This spring, furor broke out across Europe. The announced ‘European Super League’ seemed set to change football forever, cementing the status of an elite group of clubs at the top in an unchanging group of twenty. The idea faced such opposition that even Boris Johnson came out and promised to scupper the new league if the Football Association was unable to do so. Such a blatant cash grab seemed to go against everything that made football special – domestic rivalries, local communities, and the promises of relegation or promotion based on performance on the pitch.
Clearly, stopping the Super League hindered the further commercialisation of football. What is often forgotten, however, is that a virtually identical process succeeded at the formation of the Premier League in 1992.
A new BBC documentary series, Fever Pitch!, offers a look back at the formation of the Premier League. While the show offers all the football nostalgia we would expect from such a project—crunching tackles galore, Eric Cantona’s notorious karate kick, and Alan Shearer strutting around in his prime—it also gives a deeper analysis of the changes brought about by the formation of the new league.
Football was in a gradual deterioration throughout the 1980s. There was hooliganism, declining infrastructure, and a generally bad reputation. Ticket sales were plunging. Something needed to change. As the Times notoriously put it, football was ‘a slum sport played in slum stadiums increasingly watched by slum people.’ To the rescue, the show informs us, comes none other than Rupert Murdoch and his crack team of publicists, consultants, and businessmen.
After secret meetings between the top clubs, the new Premier League broke away from the existing football league. A new era of football was born. Football had previously been free to watch, but the record deal with Sky Sports meant that subscriptions were now required to watch your local side. Plenty of attention here is given to the role of marketing and entertainment to justify the expense of the new subscription and win over new audiences: cheerleaders, fireworks, concerts, and a sumo wrestling match were among the gimmicks that sought to prove that football had arrived as something more than sport – as a form of total entertainment.
But the show cannot avoid hinting at the widespread discontent this new Premier League generated. As one fan exasperatedly tells a TV reporter, ‘It’s all just money. The club is one big theme park now.’ The aforementioned sumo wrestlers are booed off the pitch by supporters chanting ‘What the fuck was that?’ Fans, in other words, were hardly happy with the swathes of gimmicks, souvenirs, and ‘entertainment’ that flooded English stadiums.
Even so, the show largely stops short of emphasising the true extent of the changes the Premier League brought about. Tellingly, the last word on the commercialisation of the Premier League is given to Sky Sports marketing consultant Jon Smith, who says, ‘Yes, it was done for financial gain, no question. And in a way, it was a bit outrageous, really, but it worked.’
This may be true in the financial sense—monetising football to an unprecedented extent—but this depiction of the rise of the Premier League largely overlooks the drastic financial consequences that the new league had on grassroots football and the distribution of power within the game.
The Football League, for example, had distributed TV revenues proportionately, with fifty percent going to First Division clubs and the remaining fifty percent distributed to the lower three divisions. The Premier League, however, is an entirely separate legal entity, offering the possibility of keeping a far greater slice of the pie: at the moment, it offers a mere 8.75 percent of its TV revenue to the lower leagues. The result of this is an even greater concentration of wealth at the top, while most of the Football League’s clubs live in states of continuous precarity. Over half of the Football League’s clubs have gone insolvent since, and grassroots football remains in terminal decline.
Even within the Premier League, the rapid shift towards prioritising financial gain has had irreparable consequences. Ticket prices have sky-rocketed, some rising by over one thousand percent at clubs such as Liverpool. Local supporters of top clubs have often been priced out. Even within the Premier League, financial restructuring ensured the dominance of the wealthiest clubs, as fifty percent of the new TV revenues would be distributed based on which games are shown on TV and what positions teams finished in.
This fact means that top clubs are all but guaranteed to remain at the top. In the earlier Football League, even top clubs like Manchester United met with relegation. The modern game, with its hierarchical structures of money and power, makes that all but impossible.
Plenty would argue that football needed reform by the late ’80s, but it’s hardly the case that mass commercialisation was the only viable route. Germany, for example, now offers an example of an alternative route English football might have taken. Faced with similar problems of hooliganism and declining infrastructures, German football was reformed in a radically different way. Average attendance rose from 17,000 in the late 1980s to 45,000, the highest in the world. All the while they were able to ensure that clubs remained fan-owned. Tight rules means that all profits are reinvested back into the clubs. Control of the clubs cannot be bought, and the Bundesliga offers the cheapest tickets of any major European league. Seen from England, it’s hard not to imagine what could have been here, too, if other choices were made.
What’s more, football was already in a process of transformation prior to the Murdoch takeover. Crackdowns on hooligans, a resurgence of football’s popularity after the 1990 World Cup, and ambitious plans by the Football Association all meant that this was hardly the only path football could have taken. Changes were afoot regardless of the Sky Sports coup, so presenting them as the direct result of the new Premier League is disingenuous, at best.
In England, fan-owned clubs such as Exeter City, AFC Wimbledon and FC United of Manchester offer alternatives to the money-making that lies at the core of the Premier League project. To some extent, each of these teams emerged in response to the commercialisation and alienation from local communities at the core of the Premier League. The lack of an oligarchic owner or a fair redistribution of money within the English football leagues means that they are unlikely to make it to the Premier League. Even so, their democratic, community-run structure continues to offer a compelling alternative to its soullessness.
In the current world of superstars, Russian oligarchs, and global superclubs, it is refreshing to get a glimpse back to another world of football. This is not a world worth eulogising or putting on a pedestal: the racism and violence make that abundantly clear. But it’s hard not to hope for a return to the community-oriented nature of the Football League and the sporting equality it maintained. With rumblings about drastic changes to the Premier League emerging every few years (most recently Labour’s plan for a massive redistribution of TV rights in 2019), getting the history of its capture of the sport in England right is crucial to understand what can be done to level the playing field of the beautiful game.