The people’s game no more: fans walk out as greed takes over
“In many respects this sport above all others has articulated certain changes in English society over the past century,” writes James Walvin in The People’s Game, a seminal work on the history and rise of football in England. From the “ritualistic free-for-all” of medieval times, to a codified game for the common people – football’s development has long matched the long arc of economic and social change. Yet, long gone too are the working class and community roots of yesteryear; today’s game is a globalised proposition, distilled with little irony into an insipid brand that proffers an “identity that acknowledges everyone who plays a part” in the Premier League’s overly-commercialised machinery.
The Premier League’s new brand launch video claims that “we all have a part to play,” that “every fan” is part of the Premier League’s whole. As if there is a spiritual collective detached from the playground of the rich and mercenary that the world’s oldest organised league has become.
Truth is less palatable than spin. During the weekend past Liverpool supporters, perhaps more than 10,000 of them, walked out of Anfield in the 77th minute – a protest at a new top-price ticket for next season that reaches £77. The price rise, which was due to kick in for the 2016/17 campaign, coincides with the start of the Premier League’s £8.3 billion TV rights contract that will earn Liverpool more than £100 million in broadcast fees next season. Little wonder the club quickly backed down – it hadn’t a leg to stand on.
"Liverpool is not alone in sucking fans dry and, for many, enough is now enough. The game’s roots are lost amid the corporatisation of a league whose laissez-faire approach has stimulated global “investment” in search of easy profit."
“In one way or another,” adds Walvin, “the game has been part of the social history since the 14th century. There is a clear historical line to today’s game. The game of the common people.” Fans throughout the country might disagree. Indeed, Liverpool’s protest could well mark a new apex in the ancient tussle for control of the game that has passed from societies, to universities, and the early FA, to the world’s richest clubs and their corporate sponsors.
The history of the game is rife with this tension. As far back as the 1300s Cambridge and Oxford universities each sought to either ban football or restrict where it took place. It was, after all, a brawling and ill-defined game that often pitched village against village in something close to physical combat. In later years there was widespread fear that football might cause social problems, with the working classes thought to attend matches specifically with organised political ends in mind.
Industrialisation brought fundamental changes to social habits and norms – and with it a codified and, eventually, professional game. The “overcrowded and overworked” working class, with the lack of space that urbanisation brought, gave up on many traditional recreations. The street mob’s game disappeared, something more structured evolved.
But with industrialisation also came greater wealth and then the weekend off. This was to prove the seed of a social revolution. Leisure time on Saturday afternoons was a time for football – a time of genuine transformation in the working class experience. This was the birth of the club as community function, formed on the basis of industrial, religious and school affiliation.
In Liverpool “25 of 112 amateur clubs”, writes Walvin, had religious connections by 1885. There was a similar pattern in Birmingham, where the Villa Cross Wesleyan Chapel would become Aston Villa by 1874. Birmingham City was formed of the Small Heath Aloiance churches in 1875. Then there was Christ Church Bolton, 1874; St John’s Church Blackpool; and Everton St Domingoe’s Church Sunday School, 1878, which would later become Liverpool FC.
The 1870 Education Act also spurred changed, underwriting the “physical training” of working class communities. There was, writes Richard Sanders in the excellent Beastly Fury, a “colonizing zeal” with which the middle classes addressed the “problems of modern urban life.” It was missionary work that concentrated on the benefits of physical fitness. “Football fitted the bill.”
Blackburn Grammar School’s team would form Blackburn Rovers in 1874. Leicester Fosse school, 1884, became Leicester City. Chester school, former what would become Chester City in 1884. The Droop School, 1885, Queens Park Rangers; Sunderland District Teachers Association, Sunderland FC in 1879. There were many, many, more.
Factories, railway companies, hoteliers, munitions workers, cricket clubs: 1863, North Staffordshire Railway, Stoke City. 1866, railways workers in Crewe would meet at the Alexanxdra hotel. Singers factory workers became Singers FC in 1883, and then Coventry City. Thames Iron workers, 1895, formed the team that became West Ham United. The Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Company formed Newton Heath, 1878, the precursor of Manchester United. Clubs were run not for profit, but community.
