Customer always right… but mainly ignored
It is clear that football clubs have become commercialised to an astronomic level. Even by the 1920s there were four divisions of professional clubs in England. Although clubs were money-generating, they were governed with the continued philosophy of being cornerstones of the local community, with owners seeing themselves as providing a service of putting something back into the town in which the clubs are located.
However, from the moment that Tottenham Hotspur became the first club in the country to float on the stock exchange in 1983, this ethos was shifted. In their actions, Spurs were forced to make share price maximisation one of their primary goals. Like it or not, and for right or wrong, football is no longer simply a game. It is a multi-billion, multinational industry, with stakeholder groups as any other, including shareholders, sponsors, communities and customers. The problem is, supporters of clubs do not necessarily have the same priorities as shareholders. Although profit maximisation is seemingly linked to on-pitch success, the two are not entirely inter-dependent.
This problem is simpler to analyse when we examine what a football supporter is an economic sense. Essentially, the football fan is no more than a customer, or consumer of the football brand. It takes no more than a scratch beneath the surface to realise that this is naïve beyond recognition. In a typical industry, if a customer was less than satisfied with the product offered by a corporation, basic economics tells us that the customer will look to a rival firm for the product. Football, it becomes apparent, is no ‘typical industry’.
The anomaly of the football fan as a mere customer is the evident loyalty that football fans portray. A supporter’s relationship with the club is not solely based on property or share ownership, but additionally by an emotional investment; an often lifelong allegiance. A football supporter will follow their club whether it is promoted or relegated, financially successful or otherwise. It is this loyalty that provides palpable opportunities for mistreatment; they are ripe for exploitation, as they will endure a great deal whilst continuing to support, watch and pay. It is this strength of football clubs as social institutions that makes it difficult for fans to challenge the running of their clubs, thus enabling their exploitation, as they are unlikely to vote with their feet.
The examples are clear and numerous, and it makes sense to list a few facts to illustrate the point:
Since the end of the 1980s, the average price of tickets to top-level games has increased by approximately 8% per year. In this time, the average attendance at a top-level match has increased from 20,776 to 34,448.
In March 2008 it was estimated that fans of Premiership teams spent on average £1331 following their team. The average spent on merchandising was £114 per fan.
Tottenham Hotspur have six kits available to buy this season. Arsenal’s website has gnomes, inflatable chairs and jewellery available to buy. The irony of an Arsenal child’s moneybox is fairly apparent!
The response from club owners is predictable. Given the status of football clubs as publicly limited or private companies within a multi-billion pound industry, why should supporters have increased rights? Football, in an economic sense, is perhaps the leading industry in the ‘integrated leisure industry’, and not simply a game with an amateur ethos. Under this assumption, what else can supporters, as customers, expect? They are merely a stakeholder that is seen as subsidiary to shareholders. They must pay an increased cost for increased comfort, increased entertainment, and increased success.
But is this not precisely the point I am trying to make? None of these assumptions in any way encapsulate to experience and desire of the football fan, and this must be seen as through the fault of the club’s structure or lack of regulation as oppose to the fans themselves. Fans do not particularly care about the size of net profits. Success, in fact, is more likely to be maximised by spending money on players, whether in the form of transfer fees, wages or youth systems, at a level beyond the point of profit maximisation.
To conclude, these problems are highlighted by Perry Dyball, a fan of Norwich City, for a BBC television programme in 1993, worryingly preceding many of the damaging developments:
“It is not just a club, it’s mine. It’s one of the most important things in my life…and they know that they can play on that loyalty and get away with anything because they know that you’re still going to turn up”.