Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Not over until the fat cats sing - Danny Mackay

The Football Supporters Federation opposes any competitive games played overseas. That was a policy it didn’t need two weeks ago, and no longer needs again now. Or so we have been conned into thinking.

At the London meeting last night the group’s director of policy and campaigns, an Arsenal fan called Steven Powell, admitted he thought it was a wind up when he was phoned with news of the proposal.

What he thought was a wind up was not an overseas game, but an entire new round for the league calendar. You see there had been talks behind the scenes of cup finals being played in New York. There was talk of picking one of the 38 game rounds to be played abroad, with each side losing a home game every other season. That was halted because it would have lost clubs more money than it earned them.

But more important than the long term planning for a foreign venture, is that Game 39 is still well on course.

For my sins I must admit I report on politics for a living. I deal with spin on a daily basis. And not just from government. Everybody does it. Oppositions, campaigners, charities and companies. They all draw up sophisticated strategies for getting their way.

And the Premier League™ is no different.

The strategy team promoting Game 39, of which I’m told there are half a dozen well paid members, have a tried and tested strategy that is working perfectly.

Sponsors and clubs were never likely to oppose an additional carriage for their gravy train. And foreign leagues can be won over with the promise of development funds for pet projects.

The problem was always going to be us fans. And there were three options apparent for neutralizing us.

One was to convince the English supporter base that this is was great idea. That was probably ruled from day one.

Another would have been to present this as inevitable. The press peddled this lie early on, attacking the plans while lamenting that nothing could be done to stop them.

But that strategy had two great weaknesses. For a start it required the deal to be presented as something close to a fait accompli. In an age when whispers and leaks dominate headlines that was probably deemed too difficult. A bigger weakness though, was that fans would still grow angry, would still protest, and still boycott.

So the third strategy, and the one I’d have advised from the start, was to accept the flack. Simply let the world laugh and continue anyway.

You see the third strategy is simple. Make opponents complacent. When the idea returns slowly, minor u-turn after minor u-turn, momentum to protest will have been lost to a false sense of security. Who after all, would join a protest that had failed already?

And so Scudamore accepted the flack. The Premier League™ let the world laugh. And now millions of fans can’t be bothered to protest an idea that the world’s federations, Uefa and Fifa have united against.

So here comes a question.

Are English fans the chumps that spin doctors would have them be? Would they, to paraphrase Bomber Harris, really stop fighting just because they are winning?

Scudamore and his team will need just five countries to sign up. He will also dine with Blatter this week, enjoying the finest cuisine the world has to offer. And in that setting how many will bet on the integrity of football’s world president?

And yet we fans have real power.

This awful proposal came about because foreign viewing figures have plummeted. Before now the world watched for free. But the latest rights deal has introduced subscriptions and pay-per-view fees. The world has thus chosen to watch something else.

Likewise Barclays are the Premier League™ sponsor. And they are frightened. They have stressed already that their contract runs out in 2010, and so they shouldn’t be considered part of the problem. It is after all, so very easy for fans in their millions to choose an alternative credit card and bank account.

But before boycotts happen fans must first show their strength. The sponsors can be hit hard but should not have to be. They just need to be scared enough that they oppose these plans. Clubs won’t risk their bedrock domestic revenues for slim pickings abroad.

And we have the press on our side. They will publish our campaigns, protests and boycotts. They will report on the response of our clubs. They may even fund gimmicks like black balloons.

So here is a final thought.

The Premier League™ is winning. The fans are losing because of a lie. Don’t let spin doctors trick you into surrender. Instead fight and win back a little control over your game.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Hold on to your passion - Alan Fisher

From the moment of its creation, when it decided that it was no longer Division One, the Premier League has had one main objective, the consolidation of its own power. Seen in these terms, its success has been phenomenal, eclipsing even its prodigious ability to generate wealth for its exclusive membership.

The so-called governing body of English football, the FA, has seen its powers gradually and consistently diminish; the Premiership not only controls its own membership, TV deal and image rights, it has got its grimy hands on the very structure of the season and kick-off times, and it won’t let go without a fight.

The 39th game is a wily gambit towards the end game that, they trust, will create more than merely an unassailable English powerbase; it will enable them to dominate club football across the world. Alongside the chance to make even more profits, the Premier League at the same time has created an opportunity to undermine and marginalise the one main potential obstacle to its strategy, the fans.

If the 39th game takes place, it will be in the face of massive opposition from fans of every club. The very nature of supporting your team has already changed profoundly since the early nineties. The age and class profile of fans has changed radically since the start of the Premiership, as younger and less affluent fans simply cannot afford to come on a regular basis. All-seated stadia mean that the days of meeting a few mates on the day and going to the game is consigned to the quaint backwaters of football history. A match has become a major logistical exercise, travel and tickets planned months in advance, plans that go up in smoke a few weeks before the big day when the date and kick-off time are changed to suit Sky TV.

