Jock Stein’s iconic phrase, ‘football is nothing without fans’, reverberated around the world last week as plans to create a new Super League, exclusively for Europe’s elite clubs, were scrapped amidst outrage that the sport had sold its soul. At once, the people united in opposition – how dare a bank and five billionaires take our beautiful game away? And though the plan was thankfully aborted, a glaring truth remains. Football didn’t die with the Super League: it has been dead for years. Let me explain.
It’s well known that football belongs to the working class. Forged in Britain’s industrial cities, association football became a haven for working men to bond over a common cause, the shared love of their local team. Inexpensive and entertaining, spectating the sport was open to anyone with a ticket or a telly. Over the years, English football’s rising appeal has encouraged vast investment, exporting the country’s most renowned pastime to a global audience – the consequences of which have been dire for Premier League supporters.
To illustrate just how expensive the modern game is, let’s imagine ourselves as the father of a young boy, the latter of whom adores Manchester United. First, the kid is keen to watch his team every weekend on television. Where to look? Games are split between three providers and a combined subscription for Sky, BT, and Amazon costs an astonishing £858. Next, he’d like to show his support by way of a shirt. In 2018, the average Premier League kit price rose over £100 for the first time. Finally, he’s even got the nerve to ask for a ticket, and perhaps a season pass to see them live. You’re looking at £32 and £508 respectively. Eye watering stuff.
So for all this outlay, what do loyal fans get in return? Let’s see. Televised games are rife with ad breaks while fans dress in polyester billboards. Instagram feeds are filled with players promoting products while betting companies plaster their immorality all over stadiums. Consumption pervades all corners of the pitch, inevitably geared towards the Friedman economic mantra to ‘maximise stakeholder value’.
Since the pandemic, fans have been absent. To compensate, providers have been scheduling games in relentless fashion. Players are exhausted and managers frustrated, while the quality of these fast-food fixtures is exactly what you’d expect – stodgy and dull. It follows, after all this mess, that the European Super League was but the next step forward for the money-making machine, aimed at generating mass revenues for ‘struggling’ billion-dollar enterprises. The idea was ironically met with outrage from UEFA, FIFA, and even Sky, all of whom were hailed as heroes, when in truth it was only threatening their status quo as profit takers. In shutting the breakaway league down, football fans were quick to recognise and oppose their own exploitation, but, unfortunately, it has gone unnoticed for years.
Perhaps the aphorism needs a slight tweak to suit the modern era – football is nothing without fans’ cash.