From the moment of its creation, when it decided that it was no longer Division One, the Premier League has had one main objective, the consolidation of its own power. Seen in these terms, its success has been phenomenal, eclipsing even its prodigious ability to generate wealth for its exclusive membership. The so-called governing body of English football, the FA, has seen its powers gradually and consistently diminish; the Premiership not only controls its own membership, TV deal and image rights, it has got its grimy hands on the very structure of the season and kick-off times, and it won’t let go without a fight.
The 39th game is a wily gambit towards the end game that, they trust, will create more than merely an unassailable English powerbase; it will enable them to dominate club football across the world. Alongside the chance to make even more profits, the Premier League at the same time has created an opportunity to undermine and marginalise the one main potential obstacle to its strategy, the fans.
If the 39th game takes place, it will be in the face of massive opposition from fans of every club. The very nature of supporting your team has already changed profoundly since the early nineties. The age and class profile of fans has changed radically since the start of the Premiership, as younger and less affluent fans simply cannot afford to come on a regular basis. All-seated stadia mean that the days of meeting a few mates on the day and going to the game is consigned to the quaint backwaters of football history. A match has become a major logistical exercise, travel and tickets planned months in advance, plans that go up in smoke a few weeks before the big day when the day and kick-off time are changed to suit Sky TV. For many, supporting a team now means buy the shirt and a satellite box.
Now, even the possibility of going to some games has been removed. The sanctity of what is a Premier League as a measure of worthy achievement over a long and arduous season has in a flash been tossed in the bin. Fans feel angry not merely at the sheer damn cheek of such machinations, but also at our perceived powerlessness to intervene in any way in the future direction of the game that we love with a passion. The 39th game is part of a process that began on the first morning of the Premiership, but it may be the point at which our beloved football is slipping away from us.
The Premier League have a problem with passion. They say they welcome it, of course – where would we be without the fantastic support of the fans, so they say. In fact, supporters have become crowd extras in the latest Premiership blockbuster, background noise to enhance the television spectacle. We can’t stand up. We can’t go to and from the ground as we wish. At big games we cannot any longer be trusted to generate atmosphere, rather we need a pre-match announcer to tell when to become excited. I have been to several important matches over the last few years when in the last 15 minutes before kick-off the PA has gradually been turned up to drown out the crowd.
We the fans are a fairyland cash cow with udders that never run dry as a stream of income steadily flows into the clubs via seat prices and the club shops. We even have to pay for the privilege of being able to buy a ticket. It’s called a membership scheme so we don’t notice.
But passion is a strong emotion, one that is unpredictable and difficult to control, and anything that cannot be reduced to the profit and loss of a balance sheet makes the Premier League wary. They don’t want us to complain on message boards, TV and in shareholders meetings. They don’t want protests inside and outside grounds that clubs are not being properly managed. And they don’t want us to stay at home.
Power and the exercise of power takes many forms. There is political power, the use of force and financial muscle, for instance. There’s also another form of power that is less immediately apparent but just as insidious and significant, the power to control the way we think about and express our feelings and opinions. In attempting to sell us the 39th game, the Premier League’s use of language is perhaps the most telling example of how they not only wish to obscure their true intentions, they also intend to change the relationship between themselves and fans.
Here’s a quote from Richard Scudamore, from last Sunday’s Observer:
‘I know what people are saying and writing, but it is not purely about money, not at all. This is about taking the League forward, recognising that you can't stand still. Nobody can stand still.
'We are in a privileged position [as the world's most popular football league] but also a vulnerable position. There is a globalisation of sport we can't deny. And we are faced with a strategic decision. Do we seize the moment and seek to move forward, or do we batten down the hatches, stay domestic, sit there and watch other people do it, other leagues, other sports, other forms of entertainment? Or even the four or five biggest clubs, I won't name them but we know who they are, in our own competition?’
Let’s deconstruct this. Firstly, it’s not about money, it’s about progress. When I first heard him speak about his plans on FiveLive he described it as an ‘evolutionary step’ and as such it was obvious that there would be some resistance. We are therefore in the grip of an inexorable force; it’s madness to fight against the very forces that have most shaped our development as a planet. Anyone who does so is a dinosaur, and we all know what happened to them. As a fan, I am therefore too limited in my thinking to comprehend the future and my well-intentioned but ultimately misguided opinions are not just wrong, they actually have less validity and importance.
