Richard Griffin analyses the decline of top-flight English football, its causes, and potential solutions.
Empty seats are appearing at Premiership games. So far this season attendances are down by 6%. There are a variety of reasons for this – high ticket prices, boring, predictable games, a lack of competition and a feeling that clubs don’t care about their fans.
The decline follows over a decade of growth.
The top flight of English football is now dominated by just five clubs – Arsenal, Chelsea, Newcastle, Man Utd and Liverpool. They dominate financially: last season for example Arsenal received £32.8 million from television contracts. In contrast, Wolves got £13 million. There is, no doubt, a link between the money these clubs received and the fact that Arsenal won the Premiership and Wolves were relegated and are now struggling in the Championship.
These top five therefore also dominate in terms of success on the pitch. Each year the same handful of English clubs get into the lucrative European Champions League with its tens of millions of pounds of TV and prize money. The Premiership is in danger of becoming like the Scottish Premier League where Celtic and Rangers take turns each season to win the league and Scottish Cup. There are also signs, as Newcastle struggle, that the big five could soon become just four or even three (Chelsea, Man Utd and Arsenal).
One of the few observations Karl Marx made about industry which turned out to be correct was that under capitalism the drive for money and profit leads to monopoly. This certainly seems to be being borne out in football! (See Marx’s essay ‘Over-accumulation, abstract surplus value and the rising tendency of Henri to score goals’).
Particular clubs dominating a division is nothing new of course but in the past there were far more opportunities for other teams to make a mark on the league. Between 1982 and 1984 for example Liverpool won the then Division 1 title three years in a row, but Ipswich, Watford and Southampton came second in each of those years. The idea of, say Bolton or Portsmouth challenging the big five for a top spot and a place in the Champions League hardly seems realistic these days. Check the odds you’ll get from bookies for any team outside the big five winning the Premiership.
Lack of competitiveness is only one reason why fans have begun to turn their back on live football though. Another is the price of tickets. Recently a Man City fan who had watched his team play home and away consecutively for over 340 games decided the £45 Birmingham City were charging away fans was just too much even for him. High ticket prices have already driven the poor away from many grounds. While about a half of the crowd at games are skilled or unskilled manual workers, 39% come from social classes A and B. Only one in ten are from the lowest social classes. Football, once the preserve of the working classes, is rapidly becoming a middle class sport at least in the top division.
High ticket prices are partly needed to fuel the massive salaries of top footballers. This year the top five clubs alone will spend £40 million on wages. Since 1994 wages have risen by 550% - 150% more than revenue. No wonder then that so many clubs are in debt - Man City for example owe £62 million. The average wage of a Premiership player last year was £600,000. In League 3 it was £42,000.
Research shows that many families no longer follow Premiership clubs because of the cost and availability of tickets. One of the things that binds a club to its community and creates a collective feeling at grounds is family support. Four generations of my family have and continue to follow our local team. If we supported Chelsea (god forbid), the nearest Premiership team to us, a season ticket would cost us £780 each, considerably more than the £360 we currently pay – not that that isn’t a lot.
Many supporters while loving their club often to the point of stupidity are increasingly feeling that their support does not really matter; that they are not valued by their club, worse that they are being exploited through high ticket prices, rip-off food and drink and merchandise. There is only so much even the most loyal fan will take. A few years ago fans felt that they had to wear the latest club shirt. This is no longer the case. Rather than paying £50 a season for a new shirt fans are happy to turn up with older tops. In a small way this is an example of fans fighting back.
There are signs that the problems the Premiership is experiencing are spreading to other divisions. My own team, Reading FC, play in what is now ridiculously called the Coca Cola Championship. Last season we were in plain old Nationwide Division 1. While I am happy with Reading being elevated to the Championship from boring old Division 1, which by the way before the Premiership was created was actually Division 2, as an anarchist I was much happier with sponsorship from a mutual building society than a multi national capitalist organisation whose adverts now flood the ground! If I want to buy a soft drinks at the ground now I can only buy Coke owned ones.
At least in the Championship the financial benefits of sponsorship are spread evenly between clubs with Rotherham getting as much as West Ham. However economic reality means that the teams that are doing well, like Wigan and Ipswich, are the ones who have been able to invest most in players. As in the Premiership a gap is developing between the rich and poor of the Championship. Ticket prices have crept up in recent seasons, well ahead of inflation.
On Boxing Day, because Sky wanted to televise three matches during the bank holiday, Reading’s game against Watford kicked off at the unearthly time of11am! Fans of both clubs were understandably pissed off by this: no one wants to get up early the day after Christmas. In fact when Reading scored their first of three goals their fans chanted “You should have stayed in bed!“, at the Watford supporters. The kick off time wasn’t for the convenience of the fans though but the television – and of course club who got £60,000 from Sky. The previous week our home tie against QPR kicked off at 12.45am because of Sky and on January 3 at 5.30 again for Sky. Commercial interests take precedent over the interests of fans.
Over Christmas Plymouth signed Scott Taylor from Blackpool. The deal is only worthy of mention because it broke the club’s previous record for a transfer. Taylor signed for £100,000. At the same time Newcastle bought Jean-Alain Boumsong from Rangers. The fee? £8,000,000. If the gap between the rich and poor within leagues is prominent then the gap between leagues is even greater.
It is too early to tell whether the decline in match attendances (which is also mirrored by a decline in people watching Match of the Day) in the Premiership is a temporary blip or the start of a longer trend. It is undeniable however that more people overall are watching live football now than at any time in the 1970s and 1980s.
Outside the Premiership gates are actually on the up. One female Orient fan last season said “I think the Premiership is impersonal. When we go to Orient it’s not us and them. We’ve got to know the people around us”. The non league Conference has seen a massive increase in attendance – perhaps fans feel more connected with their club at this level.
One of the great success stories of recent seasons has been the rise of AFC Wimbledon. Sickened by the decision in 2002 of a group of businessmen to move Wimbledon out of London to Milton Keynes, Dons fans clubbed together and created in just six weeks their own team, reclaiming Wimbledon for its supporters. The club’s motto is ‘By the fans, for the fans’. The Dons New Year’s Day home match this season saw over 3,000 people paying to watch the game. The non league team have been getting attendances to rival MK Dons (called Franchise FC by all other fans), the team created in Milton Keynes.
‘The Game That Eat Itself’ was the title of a recent piece in The Observer about the decline in Premier League gates. Football has become big business and like any capitalist venture it aims to make as much money out of its customers as it can. Football fans have been ripped off for years. There are signs that they have had enough and are beginning to vote with their feet.