From Coventry to Cardiff to Manchester City, fans are being exploited. Enough’s enough?

by Tom Furnival-Adams

We live in a society that has come to accept the systematic ideological persecution of the poor and disadvantaged as a necessary consequence of years of irresponsible overspending. Unemployment has become an expectation for young people and the cost of living is completely unaffordable for many.

When historians come to reflect on this era with the benefit of hindsight, they will surely therefore note with fascination the conspicuous lack of civil protest. Regardless of one’s political leaning or stance on austerity, there is no denying that there are a hell of a lot of people living in poverty, with minimal prospects in life, thanks to factors out of their hands.

Logic would dictate that those people might have an axe to grind; that they would not passively accept their imposed political sacrifice.

On the contrary, what we have seen on the whole is widespread acceptance of this bleak imposition. We may speculate on the reasons behind this. Is Thatcherite individualism so ingrained in our national psyche that no one is willing to accept that they are disadvantaged anymore?

Are we brainwashed by a Leveson-era media that is owned by few and serves the interests of politicians before the public? Either way, it is clear that protest and demonstration are not currently as high on the national agenda as they, by all rights, should be.

Football and protest

Meanwhile, football as an industry is more permeated by money and commercialism than ever before. The trajectory of spending and investment in the game is reminiscent of the rapid industrialisation of the planet after centuries of modest agricultural living. The summer transfer window alone saw Premier League clubs spend a record £630m, while 10 of the Premier League’s 20 constituents broke their all-time transfer record.

Tottenham and Cardiff City both broke theirs three times in succession during the course of the summer. Gareth Bale’s £85m transfer to Real Madrid has already been dissected to microscopic levels, but is an unavoidable indication of the madness currently dictating transfer strategy across Europe’s footballing elite.

‘Brand identity’, too, is an increasingly major aspect of running a football club, as evidenced by Hull owner, Assem Allam’s decision to re-name the club ‘Hull City Tigers’ against the will of the majority of its fans (“Hull City is irrelevant”) and Vincent Tan’s ongoing mission to turn Cardiff City into a club embodiment of the Welsh national side – an affront not only to Cardiff’s supporters, but also to every other club in Wales.

Tan’s condemnation of fans opposing the rebranding as “ungrateful, negative and disruptive” brings to mind the sort of dismissive, dictatorial rhetoric that was emanating from the Gadaffi regime in reference to opposition rebels during the 2011 Libyan civil war.

A depressing milestone appeared to have been reached in August when Greg Clarke, the Chairman of the Football League, confessed that Coventry City’s owners, Sisu, possessed the funds to sustain the club for the duration of its temporary ground share in Northampton, regardless of whether any fans turned up.

This was an explicit statement from one of the game’s leading authorities that a club’s entire 40,000+ fan base was essentially redundant – and there was nothing he, or they, could do about it. When civil uprisings and revolutions occur, it is usually because civilians feel that authority is weakened or lacking a mandate to rule.

Coventry City financial crisis Ricoh Arena

Ricoh Arena, Coventry

Greg Clarke’s admission couldn’t have shown more vividly how little authority the Football League has over its members. Regardless of the debate over the culpability of the various parties involved in the Coventry stadium dispute, there is no doubt that fans have been left high and dry, wondering who on earth is supposed to be protecting their community’s interests.

In a further blow to supporters, Manchester City’s appointment of Claudio Borges as Head of Fan Relationship Management in July was symbolic, not of a desire to engage with fans, but – as he inadvertently confessed via his job description on his LinkedIn profile – to ‘monetise’ them. Commercial exploitation in football has, of course, existed for a long time. Now, though, there appears to be little shame in it as a full time vocation.

This attitudinal turnaround is evidenced by the growth of organisations such as Supporters Direct and Stand Against Modern Football, and a more general increase in football-related protest. When the Liverpool supporters group, Spirit of Shankly organised a march to the Premier League headquarters in June to highlight the issue of ticket prices, the images of rival fans marching side-by-side were striking. By extending their internal camaraderie to fans of other clubs, participants aptly demonstrated the gravity of the situation within the game.

