Protect me from what I want: 20 years of the Premier League

By John Williams, Senior Lecturer, Department of Sociology, University of Leicester

It is the twentieth anniversary of the Premier League: time to reflect.

John Wlliams, University of LeicesterIn the 1980s Liverpool FC ruled English football and were a dominant force in Europe. That is until, in May 1985, hooliganism by the club’s fans at the European Cup final in Brussels provoked a wall collapse, resulting in 39 mainly Italian fans being killed in front of a global TV audience. English clubs were banned from Europe – we were hooligan pariahs – and annual attendances at English football matches slumped to a post-war low of 16.5 million.

Isolated and damaged, nevertheless in 1988 ITV negotiated what was then regarded as a ground breaking deal for live TV coverage of English league matches, £44 million over four years. For the first time the top clubs in Division 1 claimed the lion’s share, a still miserable £9 million per season. In April 1989 Liverpool fans were now the victims of crass police mismanagement and poor facilities at an FA Cup semi-final match at the Hillsborough stadium in Sheffield: 96 people died as a result. As the sport reeled, in August a rather jumped up northern businessman Michael Knighton made a very public and record takeover bid of £20 million for England’s flagship club Manchester United. His offer was quickly accepted and Knighton crassly appeared on the Old Trafford pitch juggling a football. But he failed to juggle his proposed backers and the deal collapsed.

This was English football in the 1980s: a sport plagued by problems of spectator misbehaviour, poor stadium facilities and crowd mismanagement. ‘Old’ football was a sport with a ‘difficult’ public image, and was much undervalued by television. Its largest and most popular clubs were apparently incapable of attracting reliable suitors or being run even like middle range businesses. English football lacked a proper concern for its supporters and customers; real leadership and direction, and also wider public appeal.

What happened next altered the English game almost beyond recognition. The Taylor report into the Hillsborough disaster called for change: modernisation in governance, attitudes and stadia. Better treatment of supporters, more concern with fan safety, a diminished role for the police. CCTV-surveilled, pacified all-seated stadia would be the future.

In response, in 1991 the national governing body The Football Association sanctioned an historic breakaway of the elite English clubs from the other 72 in the Football League: the FA Premier League was born. The FA promised that the new league would benefit the national team and the wider development of the sport, though soon it was the elite club chairmen who were effectively running the English game. The national team could go hang itself.

Also around this time, troubled new satellite TV businesses, unable to attract subscribers, saw English football as their unlikely saviour. The nascent Premier League and newly-formed BSkyB fell into each other’s arms, like a couple of happy drunks who had just discovered the way home. Europe had its first domestic sports league, funded by and made for television: £302 million for a five-year deal. With bright new stadia, better behaved fans, skilled marketing, and excellent production values, BSkyB began to re-shape elite English football into the ‘whole new ball game’ its adverts promised.

Twenty years on, in 2012, the Premier League is unarguably the most commercially successful sports league in Europe – and its global popularity has guaranteed BSkyB’s future. English football is unrecognisable from that troubled, old fashioned, poorly resourced and rather leaderless version of the 1980s. Annual attendances are up to 30 million, last achieved back in 1962 when the Beatles were emerging. The PL’s most recent TV deal, announced earlier this year with BSkyB and BT, will bring in an astonishing £3 billion over three years, a recession-proof 71% increase on the last.

Manchester United is currently valued by its American owners in excess of £1 billion: Michael Knighton eat your heart out. The PL’s ‘brand’ is valued across much of the world and digital technology and processes of globalisation mean it can be used to sell a wide range of products and services to people who can only dream of ever attending a game in England. Some of the best players in the world now play in the PL: around two-thirds of the average squad is recruited from abroad. And families now feel safe in our top stadia: the PL proudly points to the recent accelerated recruitment of women and people from minority ethnic backgrounds as active fans. Others can catch their teams on TV in bars and clubs.

So, 20 years on, reasons to be cheerful? Sure. But perhaps we also need some protection from all of this apparent ‘success’?

The aggressive market values which run through the sport have attracted global carpet-baggers and shysters as owners, as well as greedy businessmen looking for a fast return on their investment. The number of English football clubs which have been in Administration has rocketed since 1992, many of them overstretching to try to reach the Promised Land, or suffering the bends of mismanagement or relegation. Promotion to the PL will soon be worth a conservative £120 million.

Some top PL players can earn close to £1 million per month and often appear spoiled and wilful celebrities compared, for example, to the recent modest heroics of British Olympians. Money seems increasingly to dictate all: players come and go, but three clubs (Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea) have dominated the Premier League era. A fourth (newly moneyed Manchester City) seems likely to join them.

Top clubs seem more able (and willing) today to ‘choose’ their customers via marketing and success rather than prizing supporters who are critically, emotionally engaged and actively following their local club. At some London grounds paying over £50 for a PL match ticket is not unusual: the average active PL fan today is well over 40, in work and reasonably affluent.

So, some congratulations are in order for the PL’s first 20 years: we are in a better place than we were in the often troubled 1980s. But there is also a potential new crisis – of greed and excess – in the English game that needs to be addressed. Perhaps UEFA’s proposed new rules on financial fair play will rein in the English clubs and rebalance the relationship between sport and business here? But can a derided Frenchman, UEFA president Michel Platini, really protect us from what we want?

John Williams is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Sociology at the University of Leicester.

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  1. […] By John Williams, Senior Lecturer, Department of Sociology, University of Leicester It is the twentieth anniversary of the Premier League: time to reflect. In the 1980s Liverpool FC ruled English football and were a dominant force in Europe.  […]

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