Why Liverpool fans lead the way in fight to save soccer’s soul
Atmosphere is crucial to the English Premier League’s success and the big clubs are finally getting the message
Hong Kong TV sports subscribers should have, by rights, received plane loads of “thank you” cards from grateful Premier League fans in England.
The new TV deal to screen live matches from next season in Hong Kong, netted £90 million (HK$1 billion) alone for EPL and its clubs. That’s enough to pay for every single away ticket sold all season, three times over.
The Hong Kong cash makes up part of the whopping £8 billion the clubs will share over the next three seasons from similar deals struck to beam the EPL into the four corners of the planet.
With their coffers overflowing, the clubs could afford to give free seats to all travelling fans, scrap the ridiculous three-tier pricing category for league games, and significantly lower home game tickets. The balance sheet would still be in the black.
Supporters must dream on, of course; the rapacious hogs who run the game will fly of their own volition, instead of in Lear jets, before willingly handing over a generous slice of their pie.
Instead, gratitude is showered on those Liverpool supporters who stood up to the immoral greed in football last weekend, forcing their club’s American owners, the Fenway Sports Group, into a climbdown over unjustified price rises.
The walkout at Anfield by over 10,000 Reds’ fans, in protest over £77 for a seat in the new stand, brought to a head the anger that has been simmering among supporters of all colours for years.
Supporters have for too long tolerated having their loyalty exploited, forced as they are to sacrifice other disposable income spends just to afford the simple pleasure of following their team.
They accept they have to pay for the privilege of watching the best players compete in the most exciting league.
But sentiment shifted after the staggering TV money deal was struck.
Why, ask fans, are prices still rising for home and away tickets? The answer is simple: match-going supporters are little more than consumer drones to be forever milked.
The corporate rulers find infinite ways to separate us from our money. Click onto some of the EPL club websites and you think you’ve wrongly navigated to the home page of a credit card company, bank or department store.
You’re greeted by special offers and reward credit cards “at competitive annual interest rates”, a free replica shirt or signed team poster or football if you “spend £200 in the first 90 days”.
Such is the blitz of advertising and marketing pop-ups and links to affiliated retails stores and products, football seems like a mere aside to the shopping spree the club wishes upon you.
The cost of basic match-day refreshments is also criminally inflated, while the USP, the game, is often of an inferior quality that does not match the hefty entrance fee, as Liverpool fans can attest.
Never before have fans felt so alienated, so fleeced and fearful they are being elbowed out.
Liverpool fans made the first stand but more protests are planned by other club supporters to ram the message home.
The EPL clubs are now in a dilemma. The thought of relinquishing control of pricing, or being told how to run their financial affairs by the masses, leaves them cold.
Yet they know that without the supporters their product is derelict.
Which fan in Hong Kong or Beijing, Bangkok or Tokyo, is going to be glued to their sofas and bar stools for 90 minutes watching games played out in ghost stadiums?
Full, rocking arenas send adrenaline rushes down satellite feeds to far-flung places, making the TV spectator in Jakarta and Manila wish he or she was ringside.
Noise-generating terrace supporters contribute massively to the game’s global appeal, as much as the star players. Yet the crucial demographic is being priced out.
EPL clubs defend their price hikes by pointing to stats showing attendances are growing year-on-year. But quantity does not mean quality.
Any hardcore Arsenal fan who can still afford a season ticket at the league’s most expensive club will tell you the Emirates is more akin to an opera house than a football ground.
The singing, chanting tribes have been subjected to a perverse land clearance, forced out to make way for gentrification to suit the affluent, quiet middle-class applauders, the VIP head-nodders issuing polite approval.
The same goes for Old Trafford and other big clubs whose stadiums are too often soulless echo-chambers.
The protest is not, then, just about ticket prices. It’s about saving football from its own financial success and keeping the greedy in check. It’s a noble quest for the preservation of that priceless, much-envied commodity: atmosphere.
The clubs, spooked by what happened at Anfield, meet next month and are expected to appease supporters, lest they face dreaded empty stadiums.
Those “thank you” cards to Hong Kongers may be posted yet.