Since the Premier League season was forced to pause due to Covid-19, the role of fans attending games has been thrown into sharper relief than ever before. It is no secret that the reason for the Premier League’s return ‘behind closed doors’ was not simply to give those locked away in their houses something to watch. Instead, it was apparent that the more pressing reason for this was the huge amounts of money tied up in broadcasting contracts with Sky and BT Sports. This is no great surprise, given the context of a league created for the purposes of creating larger amounts of profits via these contracts.
The Premier League was started in 1992, as a breakaway league from what was then known as the Football League First Division, the top division of what is now the English Football League (EFL). The breakaway plan is said to have been hatched by Greg Dyke, the then director of London Weekend Television, over dinner with representatives from the big five clubs of the time—Arsenal, Tottenham, Manchester United, Liverpool, and Everton. The idea behind this plan was that by creating a league of their own, these top clubs would grow their already sizeable fanbase, and sign huge contracts for the television rights of their games. This is the model that the modern game is now largely based on, and the driving force for the Premier League’s return this summer without fans.
As many fans will attest, watching football games played in empty stadiums is not the most thrilling spectacle. Many have compared the return of the Premier League to watching training games, or a highly skilled kickabout in the park. What’s been plain to see is that without fans in stadiums, the spectacle of televised football isn’t the same product. In order to combat the lack of live atmosphere, the Premier League has broadcast games with ‘canned’ crowd sound—fake sounds that were recorded at games from previous seasons. These sounds are taken directly from the FIFA videogame franchise, which themselves were recorded at real-life games of previous seasons. This is why, when watched the North London Derby, Arsenal fans had to put up with ‘Oh when the Spurs come marching in’ being blasted out of the TVs for the whole 90 minutes, due to the game’s setting at Spurs’ Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. In the German Bundesliga, as reported in a recent article in Sport Bible, sound designers used soundscapes taken from previous meeting of whichever teams were playing each other in what German fans referred to as ‘ghost games’. In both English and German games, said sound designer would have to trigger certain crowd reactions (for goals, fouls, near misses etc.) within the live broadcast.
Sky Sports’ managing director Robert Webster stated that the aim of using fake crowd sounds was to ‘replicate the vibrant atmosphere of the Premier League clashes, so fans don’t miss out on the noise that goes with the action’. However, what was apparent even with fake sound, was that football without fans is not as exciting as football with them. Whilst some might have a fascination with the ins and outs of football tactics, and many more have strong opinions on the matter, this is not all that fans tune in to watch. Instead, viewers tune in to connect with the fan community that they are a part of. Whether a diehard match-going fan or not, huge numbers now experience football fandom through their television screen.
The effect has not just been felt on the fans either, with Burnley’s captain Ben Mee recently writing in The Guardian of how players have missed having fans in the stadium whilst they play. Mee wrote that he ‘struggled to get the same rush of adrenaline before a match and I am not alone in that.’ Adding that having all the games broadcast on TV was great but ‘second best to being in the stands and the experience of travelling up and down the country to follow your team’. Many communities have been separated by the community, but there is a certain poignancy to football fans being able to watch their teams play in stadia which they would ordinarily travel to, week in, week out.
For many, especially since the inception of the Premier League, there has been a growing sense of fans being priced out of football. This is evident in ticket and kit prices rocketing, and the number of television subscriptions needed to catch all your team’s games seemingly rising every year. There have been demonstrations from various groups of fans over this. In 2016, around 10,000 Liverpool fans walked out at the 77th minute of a fixture against Sunderland, due to news of some tickets rising as high as £77, a rise that would have led to some supporters paying over £1000 for a season ticket. At the protest, banners were seen reading ‘Football Without Fans is Nothing’, a variation of which was the headline for Ben Mee’s article just this month.
Televised games without fans may present football fans with a unique opportunity to seize power. Barry Glendenning lamented in The Guardian the lack of fans that would be in attendance at the FA Cup final earlier this year. Glendenning describes football played in empty stadia as a ‘facsimile’, a ‘sterile, anodyne and largely pointless pursuit’, but one that will ‘not have gone unnoticed by the…broadcasting companies who rely on the sport and those who watch it for their billions’. The suggestion is that now might well be the best time for fans to wield this power, which really they have always possessed. Clubs even before the dawn of the Premier League era have relied on supporters’ money in order to keep themselves afloat, whilst in recent years the amounts of money made have gone far beyond that.
German clubs remain close to their fans largely through the much-lauded 50+1% rule, which insists that at least 50% of shares in a football club is owned by the fanbase. R.B. Leipzig, a relatively new club in the league forming in 2009, is seen to have flouted this rule. Leipzig is 99% owned by Red Bull, but has 17 voting members on the club’s board, somehow giving it 50+1 status. However, all of these 17 members are either employed by, or closely tied to, Red Bull. This circumnavigation of the rules has led to much antagonism towards the club. At the beginning of the last Bundelsiga season, fans from newly promoted Union Berlin, sat in a silence for the opening segment of their game team’s fixture against Leipzig, in an ‘atmosphere boycott’ against the club.
In the Labour’s 2019 manifesto was a promise to ‘legislate for accredited football supporter trusts’, which would be able to purchase communal shares and appoint or remove ‘at least two club directors’. This would be a huge step to creating greater parity within the English game. However, with Labour defeated in the election, and at least another four years of Tory government likely, it may be time for supporter groups to take matters into their own hands. Examples of collective action being effective are plain to see in recent football history. The Liverpool example mentioned earlier sits alongside the years of boycotting at Blackpool FC over their owners, and continuing unrest at Newcastle United over their owner Mike Ashley. The last of those has prompted multiple nearly-takeovers from new investors, and it seems likely that Ashley will eventually leave the club that he’s run into the ground.
In a recent statement, Chief Executive of the Premier League Richard Masters stated that ‘we have to get back to fans inside stadia as quickly as possible—that’s the big thing that’s missing, economic or otherwise—we need fans back inside stadiums for all sorts of reasons and it’s the number one priority’. It’s important to note that in this statement, the one imperative factor named in this statement is the economic one. Those benefitting from the billion-pound industry of football need the fans back in the stadium—but why should fans go back if they’ll be treated exactly the same? The powers that regulate football will never return the game back to the grassroots off their own back. But with the need for fans to return to stadiums becoming increasingly clear, the power is now in the hands of fans potentially more than ever before.
The Premier League’s revenue relies on the atmosphere created by communities that revolve around their football clubs. The power to run the game should therefore be in their hands.