COVID-19 is changing many aspects of our everyday lives and will continue to do so in ways that we cannot yet foresee. Football is no different, once it is safe to return, it will take a vastly different, scarcely recognisable form. Football behind closed doors, for instance, is something we’ll all grow accustomed to soon enough, just as we’ll adjust to face covering in public and caps on restaurant and pub capacities.
Even the Premier League literally cannot afford to wait until it is safe for fans to gather in large numbers again. ‘Normal’ isn’t returning any time soon and clubs will go out of business if they sit and wait for the perfect circumstances to arise to play games again. However, the future needn’t be entirely dystopian. Football can change for the better too.
FOOTBALL WITHOUT FANS IS NOTHING
Until now a slogan and a memorable one, but one put to one side by clubs, broadcasters and the assorted decision makers in elite level football. Games behind closed doors will quickly demonstrate the value of an engaged crowd and, to be fair, I don’t think the Premier League ever totally lost sight of this. They didn’t cap the price of away tickets at £30 out of the goodness of their hearts.
They did it because away ticket sales were dropping. True, this wasn’t an issue for Arsenal and the other members of the top six, elsewhere, it was. Fans of the likes of Watford and Bournemouth and the like are, unsurprisingly, not keen to spend upwards of £45 watching their teams take a regulation 3-0 defeat away at Manchester City on a Sunday afternoon when public transport is both expensive and scarce.
Growing inequality between teams and inconvenient kickoff times were driving away numbers down and the Premier League understands well that a boisterous, marketable atmosphere relies on an engaged and filled away end. Away fans make more noise as a general rule anyway and noisy away fans often provoke an otherwise sleepy home crowd into a response.
The cap on away pricing wasn’t a gift from the Premier League, it was an investment. We’re in for, at least, some months of behind closed doors football, which will hopefully illustrate to fans how powerful they are. Once football can safely accept crowds again, clubs will have to cope with dented revenue streams and a dip in demand.
The economy will see to a reduction in demand for football tickets, as people try to repair lost or damaged livelihoods. Many supporters might be reassessing their emotional attachment to the game and those whose pockets haven’t been hurt by COVID might like how their bank accounts look after many months without shelling out for tickets, travel and beer money.
Many just won’t feel comfortable gathering in large crowds. It’s difficult to predict the mass response to something so unprecedented, of course. In the wake of World War 2, crowds at football games hugely increased for close to a decade in the UK as people craved some semblance of normality and entertainment again.
However, the economy of football has changed enormously since the 1940s. Buying football tickets for Premier League games is an exercise in project management, especially as tickets commonly go on sale before the date and time of the game has been set down by the broadcasters. There could potentially be a power shift on the horizon which forces clubs and broadcasters to treat supporters with greater respect on the other side of COVID-19.
WHY SO SERIOUS?
On many occasions during this season, I have written about a creeping disengagement with elite level football. At Arsenal, I have begun to feel a little drained by the atmosphere, especially at away matches. We all like a whinge, a moan and a creatively placed expletive at a football match and complaining is part of the football fan’s nature.
The atmosphere has shifted from the underlying dissatisfaction always present in football crowds into a genuine air of misery and rancour. I don’t have the right to tell people not to feel miserable or rancorous of course, but from my point of view I found it draining at times. An atmosphere of relentless seriousness has enveloped the top level beyond N5 of course.
My personal distaste for VAR doesn’t solely rest on dissatisfaction with the experience itself. Again, how one experiences VAR is subjective and for many, the delays it creates and the alteration of experience is a trade-off worth making in the interests of greater accuracy. And that’s fine. Obviously. I feel differently and that’s ok- people are allowed to feel differently about things.
I can’t expect football to be custom designed to my preferences all the time. My bigger issue with VAR is a philosophical one, if you will. Not only does it firmly relegate the stadium crowd to second class citizenship, but to me it marked the moment that football crossed a line [an arbitrary one of my own determination] into something that had started to take itself too seriously.
I feel as though it marked the point where football decided it wasn’t entertainment any longer, that it was more serious and consequential than that. That it wasn’t fun. And maybe that’s ok too, but I consider it a bit of a turn-off, all the same. I guess my hope, post COVID, is that we take a little bit of the sting out.
There is a distinction, I think, between caring about football and being invested in it [which I hope we would all continue to feel] and feeling that it is too important and too detrimental to our moods, our lives even, to accept the slings and arrows of fortune. I’ve read an awful lot about the history of the North London derby over the years and one of the things that I often see reported, is a cooling in the hostilities between the teams and the sets of fans in the wake of the war.
Apparently, it put the tribal aspects of the rivalry into perspective. Without wishing to compare World War 2 with COVID specifically, the current pause in football and the loss of life and livelihoods might do something similar for us, even if temporarily. Having been deprived of football for however long we are deprived of it for, we might feel a surge of gratitude that lightens the background music of the game a little [I can but hope].
There will be plenty of negative consequences of course, nobody would have chosen this situation. Clubs and jobs will be lost, at the top level I suspect the move towards a European Super League might be expedited, but there are ways in which we can reclaim the game and restore it to a better version of itself. Maybe in the process, we can restore ourselves too.