by Francesco Caremani

The Turkish Süper Lig has been described as a movement ready to explode but with a short fuse. A league that from 2000 to 2015 has seen its turnover grow from 150 to 700 million euros, at the same pace with the Turkish economy, which in the meantime became the seventh in Europe and the 18th in the world; an economy dragged along by large investments in transport and construction – including new stadiums -, which have redesigned Istanbul in particular, with processes of gentrification and wild urbanisation, which have unhinged the social fabric of entire neighbourhoods: rebuilding to redesign society and control it. An economy that has suffered the backlash of the pandemic and is now in trouble, amid currency devaluation and unemployment.

After Galatasaray won the UEFA Cup and the European Super Cup (both in 2000), on the one hand, and the national team’s third place in the 2002 World Cup, on the other, Turkish football grew internally without, however, an international outlet. The growth was induced by a low tax burden on clubs (15 per cent), investments by major sponsors close to Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government and the Akp (Justice and Development Party), stadiums almost always full thanks to the unbridled passion of the fans, and a TV rights agreement (2017-2022) that increased revenue by 65 per cent; rights bought by Digiturk, a pay platform in the beIN SPORTS business, which with $590 million beat the competition.

Something, however, went wrong, and the renegotiation of the new rights comes at a much lower figure of around EUR 140 million. The Turkish clubs, in fact, have been heavily in debt in recent years. Galatasaray was excluded from the European cups in the 2016-17 season, under financial fair play rules, for losses exceeding $160 million, while Trabzonspor’s debt was ninety times the club’s liquidity and Besiktas’ fifty-seven. Besiktas, Fenerbahce and Galatasaray are the three most popular clubs, not only in football, but also in basketball and volleyball. To them went 30 per cent of the TV rights of Süper Lig, so much so that in 2016 they managed to share 200 million euros, against Basaksehir’s 10. A misdistribution that, on the one hand, the big three squandered in the purchase of very expensive players, which allowed them to win championships but did not raise the European level of their respective clubs, and on the other hand prevented the rest of the movement from growing: a warning to those in Europe who continue to do so.

At the same time, the 2011 match-fixing scandal together with other measures have driven many fans away from the stadiums, reducing match day revenues. In particular, online ticketing and the Passolig card: a compulsory fan card for which a number of personal details are required. The excuse is to counter violence in the stadiums, but the Turkish authorities are trying to control hate speech as well as chants and banners deemed ‘political’, considering that many ultras groups in the capital were involved in the 2013 Taksim Square riots. A political clampdown disguised as a sports clampdown.

Faced with all this, Yildiz Holding wrote a letter to the Turkish football federation declaring that it would withdraw its sponsors from a football that had lost value and interest, after a decade of heavy investment: more than 200 million dollars.

The government, i.e. Erdogan, has decided to spread the debts of the most troubled clubs until 2030, pushing DenizBank, one of Turkey’s largest banking institutions, to cover part of it as far as possible. The fact that Yildiz Holding is very close to the ruling party also suggests a carrot-and-stick action against them that is not easy to interpret.

Lastly, the devaluation of the currency has not helped, as all foreign players demand to be paid in foreign currency, weighing even more heavily on debt. And it is no coincidence that Turkish bids for the European Championship were all rejected, despite the brand new facilities.

Something, however, is moving. Besiktas, above all, and Galatasaray have put in place budget consolidation policies, while Basaksehir has proposed itself as a new corporate model. Not an easy bet in a league where 57 of the 66 titles have been won by the usual three.