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23 December 2014

Priced out of matches and treated as commodities, football fans are finally starting to reclaim the beautiful game

In the space of two decades, English football has gone from a localised game rooted in working-class communities to a globalised brand controlled by the markets, excluding many of its loyal fans. But those fans are still there and they are fighting back. 

By Martin Cloake

For the past 19 months, I’ve written a series of articles for the New Statesman about football. This magazine may not seem the obvious forum in which to write about the game. Hunter Davies’s irreverent observations have long been a staple and the sport has reared its head elsewhere in the print edition from time to time. But football is now more than simply a sport. It always was a cultural phenomenon too, a deeply-rooted part of the way we were. And increasingly it is a business. So, what I thought might be interesting was to write regularly about where these circles of influence intersect. What happens when entertainment meets business? When culture is commodified? When the game seeks to maximise its business value while simultaneously undermining what makes it valuable?

It seems that those articles struck a chord. I’m told they generate “good traffic” – the greatest honour a journalist can hope for these days – and they certainly get retweeted and discussed and referred to. I’ve written a book based on them and been asked to speak at meetings about the ideas in them. And I’ve met a lot of interesting people and had a lot of interesting conversations because of them. At times, I’ve also thought I was starting to make sense of the often ridiculous, frequently infuriating, invariably overhyped but still fundamentally beautiful game. Or at least, what is happening to it at the moment.

It seems absurd to take a simple sport so seriously. But, as I’ve often said in these articles, it’s the simple pleasure the game can give, and the loyalties it stirs, that makes it so attractive as a commodity. David Goldblatt captures the essence of what football means to all areas of our life in his brilliant latest book, The Game of Our Lives, and I’d recommend that as one of my reads of the year. But attempting to theorise about what is happening can seem a little ridiculous – pretentious even. That’s something I’ve been acutely conscious of as I’ve written. But theorising is just a way of making sense of the world. And making sense of the world is important if we are to shape it in order to make it better.

One of the interesting people I met over the past 19 months was David Webber. He’s a football fan. And an academic. And an activist. (One of the points I’ve often made is that “football fans” – like people everywhere – can also be defined in other ways. It’s something the football authorities might get to grips with in the next 10 years). Like me, he’s interested in what those intersections mean and where they could lead. Recently, at a very illuminating conference in Loughborough on football governance, organised by the Football Research in an Enlarged Europe project (FREE), he gave a speech in which he attempted to place all these observations about modern football into a context.

The context was based on the theories of an Austrian economist and sociologist called Karl Polanyi. Polanyi developed some ideas about the social and cultural effects of markets, and it seems to both David and me that they have some resonance in today’s discussions about modern football. So what follows is an edited version of David’s speech. The idea of a weighty piece of academic theory about modern football may strike you as pretty daft, overwrought hipster nonsense in a sport where the instruction “Just go out and fucking run around a bit” was briefly elevated to the level of tactical genius. But bear with us. The holidays are approaching and you may have a little more time to sit back and read. So knock yourselves out.

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Martin Cloake


English football faces a paradox. In the midst of its enduring popularity is a growing sense of discontent among its core fans. What was once ‘the people’s game’ now no longer belongs to ‘the people’. A combination of greed and inequality has disconnected the sport from its working-class roots, and has taken the game away from the fans who, even by the Premier League’s own admission, ‘make the game’ what it is.

It is out of this discontent that a movement ‘against modern football’ has emerged. Fans of clubs as diverse as Liverpool, Manchester United, Coventry City and Hull City have all protested at the owners of their respective clubs, while others, spearheaded by groups such as Supporters Direct, have taken issue with rising ticket prices and the way in which the game is run.

Some fans have suggested that football and politics shouldn’t mix. However, these movements ‘against modern football’ are deeply political. Where did ‘modern football’ come from? How do the economics of the modern game shape our experiences as supporters, and how should we understand the politics of this movement ‘against modern football’? These are questions that football fans should be asking of those who currently govern the English game. They are important questions for they enable us to think about ways in which the ‘people’s game’ might be brought back to ‘the people’.

