlikely that his 27 years of service have cost the club anywhere near the reported £45m it spent this week to sign Thomas Partey from Atlético Madrid.

With fans unlikely to be allowed in the stadium for several more months due to social distancing protocols, ticket revenue has disappeared. It is unsurprising that a club such as Arsenal is examining its costs and focusing on its core product – the playing squad. With no live audience its broadcast revenue, which is partly dependent on how well Arsenal perform in the Premier League, has taken on even greater importance.

In making these decisions, the club is perhaps little different from any other business. But the disparity between the wages of playing and non-playing staff, or between club management and hospitality or support staff, is particularly great in the Premier League. And while most people would understand some cost-cutting in a global pandemic, it has to be asked how Arsenal’s executive team failed to spot the PR disaster of cutting 55 jobs, including a beloved mascot, shortly before signing a £45m player.

[see also: The whole rotten edifice of the Premier League has been exposed by coronavirus]

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The negative publicity has intensified with the intervention of Mesut Özil, the German international midfielder, who has offered to cover Quy’s full salary for as long as the player remains at Arsenal.

Some consider Özil’s act a display of solidarity, others believe it is wilful troublemaking. Özil, who has not played for Arsenal since a 1-0 win over West Ham in March, is seemingly out of favour with the club’s coaching staff, and his contract expires at the end of this season. 

[see also: The new political football]

What is certain is that Özil was able to make his offer freely; he is reported to earn more than £18m a year. However genuine it may be, such a gesture only underscores the obscene inequality in top-level football.

This is not the first time that the Covid-19 pandemic has raised the issue of what responsibilities Premier League clubs have both for their non-playing staff and the wider football industry.

According to the Premier League’s latest financial results, 20 clubs shared £1.5bn in cash reserves before the pandemic. While some are richer than others, none of these clubs could claim to be struggling as a business. When the pandemic passes, none will find it hard to reclaim customers, such is the sport’s popularity, and the TV money has not stopped.

Meanwhile, clubs in divisions that do not have the security of lucrative TV deals are under pressure. The absence of ticket revenue is felt more acutely in the lower leagues.

The government has already announced a support package of £20m for the National League and the National League North/South, the fifth and sixth tiers of English football respectively. But as one civil servant told me, the £250m that Football League clubs have asked for may be harder to find: “The government realises that football is really important, but it can’t bail out every division and every club, especially while there are so many competing interests to consider… The likes of healthcare, education, and transport have to come first.” 

Premier League clubs appear to have accepted that they will need to offer some financial assistance to the Championship, League One and League Two. The conditions of a bailout will be high on the agenda at a shareholders’ meeting scheduled for later this month.

A longer-term solution may be to look at how top-flight clubs are run and regulated, with measures such as a higher transfer tax, wage caps, or a more generous levy paid to the lower leagues. 

This inequality is a problem at every level of English football, because clubs of all sizes are both businesses and community assets. And this is why the extinction of Gunnersaurus is so egregious, not only because it is an avoidable redundancy, but because football clubs trade both on performance and on the loyalty of large numbers of people – a loyalty that, in difficult times, they expect to be repaid.

[see also: Intelligent football: Michael Cox and the rise of tactical analysis]

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