Interesting things are happening in Scotland as fans struggle to reclaim football and revive their teams. But in England, despite the groundswell of fan disillusionment, it may already be too late to save the Premier League from itself…
It’s useful to be reminded occasionally that, however deeply you think you’ve considered something, your perspective is always incomplete. I found this out when I attended the Supporters Direct Scotland conference in Glasgow this summer and got a chance to hear what fan activists were talking about.
(Image: George Adam MSP)
I went because I had been invited to give a half-hour speech about what lessons football could learn from the NFL. Having written a book about this, it’s obviously something I’ve considered at some length. What I hadn’t thought nearly as much about, though, was the relationship between Scottish and English football. Specifically, what challenges are they facing and are they at the mercy of the same forces?
In my insular English way, I think I’d made the assumption that Scottish football was something like the ghost of Christmas future – what happens when a small number of clubs squeeze the life out of the rest of the league. And, as such, I’d assumed that the mood of football reformers would be similar: a need to share revenue more fairly and try to loosen the stranglehold of the (temporarily suspended) Glasgow duopoly.
However, listening to the delegates made me rethink both where Scottish football and the English Premier League are and what their futures might be. The leagues, I now think, are actually on different paths with very different futures.
The road out of poverty – Scotland
(Image: Xabier Cid (CC BY-SA 2.0))
The three most important take outs for me were these:
- Scottish football is in such a bad state financially that it’s not directly comparable with the game south of the boarder.
- While this is a troubling time to be a Scottish fan, the straitened circumstances of the game might actually create opportunities for reform not possible in England.
- Bad as things are in England, they may not yet be nearly bad enough to create the conditions for a footballing revolution.
Like the English Premier League, Scottish football suffers from a terrible lack of competitive balance and an inequality of income. The revenues to Scottish football are so low, however, that even pauperising its richest club – Celtic – would do little for the financial health of the rest of the league. Inequality, then, though a problem for competitive balance, is a less pressing concern than a simple shortage of revenue.
The difficulties attracting sponsorship and a decent TV deal, as well as the problem of filling stadia, mean that there’s a real question about how forty-plus clubs can be run profitably on a full-time professional basis. There are few deep-pocked foreign owners attracted by the prestige of owning a club or the potential riches a new TV deal might bring. Scottish football’s problems, then, are problems of poverty not inequality. (Problems doubtless exacerbated by the English Premier League hoovering up a considerable amount of Scottish sports fans’ attention and money.)
The only thing in all this that struck me as positive was that the situation is so severe that it’s opened the doors for radical thinking. Combine this with a less powerful set of vested interests than in the English Premier League and suddenly supporter ownership is properly on the table at a number of clubs and Scottish politicians are willing to discuss how the law might be changed to encourage it. (Supporters groups in England often cite this as a primary reform, the one change that would safeguard the game from its own avarice. Unfortunately for English fans, by any measure most of the top 40 clubs are not only unaffordable but are already owned by a cadre of rich people that any government would think twice about upsetting.)
In Scotland, though, attaining supporter ownership of a club may prove less difficult than the challenge of running it profitably so it can remain a community asset in perpetuity.
Back at the SDS conference, there was also much talk about TV. Not just how to get a decent financial commitment from broadcasters, but how to tackle its perceived negative influence on attendance. If the broadcasters won’t pay, fuller stadia are absolutely critical to clubs’ survival.
A range of push and pull factors were discussed that might drive attendances, with suggestions including: improving the match day experience, switching to summer football for better weather, pushing for the introduction of rail-seating, and even blacking out some games from TV completely. Beyond that, there was also talk that the league should consider bypassing broadcasters and look at streaming games over the net.
All of these interesting ideas speak not just of frustration, but of a pragmatism that comes from knowing there really isn’t anyone better off who you can lean on to solve the problem.
The common refrain in England is ‘share the wealth’. It’s not wrong – of course the Premier League is robbing the rest of the game – but because it’s both obvious and yet unobtainable, it creates a kind of paralysis. It’s like standing, face pressed against the glass, staring for hours at something beautiful in a shop window. After a while you need to go and find something you can afford or be willing to put a brick through the window and take it. Richard Scudamore understands this, teasingly promising larger crumbs from the Premier League table as a way of taking the edge off fans’ hunger for change.
In other words, what I felt in Scotland was an unmistakable anger about the problems faced, but also a determination to tackle the situation as it is, rather than as we might want it to be. This, I think, is not yet the case in England.
Joining the global yacht-set – English football
(Image: Frans Berkelaar (CC BY-ND 2.0))
When people get seriously rich, they first buy a sportscar, then a private plane, then a yacht. In that order.