In finding answers to these questions, the work of the economic sociologist and historian, Karl Polanyi is useful. Writing in the midst of a period of political and economic upheaval in the middle of the 20th century, Polanyi was only too aware of the negative consequences of market activity. His work, The Great Transformation, first published in 1944, explored how market systems – that is, the spaces where goods and services are bought and sold – are formed, and how they are ‘embedded’ into different societies. Polanyi argued that these markets were not separate from society but intrinsically linked. This ‘embeddedness’ meant that any market activity would have clear social and cultural effects.

For over 100 years, football was a sport embedded within England’s working-class communities. Although it may have been the aristocracy that codified the sport, it was a game played and enjoyed predominately by the masses. Indeed, England’s biggest and most successful clubs have historically not come from London, but from the country’s industrial heartlands in the north-west. Over the past 50 years Merseyside and then Manchester have enjoyed unrivalled supremacy in the English game. For all the economic power and financial muscle of the capital, the London clubs remain perennial underachievers compared to their more decorated rivals in the north.

Insofar as the business of football was concerned, up until the 1990s, commercialism was limited by and large to a handful of local firms sponsoring the kit, the ball, and perhaps donating the odd bottle of champagne to the man-of-the-match. The grounds themselves were damp, creaking relics of Edwardian England, a million miles away from the space-age stadiums that today serve as monuments to global capitalism. Designed with the hard economics of the ‘matchday experience’ in mind, rather than the social ritual of ‘going to the game’, match-going fans of England’s biggest clubs are now able to sit in relative comfort, surrounded by brands and corporations recognised the world over as they consume a league simultaneously beamed across the globe.

What though has prompted English football’s own ‘great transformation’ and what does it mean for fans of the English game? Polanyi noted the first phase of what he termed a ‘double-movement’; a shift towards a society dominated increasingly by the market, rather than social interests. For Polanyi, such a shift does not occur by chance; markets are formed only when an appropriate regulatory framework is in place. For English football, this framework would be forged in the aftermath of the Hillsborough tragedy, when 96 Liverpool fans were crushed to death at an FA Cup semi-­final in April 1989.

Despite a succession of crises throughout the 1970s and 80s, it took the events of Hillsborough to finally force the football authorities to reconsider their treatment of fans. Appalled at the contempt with which supporters had been treated, Lord Justice Taylor demanded the conversion of terraced stands into all-seated stadiums within five years. This however presented even England’s biggest clubs with a problem. Years of underinvestment and high levels of indebtedness meant that they were simply unable to fund the improvements demanded by Lord Taylor through their own means. The government duly stepped in and provided a series of grants that would finance the rebuilding of England’s grounds.

Gazza’s tears and England’s fourth-placed finish at the 1990 World Cup went some way in redeeming the cultural image of the sport. However it was the legal and political framework rolled out in the wake of Hillsborough that would embed the economic transformation of English football. The implementation of the Taylor Report in 1990, followed a year later by the Football Association’s own Blueprint for the Future of Football, and the public funds used to rebuild England’s crumbling stadiums, all paved the way for a set of new market actors to enter and change the game.

Of these economic actors, no one has been more powerful than Rupert Murdoch’s Sky Corporation. While investors from the US, Russia and Dubai would in time come to skew the wealth of the sport in the 21st century, it is unlikely that they would have had the appetite to do so without the sustained financial firepower and global reach offered by Sky. Yet, it is unlikely that Sky itself would have seized the opportunity afforded it without the political framework put in place by both the British government and Football Association. It was this framework that, crucially, sealed ‘the great transformation’ of the English game.

In The Great Transformation, Polanyi spoke of the dangers to society of granting markets too much power. Driven by these commercial interests, however, English football has fulfilled Polanyi’s prediction. The game’s traditional working-class heartlands have been shoved about and used indiscriminately, causing acute social dislocation. Football’s reformed legal and political structure has allowed these market forces to dictate the direction of the English game. Yet while these riches have helped the Premier League attract some of the world’s best footballers, it has also created a widening inequality across English football.

