Terraces: Football meets Capitalism
By Kneel Ikaaks
Last month the Football Supporters’ Federation launched a new campaign for standing room at English football grounds, but for those happy with all-seater stadiums there’s little reason to worry that change is imminent. The latest movement for standing still at football grounds is as stubborn as it sounds. In common with most supporter-led debate on terraces, the FSF’s public campaign refuses to see that above all else profit is the driving force behind change in English football.
The current makeup of Premier League and Championship grounds was built around the 1989 Taylor report. Thatcher’s government commissioned a report “To inquire into the events at Sheffield Wednesday Football Ground on 15 April 1989 and to make recommendations about the needs of crowd control and safety at sports events.” It’s well-established that report led to legislation imposing all-seater stadiums on football played in the top two tiers of English football – legislation that has correlated with a vastly improved safety record in those divisions.
But the Taylor report wasn’t a swift reaction to unsafe football grounds. As far back as 1946 and the Burnden Park disaster, in which 33 Bolton fans were killed, the safety of English football stadiums had been questioned. A number of early reports were published on the issue of safety at football grounds, yet no report carried such a comprehensive government mandate or such strong support amongst clubs as Lord Taylor’s.
Profit focused the authorities’ attention. Less than three years before the foundation of the Premier League, club support for the Taylor report didn’t demonstrate a new-found sense of responsibility, it demonstrated a change in business plan. The short-term logic of terraces – cramming as many young men into grounds as possible, at as little cost as possible – had begun to be replaced by the longer-term logic of a new brand – a sanitised brand, designed for families, older people and the increasingly affluent middle-classes.
The strictly pro-market governments that commissioned the Taylor report and implemented its findings are the biggest clue as to its motivation. Thatcher and Major’s time in office was about facilitating the pursuit of profit. Safety, therefore, became a concern once it appeared as a potential glitch on the path to profit.
The Taylor report was an opportunity to arrest English football’s decline. By 1989, attendances in the football league had been falling since the late 40s (http://bit.ly/h2mxE0), grounds had fallen into disrepair, and Italy’s Serie A provided a superior on-pitch product. English football wasn’t a competitive product. Lord Taylor’s report dealt with issues of safety, but it also dealt with the negative perceptions of football that had left it uncompetitive. All-seater stadiums were places that more people felt that they could visit. As such, Taylor’s report made English football a more valuable, profitable product.
Without The Taylor report, the Premier League business model might never have been possible. The report legitimised the move to all-seater stadia as part of a wider sanitisation of English football which otherwise might’ve been met with more resistance. It also helped to finance the new, sanitised brand with tax levied on football pools cut by 2.5% for a ten year period to pay for the grants given to clubs to make stadium changes. All-seater stadiums increased safety, but that was far from the only incentive behind them.
That ‘profit as priority’ attitude is even more central to English football today. The Premier League, as a corporation, is legally obliged to seek to maximise profits. In his book, The Corporation, the lawyer Joel Bakan explains that corporate managers “must always put their corporation’s best interests first and not act out of concern for anyone or anything else (unless the expression of such concern can somehow be justified as advancing the corporation’s own interests)”. Seeking profit has been legalised.
Within that context the campaign brought forward by the Football Supporters’ Federation looks above all naive. The FSF is prepared for a debate within the ‘safety versus entertainment’ framework, arguing that standing ‘can be safe’ whilst enhancing the match-day experience for the many who never wanted that option to disappear. But nothing in its bullet-pointed list goes about persuading football authorities in the financial terms that they understand – nothing in it has made public, at least. In particular, noting that standing room encourages social inclusion because “ticket prices are typically lower than in seated areas”, suggests that the FSF has little idea of what the Premier League brand is, or how it operates.
If safe standing areas do begin to appear in English football, it’ll be because they make financial sense. Signing a petition, as the FSF proposes, might sway a government or a parliament – particularly an unpopular one, looking for populist decisions – but it won’t persuade a Premier League football club. If fans can prove that more profit can be gleaned from adding some standing room then the persuasion is conceivable – with some Premier League attendances recently falling, such as those at Wigan’s DW stadium, it’s all the more so. Alternatively, if fans can prove that they aren’t prepared to finance the current model then things might also change. Until then, clubs will continue with the line set out most recently by a Manchester City spokesman: “This comes up every year. We have no plans to do it.”
It’s not about what you want, it’s about what you can afford.