Fans as ‘consumers’ – enough is enough?

Investors are increasingly inclined to disregard the supporters of their clubs, understanding that being a fan is, once bestowed upon you, for life. They realise that they have a chronically captive audience and treat it thus. June’s march showed a reaction to this, whereby fans began to see that they have far more in common with one another than with the hierarchies running their clubs.

As ‘consumers’, we’ll get nowhere by looking only internally and facilitating the sort of ready made ‘divide and rule’ environment that makes football fans ripe for exploitation by the likes of the Premier League and, sadly, their own clubs.

Football should not be politicised, because it is, at its core, a form of escapism – a pursuit that unifies people regardless of difference through a shared love for a particular club, and a particular sport. Unfortunately, though, the vast influx of money over the past 20 years has made politicisation virtually unavoidable if the average supporter is to stick up for his or her interests. As any fan of The Wire will tell you, following the money tends to lead to politics at some stage.

And so fans have been forced to respond accordingly. The free-market nature of football has inevitably marginalised fans, and facilitated their exploitation just as it does in any moneymaking industry. But in most industries, the consumer base acts as a unified whole, choosing not to patronise a business if its product is not up to scratch. As football supporters, we’re stuck swallowing our club’s output, regardless of quality or cost.

Little wonder, then, that supporters are growing tired. A new TV deal for 2013-16 injected £5.5bn into the pockets of Premier League chairmen, but the windfall has largely been spent on inflated transfers fees instead of the subsidisation of ticket prices.

Every club in the Premier League could easily have implemented a freeze on ticket prices this season and still had more cash than last year, but in most cases prices have actually risen. BBC Sport’s recent Price of Football study identified an average 4% rise in the price of the cheapest season ticket at Premier League clubs this season compared to 2012/13.

Yes, clubs have to be business-savvy to compete with one another commercially, but they must also collectively acknowledge why and for whom they exist. Models in Germany and Scandinavia show that there is a viable alternative, which affords fans respect and involvement without compromising competitiveness.

While post-2008 society in general is arguably failing, protest is kept at bay by an illusion of democracy, transparency, and progress. Football differs because it is so clear that fans are little more than cash cows with little or no representation in the administration of our clubs; consumers rather than citizens.

We have zero say in who our clubs’ owners are nor, indeed, the decisions that they make. We are rarely consulted, and any effort to ‘engage’ is usually a façade, or a precursor to establishing the most effective ways of making money out of us.

Crucially, the sense of helplessness is what is driving unrest. Disgraceful situations at the likes of Portsmouth and Coventry have been greeted by universal shrugs within the football community – not only from fellow fans, but also from the senior figures who should be acting as custodians of the game.

To achieve justice and representation in this climate, football fans have no option but to take things into their own hands.

(Photo main image credit: poity_uk via Flickr)

Tom Furnival-Adams is a contributor to Just Football and long-suffering Coventry City fan who has also written for When Saturday Comes and The Two Unfortunates. Follow him on Twitter @Tom_FA

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3 Responses to “From Coventry to Cardiff to Manchester City, fans are being exploited. Enough’s enough?”

  1. michael crocker
    November 20, 2013 at 10:20 am #

    An excellent article that paints a scary but true picture of the state of our nation that is reflected directly in our football. We seem to have lost the will to protest and just lie down and except inflation (and not the 2.7% Govt crap), staggering energy prices, complete destruction of our football heritage (certainly for Cardiff City FC). Huge sums of money washing around available to so few and 30% of our kids in poverty. Shame on us all!!!!

    • Jonathan F
      November 22, 2013 at 1:52 am #

      Interesting comment Michael. Out of interest, did we ever *have* the will to protest in the first place? England has always been more of a servile nation than one that kicks up a fuss, I think..God save the queen and all that….

      Keen to hear your thoughts on that.

  2. Vito Maraula
    January 23, 2014 at 12:48 pm #

    Boom in the Room! Wicked article….

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