Leicester City: the ultimate distraction from football’s dark side
Welcome to Tuesday Team Talk. Every week, the H+K Sports team will give a unique perspective on the week’s football action and the stories making the headlines across the beautiful game.
This past weekend was truly one of the great sporting weekends. The Six Nations returned with a bang, it was the NFL Super Bowl and there was even some cricket thrown in. But somehow managing to stand out amongst all this; the continued joy of Leicester City’s Premier League challenge. A 3-1 win at Manchester City has them sitting atop the Premier League table with room to spare. With almost the entire football world seemingly behind them, Leicester City are a glorious old-school throwback.
But alongside the joy of Leicester’s exploits, this weekend also saw the darker side of the modern game, as 10,000 Liverpool fans staged a walk out protest against rising ticket prices. With potential for bigger protests to come, this is an issue only set to grow. To maintain the romance of stories like Leicester’s, the Premier League needs to take a long hard look at the trend in ticket prices.
It has been said that Leicester’s run to the top of the Premier League table is unprecedented. But in many ways, it is a throwback to the way football used to be. In the pre-Premier League era, before money flooded into the game at the top end, the table would reset on a far more regular basis. There were still dominant teams, but teams would regularly move up and down the table from year to year. It’s not just their results that hark back to a by-gone era, but the manner in which they have been achieved. Their style in itself is a throwback. The last few years have seen an obsession with a continental style of possession football. With the success of Barcelona leading the way, there has been a desire to move to a style of play based around keeping the ball in midfield and controlling the possession. Leicester however beat Manchester City with only 34% of possession, playing a classic 4-4-2 with deadly simplicity. It’s simple, old school and brilliant.
As easy as it is to be distracted by this wonderful fairytale of a season, the 77th minute walkout protest by Liverpool fans this weekend hints at a rising discontent about the realities of the modern game. Whether or not the form of the protest was right or wrong, it is hard to argue that it is fair for Premier League clubs to continue to raise prices when their earnings get bigger and bigger, boosted particularly by ever more lucrative TV deals. In a purely capitalistic sense, one could argue as long as people continue to pay the prices, clubs are within their rights to charge whatever fans (or as they are now known, customers) will pay. That being said, taking the long view, rising prices threaten the entire future of the league in a very real way.
For many clubs, match-day gate receipts are nowhere near their biggest source of income. As TV deals and commercial earnings increase, this should only continue. An increase in money may have made the league more competitive this year, but these benefits haven’t been passed on to fans. Prices continue to rise, meaning that stadiums now are full with only the most affluent fans. This presents a multitude of problems for the league. It means that young people increasingly struggle to go to football games. Now reducing prices for young children is great, clubs do it as they know it draws in their high paying parents. But what about the 16-25 year olds? The young people that make up a huge part of a footballing audience, but the majority of whom could never afford a high priced Premier League ticket. The Premier League season ticket holder is undoubtedly an aging demographic, a problem for anyleague or organisation.
The rising price of a Premier League ticket also threatens the essential diversity that has always made the Premier League so interesting. Premier League clubs have always had their own very distinct feel, driven by the local fans that have always been so important. West Ham to Aston Villa, Liverpool to Tottenham, every team had their unique feeling based on their local profile. But rising costs have meant local people, in particular those from the poorest parts of society, can no longer afford to pay for a season ticket. Increasingly stadiums accommodate more and more corporate tickets and some of the most passionate local fans are being priced out of the market. The result is less atmosphere, less emotion and ultimately less entertainment.
So what does this have to do with Leicester City? With increasing prices, comes an increase in sterility. As clubs focus on their global brand more than their local support, they are in danger of losing what made the league so popular, its diversity. The joy of this season has been how unexpected it has been - the breakup of the established top four by a plucky underdog. But as clubs become businesses, the risk is they lose their charm and that the league becomes full of homogeneous brands that no longer reflect local nuance, and where money drives success. In this more sterile league, stories like Leicester’s, that drive the popularity of the league, become far less likely.
Leicester’s win at City was a pure moment of football magic. An underdog win and a sign that an almost impossible dream could become a reality. But for these stories to exist the league needs its intricacies and diversities. The Premier League needs to step in for the benefit of its clubs. Personally, I’d love to see a cap on cost of season tickets. For the Premier League to create a standard price that allows the smaller clubs to operate but for fans across the country to go and see the club they love, whichever one that may be. This may seem impossibly optimistic but in the long term high prices will hurt the league, and so it needs to act, before stories like Leicester’s become a thing of the past.