If you’ve recently watched a professional football match anywhere in England, the chances are you’ll hear the away fans mocking the passive support of the locals at some point during the game. It’s a standard refrain, the irony being that those same away fans will be the recipients of the same chants when they’re in their own stadium the following week. These days, home crowds are almost exclusively rubbish. They turn up, sit down, and watch.
Why has the atmosphere deteriorated? The most obvious answer is always rooted in the decline of England’s terrace culture. Removing terracing and replacing it with modern facilities was like taking a bulldozer to the soul of the sport. The sanitized alternative delivers bigger revenues, but at massively inflated costs for the fans. Pretty good deal, eh?
No wonder fans are often so dispirited and inclined to turn on their own team. Away fans have at least gone through the process of travelling that bit further, often together, so feel compelled to make their presence known. But, you can bet their sense of duty to support will desert them the moment they enter their own stadium.
What can be done to rectify this scenario? Current legislation prevents standing in the top two tiers of English professional football. In response, English football has established what feels like an annual push for the introduction of safe standing, led by the Football Supporters Federation. It feels like many fans are in favour of standing, but their motives vary.
Bundesliga is Best
Some cast envious eyes to the Bundesliga, where the German authorities have managed to balance the twin demands of modern facilities with raucous atmosphere. And you can booze during the game! Paradise. But, the evidence put forward in favour of the German model is often highly selective – no one ever cites examples of crowds getting out of control.
There’s a line between a good atmosphere, and things turning a bit scary – being blinded by thick smoke as you’re trying to find your way out of the stadium is probably on the wrong side.
As for the boozing, the freedom to drink all game long doesn’t mean everyone in Germany has an enlightened approach to alcohol consumption. I’m basing this on the state of a couple of fans I saw having an argument on the way out of a Cologne match last year. But, to be fair to them, their team doesn’t encourage drinking in moderation. In any case, I’m just splitting hairs; it’s true that going to a Bundesliga match is, by and large, a much more relaxed and enjoyable experience than in England. In Germany they celebrate the role of the fans, rather than see it as a burden that must somehow be accommodated.
Money, money, money, money… Moneeeeey!
But, the critical factor in Germany’s booming fan culture isn’t the atmosphere, or the ubiquitous presence of beer, it is simple economics. The argument in favour of safe standing in England should always be rooted in making ticket prices more affordable. Everyone knows it is comparatively much cheaper to watch Bundesliga than Premier League football. We marvel at their pricing structures, yet do nothing about overhauling our own. Sadly, that’s because there is simply no incentive to lower prices in England.
The clubs have way too much to lose. Arsenal make 40% of their revenue from match days, and were fifth on the last Deloitte football rich list. Borussia Dortmund, with their 80,000 a week gates, make only 17% of their revenue from match days, and were down in 16th on the Deloitte list. Even if you factor in Champions League revenues, they will still be way off the North London club’s figures. Arsenal has a 60,000 capacity stadium that is almost always full. If you were running Arsenal, would you think it a wise investment to spend money replacing seats with terraces so you could lower prices?
I’m focusing on Arsenal again, and I know their fans can get a bit sensitive about their ticket prices. But, this doesn’t just apply to Arsenal, it applies everywhere. The Championship is hardly a bargain, and Leagues One and Two barely seem to differ in price. But we’re still going. We’re supposed to be in the worst recession for generations, yet we’re still coughing up for football.
The reality is that many of us hand over our money grudgingly. I don’t know about you, but I know I’m being conned, I just accept it because I’d rather that than turn my back entirely. Football is not like other markets, most fans don’t shop around for a better offer. The clubs can afford to be complacent because they know we’re not going anywhere. There is no pressure to change anything in the fans’ interests. We can mock each other’s complacent home support, but we all have to take responsibility for that.
So, if you’re not happy with the status quo, your options are: don’t go to football; or, go to football and moan about it being expensive and not as much fun anymore. It’s not an overwhelming array of choice.
There is, however, a third way (there’s always a third way). If you want to show your support for Safe Standing you can sign The Football Supporters Federation’s petition here, and read more about the campaign here. Very little effort for a campaign that could, if successful, shift football back towards the fans for the first time since the advent of the Premier League. Standing would mean lower prices, which could reconnect clubs with their fans, and might just deliver the long-lost atmosphere that everyone craves. Get involved.