The dawn of the Premier League era brought with it many changes to English football, most of them good. Television coverage reached ground breaking new levels to give fans the ultimate experience, while the additional finances made way for many of the best players in the world to flock to English shores.
At the same time, the commercial aspect of the sport that had been brewing since the 1980s kicked into overdrive. The replica shirt market, in its infancy in the previous 15 years, exploded in the 1990s, with clubs handed an effortless revenue stream.
But what began as a relatively cheap way for fans to show their support has transformed into a corporate fuelled endeavour, where the very people that drive it are being stepped all over in a bid to see who can make the most money.
It started with more frequent releases. Clubs launching two, sometimes even three, new shirts every season in a trend that has slowly been creeping into Premier League football for a number of years and it is part of a growing culture of fan exploitation at the very top of the pyramid that unfortunately shows no sign of slowing down.
There aren't any official minimum restrictions as to the life-cycle of a kit, meaning it is entirely up to each individual club and their respective supplier. The Premier League website simply states, "There is no rule to say how often clubs must change their kits or a rule governing how long a kit must be worn for." The only 'guideline' as such, is that "The life cycle of a club kit should be made clear at the point of sale when purchased". How long will it be before clubs have two home shirts per season?
Until recently, Premier League clubs used to operate on two year kit cycles. However, the policy slowly became rarer and is now seemingly non-existent. Among the last to function in the old way, Arsenal have now dramatically ditched their customer charter after launching a new multi-million pound kit deal with Puma and, likely at the behest of their German suppliers, will now have brand new home, away and third kits every single season without fail.
A lot of fans want to show their support for their team, so will feel obliged to buy every new home shirt and maybe the odd away one too, but the fact that people now have to shell out every 12 months instead of every two years is only half the issue. The prices have also crept up quite significantly too, at a rate much faster than natural inflation.
Fans of the Premier League's biggest clubs can be hard pushed to find their team's current replica shirts for less than £50 and certainly no less than £45. Ordering the latest United or Arsenal shirt, or indeed any Premier League club for that matter, complete with sleeve patches, the name and number of your favourite player and postage and packaging if you order online, could cost as much as £75-£80.
It is therefore little surprise that the recent glitch on Manchester United's online store, which offered newly released Chevrolet branded shirts for just £22, went viral within minutes. In the few hours that it went unnoticed by the club, thousands upon thousands of orders are believed to have been made by people desperate for a bargain in this usually extortionate setting.
The worst part is that clubs have no choice but to keep exploiting the fans that support them week-in, week-out. However, though easily seen as the villains, they are no more than slaves to the corporate machine themselves.
Modern professional football is governed by money, sadly more so than anything else. Where the margins between success and failure can be minimal, Premier League clubs need to do everything they can to increase revenue to compete at the highest level.
It would be a foolish club who pulled back from the 'new kits every season' model. Any less would mean a significant loss of valuable revenue opportunities, while a club unwilling to have a new launch every 12 months would be a much less attractive partnership for the likes of Nike or Puma. Would Adidas have jumped into a £750 million contract with Manchester United if they were only going to launch a new kit every two years?
If clubs aren't maximising their potential shirt sales, they lose out on income. Though only a part of the business model, if that is the case they haven't got the same level of funds to compete with their rivals for the best players and the best facilities. Ultimately, they won't be competitive on the pitch.
Fans are being exploited by their clubs, but the clubs can't afford to stop. There seems no way out.
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