The hallmark of modernisation is that both its faces have to be checked. When I step in a football stadium, when you step into a football stadium isn’t this what you see? Rows and rows of bucket seats, polish and sparkle. Clean, pristine and sheen.
The new world of football built by design to replace the old, by rejecting it explicitly. Where there was crumble, there is now state of the art; mud heaps gave way to hybrid system pitches, sheds and portakabins gave way to actual inside toilets. And with it came the management of crowds in line with that transition.
But here’s the thing, how much do we like the other side of modernisation’s face? Ticket prices so far beyond the rate of inflation that Liverpool and Manchester United supporters would march together in solidarity against them? Who chose for “matchday experiences” instead of “atmosphere”? And now, equally as significant, who chose for physiological posture to determine whether or not you were allowed to stay in a football ground?
After all the debates, the investigations and the surveys, we ought to come to the point. Whether you view football fans as customers or whether you view them as a real participants in an occasion called a match, the current way of watching live football is not fit for purpose.
You see it’s like this. If you are a customer, you must be treated like a customer. Your whims must be catered for because the aim is to keep your custom. If you don’t like something you can complain. And you must be heard because “the customer is always right”. You must have choice to keep your custom enthused- to keep you engaged with the product. And finally, as we are always told, you must be engaged with the “brand”- in order for it to flourish and for more people to spend on the product as you do.
In what way does modern football cater for these basic features of consumer capitalism? You can stand, sit or crouch on a tube that can go as fast 50mph. Often without easy access to the apparatus to keep you upright. Often underground, with dozens of people around you in cramped conditions.
Not too dissimilar to a music concert, where you’d also be expected to stand in most instances. Especially in moments of genuine emotional intensity. In fact, the only forms of mainstream entertainment events, in which you’d expect to sit, would be at the theatre (unless you were at Shakespeare’s Globe), the opera or the ballet.
And yet in a football ground (which the last time I checked was a stationary object) all choice is removed from the customer. Body posture is policed by club sanction. How can this be reconciled with customer choice: a central tenet of effective consumer capitalism?
This in essence becomes the question: what do the Premier league clubs see as the exemplar for the participation of the crowd? The live music concert or the opera? Are we the “crowd” or are we the “audience”? The sense from the current Premier League stadium arrangements is both. But it cannot be both.
Different entertainment events have their own distinct modes of relationship with their watching public. The star of the theatre or operatic performance art is the participant on the stage. However, the star of the football match is everyone on the stage and everyone who creates the atmosphere that sets the tone for their performance. The clue is in the grammatical terms: a football “crowd” not a football “audience”.
Which must bring us to present events and the other side of the conundrum: the opinion of those of us who think football is not just another industry.
There are three sets of supporters now in football grounds. Those who want to stand, those who want to sit and those who don’t care either way. In such a situation, you don’t need to have the wisdom of Solomon to figure out how to accommodate these three basic positions. The answer, for those still mulling it over: a seating, a standing and a mixed section within a football ground.
This should have been obvious to the Premier League. But just in case they weren’t sure, the Football Supporters’ Federation looked into it and backed standing arrangements. Individual supporters groups looked into it and backed standing arrangements. The German Bundesliga looked into it and backed standing arrangements because they already had them.
Oh and just the entire Football League in this country have looked into it and backed standing arrangements. It is “illogical and outdated to continue with “one size fits all” approach that has been in operation for the past 30 years”. That’s not me speaking, that’s the Chief Executive of the Football league. You know, the English football league that contains the overwhelming majority of professional clubs- including former (and soon to be) Premier league ones.
As you can see, I can’t make this a detached opinion piece. I have a point of view here and so, perhaps, should you dear reader. There are no more places for the debate about standing to go, except back around again. The case has been made in principle and in fact.
It is up to the Premier League not just to recognise demand but to recognise sense. The argument is made plainly on either side of the ideological debate about the state football is in.
If football has been captured by the market, then it must respect the will of the market. Customers must be able to choose the way in which they experience the game. If football believes it is still exceptional in its identity and its characteristics, then it must also respect the will of the people that made it so: the supporters.
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