By Mark Doidge
The Premier League juggernaut has turned on the ignition. The engine is fired up after three months of sitting silent during covid-19. Their media partners will now inundate us with news stories about how the ‘Greatest League in the Universe’ ™ is about to restart and how the general public will be lifted from their covid-19 malaise and can watch football again. Hurrah.
What they mean of course is Premier League men’s football. Very little else is deemed important enough for the media, least of all those in the thrall of the economic televisual juggernaut. Thousands of people play football, but they cannot return to their leagues. Across the country, thousands volunteer their time to prepare pitches, wash kits, sell tickets and administer our favourite sport; yet their football is not returning. The Women’s Super League has already been completed on a points per game basis, long after the rest of the women’s leagues were stopped; their football isn’t returning. As of 9th June, every league has been curtailed apart from the men’s Premier League and Championship.
Despite the media frenzy that will celebrate the return of (men’s elite) football, many fans are desperate for football to return. Football is the one constant in many of our lives. The rituals of the sport strengthen our social relationships, shape our identities and reinforce our sense of selves. Whilst we can now retire Bill Shankly’s oft-quoted ‘more important than life and death’, football is still important to many people. But we should be careful what we wish for.
We are not going to witness the return of football; we will see a hollowed-out reality television show featuring footballers. It will not be football as we know it, and, I argue, it is likely to lead to a significant change in how football is consumed in England. The Premier League is implementing a number of new rules. The ones that work will remain. But who determines that they work is the reason why this is a problem: few fans will have had their say in what is kept. Most changes will benefit the television audience at home, rather than fans in the stadium. As the Premier League derives the majority of their income from television revenues, these voices will be heard more vociferously.
Football without fans in the stadium is not football. Granted, most games of football do not have fans. But professional clubs are professional because fans pay to watch matches. Historically this has been through physical attendance in the stadium, although since the formation of the Premier League and Champions League in 1992, more is coming from television contracts. This means that football starts to adapt for this audience.
Since the formation of the Premier League, games have been moved from their traditional 3pm on a Saturday timeslot. When the Premier League restarts on 17th June, every team will be shown live on a variety of platforms, including the BBC, BT Sport, Sky Sports and Amazon. They will circumvent the regulations that state that no football can be played between 2.45 and 5.15 on Saturdays so as not to encourage fans to stay home. Will this remain in place when the new season returns? Likewise, matches will be played at various times throughout the week. The seasons starts at 6pm for the Aston Villa match against Sheffield United. This will be followed by Manchester City against Arsenal at 8.15. If this is popular on television, it is likely to stay in place. And when people return to work, will they be able to get to the stadium for 6pm normally?
The state of exception we find ourselves in may not become the exception, but the norm. Armchair fans have already highlighted that the Bundesliga matches are not entertaining without fans. The K-League and Bundesliga have experimented with artificial crowd noise, and La Liga and the Premier League are looking to use it (https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/football/52950715). Again, where are the safeguards to take this away when fans return to the stadium? What is to stop clubs or media companies piping in their own fan chants to drown out protests against owners, or even to sell advertising?
Ultimately, the return of the Premier League (and Championship), undermines the foundation of English football. It says that these leagues are privileged (as if we didn’t know), and the rest are just detritus that can be discarded. English football is a pyramid. Most of the focus is on the Premier League and the three leagues directly below it: the Championship; League 1; and League 2. The financial issues of lower league clubs are well documented. This season Bury went out of business, and was nearly followed by Bolton Wanderers. We are likely to see more in the coming months.
There are many more teams that want to play football, and fans who wish to return to grounds. There are thousands of teams across the men and women’s football pyramids. Many of these clubs run on limited resources, and thousands of amazing volunteers. These matches are not being resumed and there seems to be no roadmap to start next season. At the same time, the Premier League is trialling innovations such as stadium atmosphere without fans and new kick off times for matches, including ones that ignore the 3pm blackout. Covid-19 may have had a massive impact on football clubs, but there is another factor in the difficulties that will continue to face lower league and women’s football. The Premier League juggernaut drives on, destroying all in its path.
Mark Doidge @markdoidge