Around 700,000 people watch a professional match in England and Wales each week and football clubs have been bedrocks in communities for generations. As such, football and its governance has rightly merited social and political interest as exemplified by Liberal Democrat MP Tim Farron's suggestion the other week that supporters could consider boycotting over-indulgent clubs at the top of the pyramid for local non-league clubs.
We should not underestimate the significance of this intervention by Mr Farron. The fact that a senior political figure has come out and suggested desired reforms are far enough away to merit a boycott is another blow to the football authorities, already struggling to deal with the issue of racism, and political input to reform, particularly in the form of the DCMS inquiry into football governance last year.
Tellingly, he has directly connected the issue of pricing with that of ownership. In doing so he further reinforced the cross-party consensus that ownership and governance are causal issues that are important to be addressed at root if the symptomatic evidence - higher and higher ticket prices - is to be dealt with properly.
It is accepted by the coalition government that one of the tools to advance governance reform is, as the Programme for Government says, to "encourage the reform of football governance rules to support the co-operative ownership of football clubs by supporters". Germany is an excellent example of this, where the licensing regime of German football requires each club to have at least 50%+1 of the club owned by supporters. Ticket prices are significantly lower, attendances are higher than even the Premier League, and commercial revenues are not affected. Bayern Munich top the Deloitte Football Money League for commercial revenue (above Man Utd, Barcelona and Real Madrid) in 2012, precisely because the absence of external 'sugar daddy' financing means that these fan-owned football clubs have must be better, more efficiently run as businesses.
Most importantly, perhaps, German fans feel as though their club is really theirs rather than something which at best treats them as a customer and at worst someone to be exploited. German clubs are even successful in Europe, despite some claims that clubs need to charge more in order for the Premier League to remain the 'best'.
Evidence also suggests many social benefits of supporters trusts having a large stake in clubs including building community and a 'normalising' of democracy (through voting and engaging in debates), a point which can be ignored at politicians' peril at a time of waning trust in the political system and democracy as a whole.
The fear of many from the reform camp in football, though, is that, like many previous inquiries and reports (going back to the 1968 Chester Report) the government has simply devolved responsibility of reform to the FA who in turn devolve responsibility to the professional leagues. History tells us this will simply rebrand the status quo (which is officially 'ownership-neutral', meaning it is almost impossible for supporters trusts to gain a stake in their club). Without proper accountability, there is little desire within football to make wholesale changes which will tackle problems such as ludicrously high ticket prices.
It could be reached in the form of a time-limited act giving the minister the powers to enact the changes required (e.g. more independent members of the FA board and greater transparency). Not even the most ardent reformists want the government to run football, and this would not be the case in a time-limited act. The alternative for a government with an anti-interventionist bent where football is concerned is to look at the idea of withdrawing the funding it provides to football.
Of course, we should not entirely do away with the avenue of reform, firstly because some progress has been made in previous years. The owners and directors test has been tightened up (in particular after the Portsmouth debacle when it turned out one of their 'owners' didn't even exist) as an example.
Secondly, the nature of football fans will in reality make a boycott difficult. Football is essentially different from other industries because it deals with a greater sense of identity. If my local supermarket pushes its prices up while quality of service and food diminishes, I have the power as a consumer to simply shop at the next-door supermarket instead. Football doesn't work like that. Allegiance to a football club runs far deeper than my affiliation to Sainsbury's as, for many, it helps to fulfil a deeper sense of belonging and community, hopes and desires which ultimately make us human. As Nick Hornby once eloquently put, "Few of us have chosen our clubs, they have simply been presented to us; and so as they slip from the Second Division to the Third, or sell their best players, or buy players who you know can't play, or bash the ball for the seven hundredth time towards a nine foot centre-forward, we simply curse, go home, worry for a fortnight and then come back to suffer all over again...consumption is all; the quality of the product is immaterial." As a result, boycott will be a tough pill to swallow for the average football fan.
This, however, only serves to further embed the unfairness, as clubs know fans will keep paying out through the nose. English football is still light-years from a state of good health, exemplified by exploitative ticketing. Unless concrete action is taken to challenge this, admonitions like Mr Farron's will, with any luck, become more frequent and more radical until something is done.
Sam Tomlin is the co-author of the 2011 CentreForum publication 'Football and the Big Society'.
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