By Dr Edward Sugden, Lecturer at King’s College London
Neoliberalism in Britain has rewired how we live, feel, think and interact with the world. It logic is a permissive one that permeates all that it can. Yet simply characterizing ourselves as anti-neoliberal is not enough. The challenge is to find ways to discuss and act against neoliberalism in a concrete and legible manner. One route to take is to speak about football.
The post-92 rise of the Premier League has shifted football from a visceral communal activity to a detached international entertainment industry. In undergoing this change it demonstrates the effects that neoliberalism has had on millions of people’s lives over the past 25 years.
The Premier League brings into sharp focus how the economy is rigged in favour of the powerful. The league is only nominally competitive. The teams that flourish are gargantuan big businesses that thrive on the basis of international finance capital of troubling provenance. In this extravagantly unequal world, there is no even playing field and only the simulacra of genuine fair play.
The most recent financial figures revealed a staggering £476 million disparity between the richest and poorest, up by £14 million from the previous year’s figures. This financial inequality translates into results on the pitch. In the 25 years prior to the Premier League, there were eight different winners compared to six in the post-92 era. Meanwhile the average gap between the bottom team in the eleven years prior to the Premier League (when three points for a win was introduced) was 54 points compared to 63 in the most recent eleven. The Premier League is an avatar for wider social shifts in an era of Victorian levels of inequality.
In spite of increased revenues neither fans nor employees outside the playing or corporate structures of the clubs have benefitted. Ticket prices have swelled exponentially to fuel the wages and profits of those at the top of the clubs (an increase that began as soon as the Premier League did). When combined with the additional costs associated with, say, a privatised rail industry, football is often out of reach to those who used to form its base. Meanwhile, many Premier League clubs still refuse to pay their employees a living wage at the minimum or do away with precarious contracts.
Fans have suffered further as the rich clubs have gotten richer. Football at a lower level has failed to benefit from a trickle-down effect (one of the enduring illusions of neoliberal economics). Premier League clubs put a measly 0.85% of their TV revenue towards grassroots football. While stadia, profits, and wages have grown, savage local cuts have meant that those at an amateur level have suffered from unplayable pitches that make participation nigh on impossible.
There are then more elusive questions of what it feels to be a fan these days. One thing that emerged in the Guardian’s mid-season review was a deep sense of inertia that many fans discerned within stadia and a sense of disconnect with their teams. For many the move towards homogenous, shiny all-seated arenas has created an illusion of fandom, where anodyne and generic support has replaced the old pure improvisational and visceral thrill of following a club.
Of course, neoliberal economics disallows precisely the sort of communal feeling that is required to create a good atmosphere. If the world only knows competition between individuals, then it is almost impossible to come together in the name of a greater whole.
Yet, the problem might run even deeper. Part of the disaster of neoliberalism is how it has hollowed out local communities and replaced what was once there with non-place specific international corporate brands. Global finance capital has emptied out towns of their regional specificity, their difference from other places.
Indeed, it is precisely in this vacancy in regional identity that the right has swooped in, promising the belonging of nationhood and whiteness in place of a more varied sense of locality. The rising presence of the right in stadia—from pro-Tommy Robinson chants to the Football Lads Alliance—bears this claim out.
Might it be possible, then, that fans no longer feel connected to their team in part because it has become so difficult to identify with a region?
The widening inequality of the Premier League has other geographical overtones. A contemporary trend is for capital to concentrate around urban centres that, as a result, gain disproportionate influence. This move sucks investment and productivity out of the regions and places it in the metropolises that house big business and the finance industry.
In the Premier League era, with the exclusion of two years where Leicester and Blackburn won the league, the title has simply moved back and forth between London and Manchester. Meanwhile, teams from traditional industrial bases have suffered (Leeds, Sheffield, Sunderland, even Birmingham and the midlands more generally) while upwardly mobile Southern towns have taken their place (Brighton, Bournemouth, Watford). This shift is a continuing effect of Thatcher’s attempt to relocate the economic power of British society.
A narrative that involves football would demonstrate precisely how it is that neoliberalism works and Labour’s own desire to overthrow it. Football could be a means of accessing millions of voters in a way that is clear, pragmatic, and transformative. Moreover, it is precisely these voters, alienated by football, in places that used to be Labour’s heartlands, that the party will have to convince to return to them instead of embracing the right.
A policy platform would have to involve two things. First, to implement a series of measures that put fans ahead of corporate profits. Many of these ideas are already out there. These could include building on the Football Supporters’ Federation demand to cap away tickets at £20; to support the campaign for safe standing; to stop TV companies playing fast and loose with schedules at the expense of fans; legislating so that each club have to carry out a minimum amount of community activities; and increasing fan ownership through movements like Supporters Direct.
Controlling the anarchy of a football free market that has spiralled out of control will be harder to do and require altering some of the structures of the football economy. But a Premier League tax that redirects TV revenues towards grassroots sport would be one popular way to do so. Other ideas include placing a wage cap on players that brings the Premier League into alignment with other major European leagues; limiting agent fees per transaction to limit the parasitical economy that feeds off of football; to force football clubs to pay a living wage and ban zero hours contracts; and ensuring that TV revenue is far move equally shared across the football pyramid.
Neoliberalism has wreaked havoc on our national sport. A transformative government needs to get a hold of it to make it the people’s game once more. Doing so would come with considerable electoral benefit and make Labour’s economic argument palpable. The risk is that, if Labour does not, the extreme right will rush in to fill the void.