Here and in the media over the past few days we have been introduced to a new concept, ‘the globalisation of sport’. Again it is explained as a force of nature as the world economy evolves, part of the natural order of things. This masks the fact that globalisation is a purely human construct, created to further the interests of already wealthy nations and corporations at the expense of poorer countries rich in resources and ripe for exploitation. Globalisation has many enemies from all sides, and far from being the future it can be halted or at the very least its course altered.
Note also the veiled threats, in this case of a breakaway of the ‘top four or five clubs’. No evidence is offered in support of this assertion. This fits with the ‘could be worse’ argument, that they are acting in the interests of the fans because they have provided an extra game (and travel opportunities!!) instead of removing a fixture from the existing calendar. We dinosaurs are too limited to perceive this as a softening up tactic, of course. And once more here is the premise of inevitability. To repeat, it isn’t, it can be stopped, but to do so we must see through this cloak of invisibility created by the mythmaking spin-doctors of the Premier League.
Perhaps the best example of how the Premier League uses language to alter their relationship with the fans is the use of the simple, seemingly innocent term ‘customer’. There are several words that can be used to describe people who watch football – fans, supporters, diehards, devotees – yet ‘customer’ came up many times over the weekend during interviews with Premier League representatives and chairmen. I would contend that this is because ‘customer’ is a convenient way for the League to marginalise fans.
It is devoid of any emotion or passion. I don’t go to Sainsbury’s expecting to react with despair or joy, I go to get a job done. It implies a relationship between a service provider and a recipient, someone who is on the receiving end and gets what they are given. Customers are somewhat subservient.
That’s not the full story of a typical customer/service provider relationship, however, because most customers have some element of choice. Sainsbury’s happens to be the closest supermarket to both my home and my work, so I usually go there. But if their standards slip or prices rise, I can easily drive a short distance to rivals Tescos or Adsa. Supply and demand dictates that Sainsbury’s must therefore stay on their toes or risk losing my custom and that of many other like-minded individuals.
To use such an analogy in football is meaningless, as is the term ‘customer’. I am a Spurs supporter. If my team let standards slip on or off the field, or ticket prices rise, I may complain but I’m not going to watch Arsenal from now on, or indeed stop off en route to Tottenham from Kent on the many clubs that are closer to my home. I’m not a customer, I’m a fan, and this is a lifetime commitment. If only the chairman of Sainsbury’s could encourage similar devotion in its customers.
So if I wish to watch my team, I have no choice but to pay. I might protest at the price rises that are way above inflation, but the chairman would shrug and point to the season ticket waiting list of 20,000. So I pay. Spurs reached a Wembley final and as a season ticket holder I’m fortunate to be guaranteed a ticket. But to get them, I have to pay various fees to the club, over and above the ticket price, that add up to about £10. I must pay £4.95 in special delivery postage. No alternatives are offered; I can’t make my own mind up to chance the normal post, I can’t go to the ticket office to pick them up. I must pay, even though one reason behind this is the security in place after the club allowed a ticket fraud to operate from the ticket office last year. That actually wasn’t my responsibility but I end up paying for it.
Sainsbury’s could also charge £5 extra, for delivery if I order online. Unlike Spurs, they are offering me an extra service for this price and I can therefore make my choice.
Finally, any extra revenue generated by the 39th game will go back to the clubs, but there is no guarantee that ‘customer’ will benefit. Shareholders will do well, as will agents as transfer fees increase – supply and demand again, good players in short supply, greater demand, more cash, so up go prices. That’s how supply and demand works, and we ‘customers’ have no protection whatsoever.
This is not about the relationship between customer and club as regulated by supply and demand. Rather, clubs hold a monopoly position vis a vis their fans, and as with all monopolies it is ruthlessly exploited. I thought legislation existed to protect against monopolies, but that does not apply to the Premier League, in keeping apparently with so much else. That’s how the powerful operate – aloof and untouchable.
So reject the blandishments of this devious and mendacious League. Hold on to your passion. It’s the one thing they can never take away, no matter how hard they try. Use that energy to protest, to argue. Let them know you can’t fool all of the people all of the time. And remember, they are afraid.