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Fans before fortune? The state of modern football

11 months ago

The commercialisation of football is said to have paved the way for modern football’s existence.

Sweeping reforms during the 1980s had transformed the state of our stadiums (via the Taylor Report, recommending all-seater stadia to combat disasters like those at Hillsborough and Valley Parade, subsequently halting – for at least 30 years legally – standing sections in football grounds) and our media, and it was high time that English football faced the world and embraced the new age that was dawning.

Growing resentment during the 1980s intensified, as top clubs converted in part from football clubs to businesses.

The so-called big five (Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal, Everton and Liverpool) were pioneers in this transition, and routinely gained power in terms of voting rights and financial agreements. They would take a 50% share of all television and sponsorship income in 1986.

The value of TV deals exponentially rocketed, too, a £6.3mn agreement signed in 1986 quickly rose to £44mn after ITV stepped in. By 1986, First Division clubs received £25,000 per year from television rights. Not less than two years later, that became £600,000. Yet this wasn’t enough. An insatiable desire for a ‘super league’ grew evident and by the early 1990s, the overarching ambition of the top clubs in England was clear – form a breakaway league, taking the whole of the First Division with them.

After all, English football was at its lowest in the mid-1980s. The aftermath of Heysel resulted in the banning of English teams in Europe for five seasons (Liverpool six), and the cost of the Taylor Report’s recommendations (mandated by the British government to convert by 1994 for the top two divisions, and by 1999 for the lower two divisions originally) was simply too much to afford and keep up on the pitch. A compromise was desirable, and for English football to catch up to its glamorous European counterparts, Italy especially fared well in Europe as the decade neared an end, more money simply was needed.

Gone were the days when the fans were at the forefront of the football experience. Rather than the primary benefactor of the team (Kevin Keegan made a considerable deal about this; the money that was generated through season tickets and merchandise at Newcastle United would be funded in the market, in essence incentivising the supporters to follow the team, to buy “your players”), the fans were the afterthought of the businessmen who simply wanted more. They wanted English football to be the best, and they wanted the top clubs to control it.

In hindsight, it has always felt like that, and there remains considerable top six influence to this day if you believe certain reports. When Richard Masters was appointed Premier League chair in 2019, it was said that top six teams held an unofficial “veto” that could be used to disapprove unsuitable candidates, resulting in two of three chosen appointees failing to take up their position.

The 17th July 1991 marked the true turning point for English football, as clubs in the Football League First Division announced their intent to break away from the organising body that oversaw the sport, creating their new “Premier” League. The Founder Members Agreement established the ‘basic principles for setting up the FA Premier League.’ Clubs would take advantage of a lucrative new television rights deal, worth £304mn over five years, the BBC being awarded the highlights package on Match of the Day. And to think half a decade earlier, clubs received only £25,000 per team in broadcasting rights!

The news this afternoon is that non-televised games will be available to be streamed via pay-per-view services. It functions similarly to WWE; games that aren’t available by regular subscriptions to Sky Sports or BT Sport will be available for £14.95 per match. For clubs like Crystal Palace and Burnley, they face an additional £45 or so above and beyond their existing Sky or BT subscription, simply to follow their team during October. In contrast, Manchester City for instance have zero games on this pay-per-view service this month, meaning Citizens do not have to fork out extra money to watch their team.

Particularly given fans of the lower clubs aren’t commercially attractive to be televised too often, it’s so unfortunate to see that these supporters are being punished for not supporting a glamorous favourite. Burnley were televised 11 times during 2019/20 – to think that 27 of their matches (which totals £403.65) would be available on “Box Office” to be paid in addition to their existing season ticket, or their existing subscription.

I know Newcastle United have not yet refunded supporters for the 2020/21 season, so it’s important to consider the impact that may have on fans’ wallets, and their motivation for following their team. Less legal alternatives are available, and there are suitors taking advantage of IPTV streaming, but in the interests of morality I’ll keep myself clear on that one.

