Thursday, June 1, 2023

Enough Is Enough

Last Saturday afternoon, Liverpool supporters’ group Spirit of Shankly orchestrated a mass walkout of Anfield during a league match against Sunderland. The walkout took place in the 77th minute, inextricably linking it with Liverpool’s new pricing structure. The thud of seats was audible as somewhere between 10-15,000 people (depending on whose estimate you believe) left their seats with 13 minutes left. “You greedy bastards, enough is enough” they tunefully spat towards the directors’ box.

On Tuesday evening, Borussia Dortmund supporters arrived twenty minutes late for a DfB Pokal match against Stuttgart. They rained tennis balls onto the pitch during the first half to express their disgust at the €70 ticket price. This coming Sunday, some Leicester and Arsenal fans (myself included) will watch the first 5 minutes of the top of the table clash from the concourse in protest at Sky’s relentlessly inconvenient (and costly) late fidgeting with fixture schedules.

There has long been a groundswell of opinion against rising ticket prices. There are a multitude of cultural reasons why the English are slow to take action against authority. But in recent weeks, it feels as though the camel’s back has buckled under a bale of hay. Liverpool announced a new pricing structure, Arsenal attempted to surcharge season ticket holders for the Champions League tie with Barcelona, before realising the scale of their PR faux pas and backtracking (passive aggressively).

Arsenal were one of eight clubs to voice opposition to a £30 cap on away tickets, despite the fact that their own fans pay in excess of this sum at every single Premier League ground. An Arsenal fan that travels to all 19 Premier League away matches could expect to save a minimum of £250 were this measure to be introduced. Stronger together?  Not so much. Powered by fans? If by “powered” you mean “financed”, well, kinda.

Ever since the foundation of the Premier League, the game has evolved from sport with a side order of business, to full blown money trough; with the sporting element a mere napkin to dab one’s mouth on. The corporate revolution of the game has not been entirely terrible. In truth, much of the change it has spawned has improved the sport (product). Clearly, it has placed a strain on supporter relations, as revenue hungry clubs have sought to attract (monetise) as many new supporters (content users) as possible, creating a kind of arms race for our wallets to fight.

In understanding the action taken by Liverpool fans, Leicester fans and the dismay of Arsenal fans, it’s important to understand the context. Football supporters have been very, very understanding about the residual effects of the changes that have taken place in football. Many recognise the correlation between competing and pricing, as we pressure our clubs to act in the transfer market. Arsenal fans raised barely a pip in protest as season ticket prices rose by over 100% between 2001-2005. Largely, fans understood that new stadiums do not pay for themselves.

Since 1992, match rescheduling by Sky (and now BT) has become a regular nuisance. The vast majority of people that I attend matches with infinitely prefer a Saturday 3pm kickoff time. It’s the most logical and convenient time for the largest amount of people. But most have conceded their personal preferences with little complaint. Fans have been understanding as more matches have been reconfigured over time at shorter and shorter notice. Fans have understood that the television tail wags the dog.

In short, football fans have made a lot of concessions to rising prices and increasing interference from television. Those that have dared complain have often been shouted down, told to shut up or simply abstain from attending. We’re told it’s our fault for being so hopelessly addicted, whilst those that aim to exploit and monetise our loyalty are excused their avarice. “It’s just the way of the world” we’re told. “Market forces, innit?” people shrug.

It’s troubling how desensitised people have become to this sort of blithe economisation, a subject covered quite brilliantly by F365’s John Nicholson. The new television deal has lit the blue touch paper for supporter discontent, with previous excuses for rising prices having now expired. “We’re being a bit greedy” is the only explanation left.

Fans have a unique relationship (brand loyalty) to their clubs. Not only because their addiction is so readily abused, but because they’re decried so loudly by other fans (customers) for daring to contest it. Our fandom makes us fair game for exploitation, but we don’t get the positive trappings of being a customer either. It’s lose lose. Whenever the subject of the cost of football is raised, I am consistently amazed by the relish with which many take opposition. Surely if one doesn’t believe in the opposition to the rising cost of football, one can simply ignore it and get on with one’s life?

I regularly walk past Downing Street of an evening and there is always, always a protest of sorts in full swing in the shadow of the PM’s headquarters. (Over concerns far more grave than football tickets, admittedly). I have never joined one myself, but I also find it pretty simple to give the guy with the megaphone a wide berth and continue with my day. I don’t feel obliged to browbeat him over the probable futility of his efforts, even if I suspect that failure will be the likely outcome.

The real failure is not to try. If there has been an increasing willingness to take affirmative action over the cost and convenience of football in recent weeks, there has been an equal and opposite coalition of cynicism. “Just don’t go” people argue, not unreasonably. Yet I think they misunderstand the value and effectiveness of Liverpool’s walkout last weekend. Choosing not to pay is a perfectly viable avenue if one’s patience or bank balance can no longer participate in this arms race.

But it doesn’t really generate an incentive for clubs to address pricing, because the value of abstinence is lost in the individual sense. As cynics rightly point out, there’s always another person happy to snap up your seat. Abandoning one’s seat during a match creates a powerful spectacle. The whole point is to create a visual comparison for the club’s kingmakers. Here is the stadium full and vibrant in support of the team and now here it is a half empty shell of folded plastic seats. Which one do you prefer? Which one do the team prefer? Which one looks better on the tellybox?

Liverpool fans will not have been happy to hear Sunderland vanquish their team’s 2 goal lead in that final 13 minutes on Saturday. But it perfectly illustrated their point, even if only poetically. By staying away for the first 5 minutes of the game on Sunday, Leicester and Arsenal fans want to create a similarly compelling optical comparison for Sky. This is where the powerbase of the supporter now lies. We are the colourful backdrop for the Premier League’s television product.

Given that we form part of the spectacle, it is up to us to make it in Sky and BT’s interests to treat us with due respect. It’s an example of why we are seeing this kind of collusive action, powered by the likes of the FSF and The Spirit of Shankly. It’s boxing clever. Clubs and television companies have exploited the undying loyalty of their fan bases for a long time now, walkouts are an effective way for fans to take some power back, using the best tools available to them.

Leaving aside, you know, all of that money supporters’ pay in exchange for zero consideration from clubs and TV companies. We’re as invested fiscally as we are emotionally. Ultimately, boycotts are the most powerful way of transmitting the message of discontent, and the avenue most likely to force compromise from clubs. Though one should not discount the effect of PR.

Clubs are corporations now and corporations are ultra-sensitive when it comes to how they are perceived. McDonalds altered their menu in response to Morgan Spurlock’s landmark documentary ‘Supersize Me.’ Glimpse the lurid response of Visa, Adidas and Coca-Cola as the FIFA scandal “emerged.”

Arsenal waived around £700,000 on the Barcelona surcharge, purely on the back of a “twitter storm.” Liverpool have announced a revision of their pricing structure on the back of the walkout. Small wins and in some cases, illusory wins, but there’s plenty of encouragement to continue with the fight. Boycotts are undoubtedly the most effective tool in our collective arsenal, but it takes time to build momentum, publicity and support for such a move.

Had Spirit of Shankly simply called for a blanket boycott straight away, few would have partaken. Their action on Saturday takes us a step closer to that high water mark. Any campaign needs to be gradual. You don’t play your strongest hand first and the onus now is for fans everywhere to harness existing energy and ensure that this is the first blow, rather than the last. Slowly, we’re starting to push the bolder up the hill and not before time. Enough is enough.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto

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