Are we losing the love of the game? Is football becoming simply a business? Owen Keating, News Editor, discusses more…
Football is losing its soul. While an outsider may see a sport in rude health – with ever-increasing amounts of money being poured into the game through transfer fees, sponsorship deals, and ticket prices selling seats in huge stadia – those inside the game, especially those who support teams across the whole of the footballing pyramid, are seeing the other side of the extremely profitable coin. In 2014, football fans are not only regularly being priced out of watching their team in the flesh, but, increasingly, even from being able to watch their side without an expensive television subscription. The sport of the people is increasingly being taken away from them.
As if exclusion from the sport as a whole wasn’t enough, some supporters are being excluded and marginalised from the running of clubs that have sustained local communities for decades. The genesis of this article came following the news that Hull City owner Assem Allam has threatened to quit the club, withdrawing his financial largesse if he isn’t allowed to break 109 years of tradition by changing the club’s name to Hull Tigers. The fact that this outburst came on the day that he broke the club’s transfer fee by signing Croatian striker Nikica Jelavic for a fee of over £6.5million is especially telling: Allam believes that his financial contribution effectively voids any right that the club’s loyal supporters feel they have over helping to shape the club’s future. Until 2008, Hull was the largest city in the UK to have never had a Premier League team, and it is worth remembering that the club faced relegation from the Football League and financial meltdown as recently as 2003. In light of this, it is admittedly impossible to disregard the impact that Allam’s contribution has had on the club since his tenure began in 2010.
However, I would argue that more importantly, there wouldn’t have been a club for Allam to buy without the loyalty and determination of the Hull City fans who have been so shunned by his recent antics. While this month the ‘City ‘Til I Die’ campaign was told by Allam that they should “go away”, and that “no-one is allowed to question [his] decisions”, they are a key part of the nucleus that kept the club alive. On a visit to Hull last year (as part of a thankfully fruitful 400-mile round trip to watch my own team), I was struck by the ferocity of the city’s support for the team. If support of this quality is let down by the Football Association, who have the final say on whether to ratify Assam’s desired name change, then the new Hull Tigers badge will become an extremely powerful symbol of the prioritisation of funds over fans in the modern game.
It would be naïve to suggest that this alienation is only present in lurid headlines about the uprooting of a city’s footballing history to exploit commercial markets; fans across the country are increasingly unable to afford admission to the game they love, especially at the higher levels of the sport. A BBC survey about the price of football has shown that season tickets in the Premier League in 2013 cost four percent more than the year before, with the most expensive season ticket at Arsenal, one of the clubs in this season’s title race, charging between £985 and £1,955 for a seat this season. Chelsea and Tottenham’s most expensive season tickets also cost more than £1,000.
Despite the increase in season ticket prices, individual ticket prices on average fell by around five percent this season, although this came after the 2011/12 season, during which prices rose by eleven percent, four times more than inflation. This, along with concern about the increasing cost of following one’s team, gave rise to the Football Supporters Federation’s (FSF) launch of the “Twenty’s Plenty” campaign, which encouraged clubs to set ticket prices for visiting supporters at a maximum of £20. This, along with demonstrations at games, including Manchester City’s decision to boycott some of their allocation at a particularly expensive away game at Arsenal, has led to some clubs partnering with one another to ensure the mutual setting of cheaper away tickets for fixtures between the two sides involved. In addition, Stoke City have set a welcome trend by offering free coach travel to every away game this season.
However, such a statement seems futile against a monolithic, megalomaniac Premier League which consistently sacrifices supporter experience to the relentless need for profit margins. As the average age of those on the terraces increases, the young fans of the game are driven away, leading some lower league clubs to run advertising campaigns telling fans that “Football isn’t a TV show”. Given that the team that finished bottom of last season’s Premier League table earned more TV prize money than the team that won it the year before, and that some top teams, who hold enormous fan bases, see nearly half of all their matches televised on pay TV, some campaigns may have a hard time convincing.
Despite the intervention of provocative campaigns by the likes of Stand AMF, whose fierce defence of the game’s more traditional values is, despite being occasionally overreaching, a welcome tonic to the sugary sweet PR which normally accompanies initiatives which alienate the modern fan, the game faces a serious challenge in terms of overcoming its own hubris and doing more to engage the force that SHOULD be driving football’s ideological development: the ordinary men, women and children who sacrifice hours and petrol money to travel up and down the country for their team. When Saturday comes, service stations from Devon to Derby are filled with people dreaming of the potential rewards of their arduous journeys. We don’t deserve to be ignored. Our devotion to our game, to our cities, to our teams, will far outweigh the chequebook of any prospective investor you could care to mention: it’s our game, and we want it back.
Owen Keating, News Editorbookmark me