A season ticket at Newcastle United, an adult season ticket, costs £659 for a category two ticket. It’s the figure I’ll refer to, but do keep in mind that the differing categories can have an impact on the final total. The Newcastle United Supporters Trust (NUST) confirmed that supporters have not received any communication by the club regarding refunding the 2020/21 season tickets, meaning that fans are paying for a season ticket that, to them, is useless. When fans are prohibited from returning to stadia, the season ticket cannot be used as a ‘discount’ for loyalty on Sky, so it’s essentially a black hole in the pockets of thousands that we cannot do much about. Cancel, and the season ticket is lost ahead of next season, where fans may be allowed to return to stadiums in some capacity. Keep, and the uncertainty of what happens devastates the mind, and is the struggle I empathise so heavily with.

A joint Sky and BT subscription, according to the Sky website, costs £40 a month on an 18-month contract, a decrease of £15 as it is currently on sale. Per year, that figure rises to £480. The season ticket that I mentioned only a few sentences ago must be applied on top of this, before you even factor in this pay-per-view project. The figure stands, already, at £1,139. I understand some fans may be paying it monthly by direct debit, but for the interests of this piece (and to amount the end result which would be the case eventually) I’ll presume it is an annual payment.

During the 2019/20 season, Newcastle United were shown live 19 times. The other 19, would apply to this pay-per-view service, which to their credit, does allow fans to legally watch their team whilst coronavirus regulations prevent them from attending stadia. That should be a given, however, so I’ll only slightly credit the broadcasters for that one. If last season’s trend continues regarding television picks, a Newcastle fan would pay an additional £284.05 just to watch the club play, in addition to the Sky and BT service, in addition to the season ticket that hasn’t been refunded. In total, we’re speaking £1,423 per year to follow Newcastle United legally. If it were a less fortunate club who had played less, that would be even higher.

And to think, the average salary in Newcastle for an employee is £27,000 according to Payscale. 5.27% of your earnings (and I don’t think that includes tax) would go to watching Newcastle play from home. It’s said that the profits will be given to clubs as a way of mitigating the financial risks of COVID-19, but I remain unconvinced.

It isn’t the Premier League teams we should be worried about, not certainly as much, when the entire English pyramid is at risk of collapse. Macclesfield Town have been wound up in light of their financial concerns, which would have only been exacerbated by COVID-19. Clubs in the non-league structure are facing the hardships already, and I fear the problem is going to get worse the more we fail to address it. Scarborough Town, South Shields and FC United of Manchester penned an open letter to Parliament regarding “clubs who have slipped between the cracks of elite and grassroots sport, and are in great peril without assistance” and it’s disheartening to see grassroots football, the premise of this great sport in our country, affected like this.

It isn’t fans before fortune, it’s the other way round. It was clear in the mid-80s when top clubs threatened to breakaway, convinced by increased voting shares and pure appeasement to keep them satisfied. It was clear in the early 90s when the Premier League formed and an instant financial package was on show by Sky Sports. It may have modernised football, and provided us with some of the greatest sporting moments I can remember (of course, I’m hardly aged by any means), but it has ruined the meaning of what football is.

Football is about the enjoyment, the community spirit. It shouldn’t be about how to maximise profit, but the bubble has grown too great now to reverse it. The COVID-19 pandemic has given football perhaps that final chance to return to a more primitive and close-knit game, but I feel the pendulum has swung too far now to allow it. We’d be commercially handicapped and we wouldn’t compete. The Premier League wouldn’t be the self-designated “best league in the world” but maybe we could get our game back. Focus on the grassroots, inspire the future. Imagine a future where professionals work for the thrill of it, not for the thousands they get a week. The wages are extravagant, and that is the least of my concerns.

But until we realise that modern football has, for the most part, wronged itself of integrity, there’s no hope of getting it back.

(Nathan also has his very own personal blog which you can visit here)


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