If the national sport is a reflection of the nation itself, then the turmoil of the last week in football tells us an awful lot about the state of Britain.
I’m not referring to plucky little Leicester shaking up the established order of things, or even the sight of 62-year old Manuel Pellegrini being forced into early retirement as his employers seek a younger replacement, but the ongoing debate around ticket pricing. This is not a new issue, but one that is prominent this week on both the front and back pages since Liverpool fans staged a well-executed mass walkout in the 77th minute of their game against Sunderland on Saturday.
Their protest at the announcement that tickets next season would cost up to £77 prompted renewed debate of the cost of football and Alan Shearer’s first noteworthy contribution to Match of the Day in nearly 10 years as a pundit. Liverpool’s announcement was only the latest money-driven change in the sport, following in recent months the unveiling of a new multi-billion pound TV deal for Premier League clubs driven by increasing demand both at home and overseas. Despite the cash flooding into the game, ticket prices at numerous clubs continue to rise.
In many ways, the forces shaping this debate are the same as the ones shaping occasionally heated discussions elsewhere in society.
At Trajectory, a recent focus of ours has been the housing crisis, which, as with football, is seeing a new generation of potential homeowners shut out by ever greater price inflation, in part driven by the investment of overseas billionaires. You could also look at economic growth more broadly, which as we continue into recovery is soaring in Premier League standard London, but ranging from Championship to Evo-Stik level elsewhere in the country as local economic prospects deviate further and further from the average.
Within football the widening gap between the richest and the poorest clubs echoes the polarisation of socio-economic classes elsewhere in society, which, as analysis by Mike Savage has shown, can no longer be neatly divided between rich, middle and poor. Instead, clubs range from an elevated coterie at elite level through to a Precariat at the bottom, where they– reflecting the experiences of many in society – lack anything resembling economic security.
In football these market forces will ensure that the medium term future of the premier league is secure, especially as demand for both tickets and TV subscriptions remain healthy – so healthy, in fact, that short of nationwide, multi club coordinated protests, it is difficult to imagine any significant changes in policy.
But in the longer term, other trends suggest the global dominance of the Premier League (the brand) and its marketable products (the matches, the players) are in question.
Despite their recently boosted coffers, the recent transfer window was one of the quietest on record in England, and across Europe, with spending down 26% on the same window a year earlier. In China, however, coordinated state and private investment in building the profile and spending power of the domestic game has come to fruition, with Chinese clubs securing dozens of highly rated players from European leagues (several turning down British clubs in the process). A bigger domestic game in China provides competition for players the Premier League wants to attract and the foreign leagues currently broadcast.
The notion of English football diminishing in scale may seem far-fetched – or at least far off – given the money flooding into the game and its rapid rise in global prominence. But in time priorities may have to shift from their current emphasis on remote viewing to those who fill the stadiums.