The English Premier League continues to grow in popularity here in Australia. Now that the season has drawn to a close, with the battle for the Premiership title having been fought between the usual clubs, John Reid, author of ‘Reclaim the Game’ reviews the current state of football in England. John is also a member of the Socialist Party in England & Wales.
I wrote the book Reclaim the Game in 1992 at the outset of the Premier League. It predicted that the gap between the top clubs and the rest would further widen.
Now 16 years later the Premier League is a three-horse race between Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal, with Liverpool just behind. You can safely say that there are no other challengers for the English championship.
The billionaire and millionaire owners of the Premier League would argue that the League has been a resounding success. It generates billions, games are played in new all-seater stadiums before the biggest crowds since the 1950s and ‘hooliganism’ is virtually a thing of the past.
Premier League football is beamed into 600 million homes in 202 countries across the world. The three-year television deal which runs until 2010 is worth Â£1.7 billion for domestic television, Â£625 million for overseas television rights and Â£400 million for internet and mobile phone rights.
Premier League football is a high-priced spectacle played by millionaires and owned by billionaires.
Russian gangster capitalists, such as Roman Abramovitch, who looted the ex-Soviet Union’s economy, have taken over clubs such as Chelsea. Big businessmen from the USA have taken over both Manchester United and Liverpool.
Stadiums have been rebuilt, they are comfortable and safe. Standing areas have been destroyed and replaced by very expensive all seating areas. In the 1990/91 season, 20,000 people stood at Old Trafford and paid Â£4 per game. At Arsenal in the same season, thousands stood on the North Bank and paid Â£6. These prices were around the same price as attending the cinema.
Now it costs between Â£30 and Â£40 plus to watch a Premier League game, a cinema ticket in London costs Â£8.
The television deal means that many clubs could allow supporters into games for free and still make a huge profit.
Working-class fans are being priced out of the game; especially young fans. Only 7% of season ticket holders in the Premier League are aged 16 to 24. The average age of fans attending Premier League football is 44 for season ticket holders and 39 for those buying tickets on the day.
To quote one of the greats from English football, Stanley Matthews, in an autobiography written shortly before his death: “The money that has arrived from television has definitely helped the game, but more at the top than the lower leagues… although those that market football tell us football is once more a ‘family game’ I think it is one of the biggest fibs currently being told. Football has rid itself of the hooligans, but how many ordinary working people can afford to take their family to a football match these days? Too many clubs having worked hard to rid their stadiums of racism and bigotry are now simply practising economic bigotry”.
In the 16 years of the Premier League, over a third of all professional clubs have gone into administration. Since 1992 there have been 42 cases of insolvency proceedings, involving 37 clubs.
This has led to movements of fans through independent supporters clubs. The independent fans’ organisations, fanzines, supporters’ trusts, the Football Supporters’ Federation (which represents over 100,000 fans at League and non-League clubs) and the Professional Footballers Association have all intervened to save clubs.
In the Premier League, players ‘earn’ an average of Â£700,000 a year and some in excess of Â£5 million. But if wages were reduced the fans would not benefit, directors and corporate owners would just pocket more money.
John Hall of Newcastle United sold just 9.8% of his shares and made Â£16 million. Martin Edwards received Â£100 million on selling his shares to the Glazer family (his father bought them for Â£1 million). Ken Bates of Chelsea bought Chelsea and its debts for Â£1. He sold Chelsea and its debts for Â£17 million. Even Peter Ridsdale, while he was bankrupting Leeds United, still managed to pay himself Â£645,000 in 2001.
There needs to be an urgent investigation into the finances of football. Clubs should be taken out of the control of big business and should be owned, controlled and run in trust by supporters as non profit-making sporting institutions. The controlling bodies of clubs should be democratically elected through one vote per club member and fans would become members for a nominal fee.
The fight to reclaim the game is tied to the fight to transform society; the same big business people who own and control our beautiful game exploit us in our workplaces. The fight to democratise football is linked with the fight to get rid of big business domination within it. It is linked to the struggle for a socialist society.