Yet, parallel moves to structure the game, professionalise and gentrify it brought in, first, a more authoritarian approach, and then commerce. By 1863 a set of rules for the “Simplest Game” drawn up in Cambridge would form the basis of the FA – a body created in a north London pub. Over the next 40 years the drive to create a regular schedule of games, and with it growing attendances, stimulated the formation of the FA Cup and then the Football League.
Telegraph services, the emergence of media, and faster transport around the country – each contributed to growing attendance. Structure brought cost, both for playing and watching – the business of football emerged. In 1885 professionally paid players were first sanctioned – legally at least. It was the “dawn of modern professional football.”
"The arc of football’s history is long; exploitation is just catching up – and at a time when the game is wealthier than ever."
Protesting Liverpool supporters may well be joined by others in the coming weeks; a movement spurred by increasing distance between fans and exploitative owners. They may be traditional rivals, but in this Liverpool and United supporters should be brothers-in-arms. After all, while the Glazers have largely frozen ticket prices in recent seasons, as the club claims an ever greater percentage of revenue from commercial deals, the family was quick to hike prices in the years after the 2005 takeover. Nor are United fans immune to being fleeced for away tickets, while United has been accused of exploiting visiting supporters.
Liverpool’s owners, the Fenway Sports Group, FSG issued a grovelling apology this week. John W Henry, chairman Tom Werner and FSG’s president Mike Gordon issued a statement claiming that “the three of us have been particularly troubled by the perception that we don’t care about our supporters, that we are greedy, and that we are attempting to extract personal profits at the club’s expense. Quite the opposite is true.”
"Liverpool’s supporters are likely to take any promises with a grain of salt. FSG is far from alone in ticket price myopia."
Elsewhere owners are naked in their pursuit of revenue. Indeed, seven chairman from the league’s 20 clubs blocked a proposal to cap away tickets at £30. In an arms race to compete for the best players (and presumably pay the highest executive salaries and owners’ dividends) there is little incentive for clubs to move first on ticket price reductions. Not least with player wage inflation rampant – aggregate wages reached £828 million last season, and will certainly rise in line with the 70 per cent increase in TV revenue due clubs from next year.
“The Premier League is looking at options to help away fans,” claimed Ed Woodward this week. “There were discussions happening at last week’s Premier League meeting and indeed behind closed doors now and into the next meeting in March when we will deliver something more to away fans.
“We are working closely with our supporters’ trust to assess what we can do for our fans. Our general admission season tickets have been frozen for the past five years and into next year. That is as good a guidance as any to where we are on admission.”
Too little, too late
Will it be too little, far too late? Certainly the old charge that ‘market forces’ dictate ticket prices as much as they dictate exorbitant player wages is a busted argument. If empty seats do anything, it is to remind the Premier League that its all-too-valuable “product” can be tarnished by supporters with little leverage but the movement of their feet.
“Prices have been inflated across football based on the false premise that it is an efficiently operating competitive market where prices are driven by supply and demand,” Manchester United Supporters Trust chairman Duncan Drasdo told the Guardian this week.
“Of course we all know that football supporters are not customers who will switch supplier to find the best value. Therefore you cannot apply such an economic model without it damaging the very thing that creates the value in football – the culture of unconditional loyalty.”
It is a loyalty born from the very roots of the game: tribal, local, community. Price rises inflict permanent damage on all three.
Time will tell whether the latest supporter backlash is lasting – or the response genuine. In recent years United supporters could not sustain an ongoing demonstration against the club’s American owners, nor could fans change catastrophically bad ownership practices at Crystal Palace, Portsmouth, Liverpool, Leeds United or Cardiff City.
Yet, nor has the bloating of clubs’ finances been in greater focus. Financial failure in football is hardly new – and while Financial Fair Play rules have brought some sense to the management of club accounts, the failure is now of a different breed. It is a failure to recognise the game’s spirit, roots and soul. Supporters, in ever greater numbers, are saying no to the market. Some have taken up arms; the fightback has begun. Football’s globalisation has gone too far.
Could a supporter revolution bring the game full circle and save it from itself? It might just have to.