Since the creation of the Premier League, around half of England’s 92 league clubs have faced financial difficulties, a number have gone out of business completely, and grassroots funding in the sport has fallen. Across all divisions, the cost of attending matches has soared. However it is in the Premier League that we have seen the price of tickets increase the most, outstripping even the value of house prices during this period. In 1990, the cheapest ticket at home to the then league champions, Liverpool, was just £4. Even accounting for inflation, that same ticket today should be a little over £7. Instead it costs £37 – an eye-watering increase of 925 per cent. 

English football is increasingly a rich man’s game. The elite players and managers come at a premium price commanding astronomical salaries. Multimillion-pound contracts mean that the average weekly wage of a Premiership footballer now exceeds the salary that most Britons receive in a year. For the increasingly cosmopolitan owners of England’s biggest clubs, success or failure on the pitch is judged not in terms of sporting achievement, but rather financial performance. Supporters, for their part, are now viewed as both consumers and commodities. They remain of course, a source of income for clubs but also, through the ‘spectacle’ of their support, a means of selling the club abroad to new and even more lucrative markets. 

Given this assessment of modern football, it is hardly surprising that there is this growing sense of discontent among fans. However, while the prospects for this changing any time soon may at the moment appear remote, there are positive signs that things are beginning to change. Fans are finding their political voice and have started to mobilise, calling for reform of the way in which the game is run and an end to the endemic greed in English football. Polanyi’s work is helpful again in explaining why this has happened and how the English game might be socially re-embedded.

Earlier I described how the first phase of Polanyi’s ‘double-movement’ might be used to understand the ‘disembedding’ of football from its traditional communities. Polanyi however, didn’t stop here. In the second movement of his ‘double-movement’ thesis, Polanyi argued that wherever this market activity threatened social life, there would be an instinctive reaction against it by society. In the broader movement ‘against modern football’, we have seen precisely this occur. Fans, fed up of being politically and economically excluded from their own clubs, have set up independent supporter groups and supporter unions, such as the Spirit of Shankly. Some supporters, as those at Portsmouth and Wrexham, have gone further still. They have rescued their clubs from the financial mess created by previous owners by taking control themselves.

These movements are an important reminder that clubs are not simply businesses, but are in fact, socially always embedded. Local communities, families and/or friendship groups all revolve around a shared love of the game and affinity towards a particular club. Given that they invoke and reinforce strong bonds of identity and affection, these ties cannot and perhaps should not be easily commodified. It is hardly surprising then that the financialisation of football has been politicised and met with such resistance.

How England’s clubs might be socially re-embedded leads us back, rather appropriately, to Polanyi’s earlier observation concerning the formation of market structures. We suggested then that English football’s ‘great transformation’ was not inevitable, but rather a carefully constructed, deeply political response to the crisis experienced in the game, most notably in the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster. The political and legal framework mapped out in the early 1990s incentivised clubs to pursue a more market-minded strategy; one which has created the ‘modern football’ that fans are disillusioned with today.

Here, however, Polanyi’s work provides a note of optimism for those keen to deliver football back into the hands of its supporters. If ‘modern football’ required a distinct political structure in order to transform English football then this would suggest that if there was the political and social will, then the space exists to embrace an alternative, more socially-embedded game. Of course, these small movements face several challenges, not least between competing political and economic interests. Nevertheless, there is at least the possibility of political reform and social change within the game.

This, we suggest, is Polanyi’s chief legacy to football. The seemingly unassailable power that the economic actors within the game are currently assumed to have is actually only the result of a market structure embedded by a political elite. As ever-growing numbers of fans are demonstrating, real power and the capacity to change rests not in the market but in the hands of supporters – indeed, those that make the game what it is.

Martin Cloake writes regularly for New Statesman online and a number of specialist football publications and websites. He can be followed on Twitter @MartinCloake and his book, Taking Our Ball Back: English Football’s Culture Wars, is available now.

Dr David Webber is a Teaching Fellow in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick. His research interests concern the cultural political economy of football, and he can be followed on Twitter @DrDaveWebber.

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