Exeter, Devon UK • Oct 5, 2023 • VOL XII
Exeter, Devon UK • Oct 5, 2023 • VOL XII
Home Sport The gentrification of a sport: how the working classes are being kicked out of football

The gentrification of a sport: how the working classes are being kicked out of football

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Image: Pexels

Print Screen Editor Jonny Chern charts football’s route into gentrification and inaccessibility – finding forgotten hooligans, neoliberalism and not-so-working-class ‘Gooners’ along the way.

If god is dead, then the stands became one of the churches that populated the post-religious era. A new opium of the masses. In fact, it was Pope John Paul II that said ‘of all the unimportant things, football is the most important.’

And so what if football is the opium of the masses? To celebrate an important goal with strangers around you, whom you otherwise have nothing in common with, is opium. To stand in a stadium and see thousands of strangers wearing the same colours as you is unifying. It is the church, complete with choral fans and zealous belief. 

But, just as there was little delay for religion to be commodified, football has become the battleground for vulture corporations and business interests. And the toll can be felt by the congregation.

My dad grew up supporting Arsenal, and visited Highbury more often than his local prayer house. I’ve spent my whole life supporting Arsenal too, but I’ve stood in the stands enough times to count on one hand. My dad grew up when tickets were cheap and available. Often, he wouldn’t even pay – his dad would lift him over the turnstiles. This was normal. Now, Arsenal prices are now the most expensive in England, and some of the highest in the world.

I’ve always been an Arsenal fan, but I’ve only been able to follow the Gunners since the advent of online streaming. What other chance is there without this? We certainly couldn’t afford to go to the stadiums, but we also couldn’t afford Sky or BT Sports. The monopolisation of football broadcasting on TV channels – which most people can’t afford – forces people into pubs. But at £4.50 a pint, that’s still not really good enough. For the license fee we get chill dad Gary Lineker and shouty Alan Shearer, and that’s fine. My dad always says that back in the 70s he could only dream of the sort of coverage MOTD does now.

When Arsenal hosted Bayern Munich in 2015, Bayern fans, offended that their seats cost £64, boycotted the first five minutes of the game before unveiling a banner which read ‘£64 a ticket, but without fans football is not worth a penny.’ I went to school with more affluent Arsenal fans, and I’d get embarrassed when they asked me where I sat in the stadium. I named the place where I had sat on my only visit to the Emirates, and played it off like I was there every other week. But when I saw that banner the Bayern fans had made, I felt emboldened. I felt proud to say that I illegally streamed games rather than paid for a Sky Sports subscription or attended the matches – some small act of rebellion against the commercialization of what has been part of my family’s way of life for three generations.

“I went to school with more affluent Arsenal fans, and I’d get embarrassed when they asked me where I sat in the stadium”

Association football is considered to be the working man’s answer to rugby. Whereas the latter has always been associated with private schools, football teams tended to be formed within the factories and mines of Victorian England. This isn’t exactly fair. Football originally was a sport of the nobility. The rules for association were formalised at Cambridge University – written to enshrine Victorian values like muscular Christianity and the view of sport as being character-building – and the FA Cup was originally only for the aristocracy. But whilst rugby union never achieved inter-class appeal, football didn’t take long to, and quickly became associated with the industrial towns of the North West.

Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium has often come under scrutiny for its high prices and perceived lack of atmosphere.

Fast forward and the Premier League (which replaced the First Division in 1992) turned football clubs with century-old histories into elite global brands. The new money allows investment back in the game. Training is better than ever, making the players faster and more athletic than before. The game itself is faster.

Most importantly, the Premier League turned football into something professional and middle-class-friendly, and managed to shake off the reputation football had of hooliganism. In 1985 Spurs became the first English club to be floated on the stock market, ushering in the new financial drive of clubs under a political-economic culture of Thatcherism.

The neoliberal placement of corporations over local communities and community culture had its effect on class-consciousness. Supporters have always seen their local clubs as embodying local values – class identity, fair play or aggressiveness, etc. – but in neoliberalism, people are less disgusted that those things they identify with have become financial. 

Football is more widely supported now, maybe because clubs have lost a sense of identity, making it easier for fans who would traditionally be excluded to support the club. But whilst the sport is more open for certain groups of people to support clubs, many others are being excluded.

In Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby’s memoirs of being a football fan, Hornby recounts being asked how he can be both a feminist and a football fan. It was a question which in one sweeping go connects football to being working class, to being uneducated. But Hornby isn’t insulted by the question. He shrugs it off with a ‘yeah, fair’, because the constant images of hooliganism seem to justify it. Football was associated with toxic masculinity; men pushing each other over on the pitch and knocking each other out off it. But it was that same image of football hooligans that allowed the Hillsborough disaster to be blamed on the fans, and the disregard of the 96 who died came because they were assumed to be working class, and thus not intelligent enough to manage or protect their own lives. 

Image credit: Heptagon.

Whilst Hillsborough should have ushered a watershed moment for helping working-class fans, it became the catalyst for the neoliberal transformation of the game. Grounds needed to be made safer, but they were done so in a way which would attract new fans – fans who would pay heavier prices for a more sanitised environment.

Hooliganism did decrease as a result of this, but not because working-class fans were now barred from matches. Bill Buford’s 1990 book Among the Thugs, which resulted from years of first-hand accounts of football riots, claimed that the violence was not necessarily a lower-class protest. Many of the participants were employed in good jobs and spent a lot of money to get involved in what represented to them a way of life. It’s no secret that your football team is part of your identity, so it’s no surprise that the violence that takes place is tribalised, ritual, and conscious. Hooliganism, holistically speaking, was not representative of disenfranchised men on the dole who were bored at the weekends; it struck people across social groups. 

“Of course it is a good thing that violence decreased in football, but it was done so in a way which attacked working class fans rather than toxic masculinity.”

Yet this is not to deny that there is a link between money and the decrease in hooliganism. By attracting new ‘sensible’ middle-class fans, stadiums are now populated with people who don’t know the chants and whose identity with the club is defined in a different way. The effect is that football is less tribal. Of course it is a good thing that violence decreased in football, but it was done so in a way which attacked working class fans rather than toxic masculinity.

It probably isn’t true to say that middle-class interest in football is new, but a cultural shift has made it more acceptable for middle-class supporters to show their allegiances. Meanwhile, the financial changes in the last three decades have made it far more difficult for those from poorer backgrounds to support their teams. Football’s unrivaled status as the top sport came from its accessibility; popular in all regions of the country, easy and cheap to attend, and tied with the communities it emerged from. That accessibility, now, is quickly shrinking.

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