And, by the time they’ve bought that yacht, something has happened to them. They are no longer a citizen of a country, they are one of the group of global super-wealthy who have no single base, no deep roots and a circle of friends defined not by background and culture but by their bank balances. A dotcom billionaire and a Russian oligarch have more in common with each other than they do any member of their own country’s middle class.
These are the people who own Premier League clubs and this is where English football is as a sport. It’s ready to spread its wings.
In a piece a while back, I wrote about the double-think of many English fans who call for Premier League reform but are unwilling to sacrifice anything for it.
You can’t, I suggested, profess to want a better, fairer league, but reject any measures aimed at producing this on the grounds it might reduce the money, the prestige, the European titles or the quality of players that the league currently boasts. The reason is that these things are the outgrowths of inequality, the very things we must be prepared to surrender in exchange for reviving grassroots, non-league and lower league football.
What I think I hadn’t properly appreciated when I wrote this was just how strange the English Premier League’s situation is. I’m starting to wonder if those who talk about the absolute impossibility of change within English football or through Uefa may be correct.
We know serious change won’t come from or through existing institutions and that things aren’t yet bad enough for full-scale fan intervention; a genuine fan revolution. Worse, I worry that, by the time things are bad enough, it may already be too late.
Because the future of the Premier League isn’t more of the same – more top foreign players, more global fans, more TV money repeated ad infinitum until either Roman Abramovich or Sheikh Mansour get bored.
No, the future of the Premier League is it becoming officially what it is rapidly developing into unofficially: the World Premier League. For now it just happens to be based in England, with largely English fans attending, but the foreign owners, foreign viewers and foreign money will continue to loosen these bonds. Already the hardcore of loyal supporters who were the bedrock of the game thirty years ago have been quietly squeezed out by a larger, more affluent, less strongly affiliated group of football fans in England and abroad who seem willing to pay their TV subs, whatever the level, and help drive the inflationary cycle.
I imagine that first, to forestall their shrivelling importance, we’ll see the European Super League idea revived by clubs like Real, Barca, Bayern, PSG and others. Except, this time, it won’t be a new league created by pan-European initiative; it’ll be European giants petitioning to be admitted to the EPL – a last ditch attempt by non-English clubs to avoid the fate of Rangers and Celtic: big clubs trapped in leagues too small for them and their ambitions.
Fifa or Uefa would never allow it, you might think. But are you sure? They are weaker than they have been for decades and the cravenness of football’s authorities in the face of money is well attested to.
Already the Premier League has thoroughly neutered the FA and Football League, giving it de facto control over all significant decision-making in English football. (Witness the failure of the FA to secure more playing time for young English players or greater financial support for the grassroots – or the willingness of the Football League to accommodate the idea of B teams – and it’s clear the Premier League has swallowed English football wholesale.)
(Image: Wikipedia (CC BY 2.5))
There’s really no good reason to believe that the Premier League will settle for being the richest domestic league in the world if there’s an opportunity to produce even greater revenues by absorbing non-English teams.
Which is why, in another twenty years, I think it’s more likely that we’ll see Bayern Munich versus Chelsea in the Premier League than, say, Manchester City as a community owned club fielding a team of local boys. Richard Scudamore’s biggest mistake with his 39th game idea was simply that he floated it way too soon.
The future of Scottish football, meanwhile, is likely to be humble, home-grown and community-owned. For Scottish fans there is no other choice – the Premier League has already scooped the pot; its advantage over other league all but unassailable, its long shadow stunting the growth of those leagues around it.
Would English fans want a less money-orientated league, though, even if it were on offer? For now, I doubt it. The Premier League spell hasn’t been broken yet. Certainly more will continue to turn away from the game or re-find their love of it in the lower leagues. And we’ll see more inspiring fan-driven rescues of smaller clubs and improved youth coaching.
But will it change English football? No, the Premier League is far too powerful.
And even when the Premier League has pulled the ladder up completely, sundering its links to the rest of the English pyramid, we still won’t be free of it. Because with it will go a century of history.
Even as we busy ourselves reorganising football along more Corinthian lines, we’ll know that some of the heart has gone from the game, that we lost something essential when we allowed one group of clubs to be elevated forever above the rest.
A relegation is coming for English football and this time it will be permanent.
If you enjoyed this, please buy my book “The Ugly Game: How Football Lost Its Magic And What It Could Learn From The NFL”. That way I’ll have the money to write more things you might like. Oh, and please spread the word, too. Thanks a lot.