The campaign for employers to raise wages in the UK had an important victory last week: football clubs in England’s Premier League agreed to pay a ‘living wage’ to full-time, permanent staff, following a deal worth £5.14 billion with Rupert Murdoch’s Sky Sports and BT to screen live matches for the next three years. That some of this astronomical TV revenue will benefit the communities in which football clubs operate recognises the continued significance of class in the grassroots campaigns of football supporters. Despite such success, the notion that football in the UK is the ‘people’s game’ requires more than a piecemeal pledge to pay workers a fair wage. The sport has become increasingly gentrified and ordinary people have been deliberately demonized and priced out of attending football, once a cultural ritual in working-class communities.
Football in Britain has historically been the bastion of male working-class culture. The professional sport has its roots in factory towns and cities of the north of England. Some of the UK’s most successful football clubs were the product of industrial communities such as Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield, Glasgow, and Newcastle, with some formed from works teams. Huge stadiums were built to accommodate an overwhelmingly working-class fan base, with Glasgow once home to the three largest stadiums in world football, including Hampden Park, originally designed to hold over 180,000. For many male workers, watching their football club – or their country – was the cornerstone of social life. But that has changed drastically over the last thirty years, because ticket prices have made regular attendance something that only a certain strata of society can afford.
We shouldn’t be overly nostalgic about this, since some positive changes have occurred in the British game over the past three decades. Stadia, once little more than tin sheds with wooden planks for seats, have been transformed into safe and accessible spaces for supporters. A number of fatal disasters at football demonstrated that cramming tens of thousands of fans into cramped, poorly policed terraces could not continue. Hooliganism – once rife at football grounds across the UK – has been largely eradicated from within grounds due to regulations on design and security. The image of British football as a dangerous environment, associated with violence and shocking levels of racism has been largely transformed (although instances still occur).
To achieve this increase in safety, football clubs, the state, and the police have deliberately priced the working class out of attending matches and gentrified the sport. When British football experienced its darkest days of the 1980s, supporters took the blame. This was particularly evident in the aftermath of the Hillsborough Disaster of 1989. During an FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forrest, a crush in the terraces resulted in the deaths of 96 Liverpool supporters. Liverpool represented the polar opposite of Margaret Thatcher’s vision for Britain: it was working-class, Labour voting, and trade union supporting. In part because of that, the British elite and the media systematically blamed the Liverpool supporters for the tragedy, describing those involved as drunk, out of control hooligans determined to cause trouble, attack police, and pickpocket the dead. Only in the last few years has the extent of the cover up become fully apparent as families of the dead have fought for justice. It took until March 2015 for match commander PC David Dukenfield to admit that it was the police – not the Liverpool fans – who opened an exit gate that directly caused the crush.
Hillsborough, and the demonization of supporters, was the catalyst for change in the British game. A report on the disaster recommended that stadiums become fully seated, with standing outlawed in the top two English leagues. The Football Supporters Association opposed this, arguing at the time that clubs would use this as a reason to increase ticket prices. As they predicted, the cost of attending football has consistently increased at inflation-bursting levels. In the English Premiership, the cost of tickets rose by 1,000% between Hillsborough and 2011. Had football admission prices followed standard inflation, a match day ticket to watch Manchester United should have cost £6.20 in 2011; instead, the cheapest ticket was £28. In 2014, a BBC Cost of Football survey found that the average cost of going to football rose twice as fast as the cost of living in the previous three years. Football is no longer a cost-effective pursuit of the working class. It is now reserved only for those deemed responsible – and wealthy — enough to attend.
Despite such attempts to gentrify the support base in English football, organised supporter campaigns continue to emphasise issues of class and community. The Football Supporters’ Federation, for example, has demanded that clubs make £20 tickets available at all matches, and supporters have campaigned for clubs to pay a living wage to their employees. Success has been limited. Clubs have little incentive to reduce prices, and the Premier League’s living wage agreement does not apply to contracted staff, which represents the vast majority of those working in stadia on match days.
In order for football to once again provide an arena where the British working-class can congregate based on the ritualistic passion of sport, the entire governance of the game has to change. British clubs should consider the German model, where football is run for the mutual benefit of clubs, supporters, and the national game. In German football, supporters must own over 50% of the football club, giving ordinary fans a majority stake in all aspects of its organisation. This creates a substantially different mind-set: the President of Bayern Munich explains that “We do not think the fans are like cows to be milked. Football has got to be for everybody.” In the German Bundesliga, the average price of a match ticket is £10. Achieving anything similar in the UK requires continued pressure from supporters to make the game more affordable, as well as acceptance that the reaction to Hillsborough was largely motivated by the demonization of the working-class rife under the Thatcher administration. But it also requires acknowledgment that debates about the peoples’ game are also, often, debates about class.
Andy Clark is a PhD student in History at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. His research focuses on the resistance of women workers to factory closure in Scotland during the early 1980s, with an emphasis on the impact of deindustrialization on working-class society and worker militancy.