Updated: May 10, 2020
“Football crowds abusing the players. Friction provoked by a controversial refereeing decision in a derby game. Hooligan behaviour with an edge of violence surrounding the game. Biased media reporting. Truly there is nothing new under the sun. Yet the importance of these accounts, describing the events and atmosphere that incubated the fledgling Hotspur club in 1883 and 1884, is that they reveal the existence of a crowd and demonstrate the emergence of a club with a personality, a reputation which that crowd embraced. Rowdy, raucous and uncontrolled that crowd may have been with no allegiance save to have a good time, and we have no idea of numbers, but a crowd walked across the muddy fields to see the Hotspur play.”
That passage, from the opening chapter of A People’s History of Tottenham Hotpur Football Club, is the one that I would argue gets most succinctly to the nub of what the book is about and why Alan Fisher and I wanted to write it. I’ve written on more than a few occasions about why the crowd should be seen as individuals rather than a homogeneous mass, and there are plenty of individual, human stories in the book. But this time the aim was to try and get some sense of the crowd as a mass, of its characteristics and how it had influenced the club itself. It’s something Alan Fisher and I spoke about on a very enjoyable podcast for The Tottenham Way earlier this week.
The crowd, and the special characteristics it brings to a club and to the game, is what continues to challenge the idea of football as brand entertainment, as just another business. And it is also the source of tension within itself, as something which is by definition collective struggles against the prevailing forces of atomisation, and as conflicting consciousnesses bump up against each other.
Market forces are supposed to be the science we all bow down before, their allegedly inexorable influence dictating the natural order. And yet the crowd’s behaviour in football, particularly British football, has bent the supposed iron laws out of shape. Take the relationship between customer and brand — that most central of relationships in Marketland. It’s an observation made so often that it has almost become cliché, but it is nonetheless on the money. If customers don’t like what is on offer in Tesco, they go to Sainsburys. If fans don’t like what is on offer at Spurs, they don’t go to Arsenal. Brand loyalty or something deeper? Whatever it’s called, the fact is that football is attractive as a business precisely because it is not a “business like any other”.
It’s the effort to apply that market forces straightjacket that leads to so much tension, and to some bizarre formulations. Football fans recognise their unique connection with their club is used to squeeze as much money out of them as possible — after all, if you’re not happy, where are you going to go? Being able to go to the game, to see your team, is fundamental. It’s what the whole thing is built on. And that’s why the argument over ticket pricing is so pronounced, why it has become the focal point for the tensions I’ve written about. There have been rows about the price of replica shirts, the price of food inside stadiums – but those things are optional. Going to the game defines being a fan.
So the argument ‘if you think it’s too expensive don’t pay it’ doesn’t stand up. Because in this case it’s too expensive simply because it can be. Ticket prices for football fans in the top flight rose 312% between 1988 and 1999. And the authors of this article on pricing for the History & Policy site, Martin Johnes and Matthew Taylor, quote research showing that prices at some clubs have risen 1000% in the last two decades. Even the most zealous advocate of the pseudo-science of market forces would be hard pressed to provide an explanation of why this rate of increase is ‘natural’ when compared to any other area. Johnes and Taylor nail the reason.
“The culture of fandom, where most people are committed to a single club and want to witness both its highs and lows as a badge of loyalty, has sheltered the game from normal market forces,” they say, concluding that “the deep emotional commitment fans feel to their clubs, often based on family histories decades long, lies at the heart of the anger some feel at ticket prices. There are still large numbers willing to pay these prices but the more they feel exploited in doing so, the more they will vocalise their anger”.
It’s how that anger is expressed, where it is directed, that is becoming the dominant narrative arc. The idea of rewarding loyalty is crashing up against the notion of survival of the financially fittest. So. Is a season ticket holder a fan expressing the ultimate loyalty, or a fan exercising the power of their wealth? As with so many arguments around football fandom and particularly ticketing at the top level, the terms of debate are not as simple as some would like to think.
Sure, you need money to afford a season ticket in the Premier League. But many of those buying season tickets are spending more of their disposable income they maybe they should — they’re not simply fat cats. And if loyalty means going to games, but going to games is increasingly the preserve of those who can afford it, is it possible to distinguish loyalty from wealth? And is price the only, or even the main, determinant of whether people go to the game? I’d argue the evidence suggests it’s not. Which doesn’t make price any less important.
These conflicting currents produce strange arguments. I’ve had a couple of conversations in the last few months along the following lines. Pushing for cheaper away tickets was wrong, because it means more people will be able to afford them, fuelling demand in an area where demand is already high. That means, at clubs such as Spurs where a system of loyalty or attendance points operate when allocating away tickets, that only a small elite who have been able to afford to get to games will be able to get tickets. Because increased demand will increase the number of points needed to get a ticket, thereby entrenching the elite who have previously been able to get tickets.
And so, if you follow the logic that campaigning for cheaper ticket prices was wrong, we should be pushing for higher prices. That would depress demand, and mean that only those with the most money could afford a ticket. Something that would no doubt be very popular with those loyal fans who have attended games for years, often spending more than they should, who find themselves pushed aside by those with more money. Whither the natural law of market forces in that little lot? The argument that access to football can be improved by reducing the ability to access football is a suitably absurd manifestation of market dogma.
It also provides an insight into the turmoil at the heart of football fandom these days. Because like it or not–and you may have gathered I don’t–traditional notions of loyalty built on common experience and regularity of attendance are being challenged by definitions based on ability or willingness to pay. That “You couldn’t sell all your tickets” is a popular insult chanted at fans who have not filled a stadium or allocation shows us where we’ve come. And just this week we saw some fans of Arsenal attempting to heap ridicule on Spurs over low ticket prices for the Champions League games at Wembley. Some fans don’t help themsleves.
Our definitions of true support, the notion of loyalty that is so central to football in this country, the way we judge the quality of support — all these things are being challenged and fought over. Too often we’re turning in on ourselves instead of challenging the fact that the values we built up in order to make football so attractive to business are being usurped.
That, in turn, is leading to more heated expositions of arguments common among football supporters for years, about what ‘proper’ or ‘real’ support is, about who is a ‘real fan’ and who isn’t. While it’s true that all cultural groups seek to impose rules of behaviour in order to define and protect their identity, what’s key is whether the energy of that effort is directed inwards or outwards. Do we turn in on ourselves and seek ever narrower definitions of ‘true’ fandom, or do we draw on a wider collective tradition to preserve what we value from those who seek to undermine it in order to sell it back to us?