In recent years football has gone through a process of commercialisation that has increased the game’s level of extravagance. From Roman Abramovich to Sheikh Mansour and from Neymar’s £3,200 an hour wages to Crystal Palace’s cheerleaders, football has certainly changed.
It is now commonplace to read and hear about the unstoppable trajectory of football from a passionate and community driven sport to a commercially run, comfortably seated and overpriced experience. This was made clear for all to see during Tottenham’s spectacular 5-4 victory against Leicester at Wembley during which fans were seen returning to their seats with boxes of popcorn having missed three goals go in after half time.
People are wondering why the atmosphere has suffered so much in the new or refurbished stadiums like the Emirates or the Etihad, but it seems the answer has to do with the increased comfort, the padded seats and the cinema food. There was a recent uproar at Anfield against the trial of a ‘seat serve app’ for food and drink, pioneered by the American owners of the Boston Red Sox baseball team—the same group which also owns Liverpool.
Anfield is one of the few Premier League stadiums that has retained its historic atmosphere but even this is under threat from the encroachment of commercial interests. Nevertheless, money has not taken over just yet as each season there are at least a couple of success stories that break the trend.
David-sized spending producing Goliath-sized achievement
Just at the moment when the Premier League looked destined to be dominated by the big spenders forevermore, Leicester arrived. They showed that a combination of smart recruitment and counter-attacking football could unseat the giants of the league as they won their first ever Premier League title in the 2015–16 season.
In the same year we saw the promotion of Burnley from the Championship and in only their second season they have achieved a Europa League spot alongside Arsenal and Chelsea. Sean Dyche’s achievement can be put into context when Burnley’s £25.2 million net spend over the past five years is compared with Everton’s £126 million, the latter finishing 5 points behind Dyche’s men.
David Wagner’s Huddersfield have also achieved a small miracle in surviving their first season in the Premier League without being relegated. Their stadium was jumping from start to finish, an atmosphere that powered them past Manchester United but they also gained an improbable point away from home at the Etihad followed in the same week by another at Stamford Bridge, a game they were unlucky not to win.
Small investments yield giant returns
Liverpool have reached the Champions League final whilst also securing another season in the competition with a net spend of just £52.2 million over five years, behind the likes of Stoke City, Bournemouth and Brighton. Meanwhile, Manchester City’s respective £563.1 million couldn’t save them against the red storm that descended on Anfield during the Champions League quarter finals.
Tottenham’s achievements deserve even more plaudits as their net spend over the past five years sits at a lowly £2 million, a fantastic statistic seeing as they finished third in the table and performed admirably in Europe.
Whilst it’s easy to bemoan the influence that big money is having on football, it must also be remembered that money isn’t everything. Leicester proved it in 2016 and hopefully Liverpool will show us again on the 26th of May against the economic powerhouse that is Real Madrid.
“Where’s your famous atmosphere?”
The arrival of Jurgen Klopp has led to the return of European football to Anfield and the awakening of the fiery atmosphere that had been missing somewhat since the Benitez era. Ticket prices play a major role in the level of atmosphere in a stadium and in 2016 Liverpool fans staged a walkout in protest against their owners who tried to increase the price of a matchday ticket by almost £20. A full apology was issued by FSG and ticket prices were frozen for the next two seasons, marking a major victory for the fans in the face of corporate greed.
More recently, fans have been calling for the introduction of safe standing but a proposition by West Bromwich Albion was rejected in April despite its success at Celtic park and other big stadiums throughout Europe. In Liverpool, the topic is controversial due to past tragedies but the majority seem to support the idea of rail seating to improve the atmosphere and safety for fans.
At Old Trafford there has been an initiative to make tickets more affordable for young adults in an attempt to improve the atmosphere and this has resulted in £15 tickets for those aged from 18-25. The major problem being faced by Premier League clubs is that the affluent spectator is being prioritised over those who actively participate in producing an atmosphere and supporting their team. Whilst there is of course a place for both the spectator and the supporter, it seems farcical to prioritise the former over the latter.
The battles being won against rising ticket prices alongside other initiatives to bring back the passion of old are forcing clubs to make compromises between their commercial interests and the history and devotion of clubs and their fans. Football is not being absorbed into the abyss after all, and as long as fans continue to stand up and be counted then compromises can be found to allow a more sustainable growth of the beautiful game.