For many, supporting a team now means buy the shirt and a satellite box.

Even the possibility of going to some games has been removed. The sanctity of what is a Premier League as a measure of worthy achievement over a long and arduous season has in a flash been tossed in the bin. Fans feel angry not merely at the sheer damn cheek of such machinations, but also at our perceived powerlessness to intervene in any way in the future direction of the game that we love with a passion. The 39th game is part of a process that began on the first morning of the Premiership, but it may be the point at which our beloved football is slipping away from us.

The Premier League have a problem with passion. They say they welcome it, of course – where would we be without the fantastic support of the fans, so they say. In fact, supporters have become crowd extras in the latest Premiership blockbuster, background noise to enhance the television spectacle. We can’t stand up. We can’t go to and from the ground as we wish. At big games we cannot any longer be trusted to generate atmosphere, rather we need a pre-match announcer to tell when to become excited. I have been to several important matches over the last few years when in the last 15 minutes before kick-off the PA has gradually been turned up to drown out the crowd.

We the fans are a fairyland cash cow with udders that never run dry as a stream of income steadily flows into the clubs via seat prices and the club shops. We even have to pay for the privilege of being able to buy a ticket. It’s called a membership scheme so we don’t notice.

But passion is a strong emotion, one that is unpredictable and difficult to control, and anything that cannot be reduced to the profit and loss of a balance sheet makes the Premier League wary. They don’t want us to complain on message boards, TV and in shareholders meetings. They don’t want protests inside and outside grounds that clubs are not being properly managed. And they don’t want us to stay at home.

Power and the exercise of power takes many forms. There is political power, the use of force and financial muscle, for instance. There’s also another form of power that is less immediately apparent but just as insidious and significant, the power to control the way we think about and express our feelings and opinions. In attempting to sell us the 39th game, the Premier League’s use of language is perhaps the most telling example of how they not only wish to obscure their true intentions, they also intend to change the relationship between themselves and fans.

Here’s a quote from Richard Scudamore, from last Sunday’s Observer:

‘I know what people are saying and writing, but it is not purely about money, not at all. This is about taking the League forward, recognising that you can't stand still. Nobody can stand still.
'We are in a privileged position [as the world's most popular football league] but also a vulnerable position. There is a globalisation of sport we can't deny. And we are faced with a strategic decision. Do we seize the moment and seek to move forward, or do we batten down the hatches, stay domestic, sit there and watch other people do it, other leagues, other sports, other forms of entertainment? Or even the four or five biggest clubs, I won't name them but we know who they are, in our own competition?’

Let’s deconstruct this. Firstly, it’s not about money, it’s about progress. When I first heard him speak about his plans on FiveLive he described it as an ‘evolutionary step’ and as such it was obvious that there would be some resistance. We are therefore in the grip of an inexorable force; it’s madness to fight against the very forces that have most shaped our development as a planet. Anyone who does so is a dinosaur, and we all know what happened to them. As a fan, I am therefore too limited in my thinking to comprehend the future and my well-intentioned but ultimately misguided opinions are not just wrong, they actually have less validity and importance.

Here and in the media over the past few days we have been introduced to a new concept, ‘the globalisation of sport’. Again it is explained as a force of nature as the world economy evolves, part of the natural order of things. This masks the fact that globalisation is a purely human construct, created to further the interests of already wealthy nations and corporations at the expense of poorer countries rich in resources and ripe for exploitation. Globalisation has many enemies from all sides, and far from being the future it can be halted or at the very least its course altered.

Note also the veiled threats, in this case of a breakaway of the ‘top four or five clubs’. No evidence is offered in support of this assertion. This fits with the ‘could be worse’ argument, that they are acting in the interests of the fans because they have provided an extra game (and travel opportunities!!) instead of removing a fixture from the existing calendar. We dinosaurs are too limited to perceive this as a softening up tactic, of course. And once more here is the premise of inevitability. To repeat, it isn’t, it can be stopped, but to do so we must see through this cloak of invisibility created by the mythmaking spin-doctors of the Premier League.

Perhaps the best example of how the Premier League uses language to alter their relationship with the fans is the use of the simple, seemingly innocent term ‘customer’.

There are several words that can be used to describe people who watch football – fans, supporters, diehards, devotees – yet ‘customer’ came up many times over the weekend during interviews with Premier League representatives and chairmen. I would contend that this is because ‘customer’ is a convenient way for the League to marginalise fans.

It is devoid of any emotion or passion. I don’t go to Sainsbury’s expecting to react with despair or joy, I go to get a job done. It implies a relationship between a service provider and a recipient, someone who is on the receiving end and gets what they are given. Customers are somewhat subservient.

That’s not the full story of a typical customer/service provider relationship, however, because most customers have some element of choice. Sainsbury’s happens to be the closest supermarket to both my home and my work, so I usually go there. But if their standards slip or prices rise, I can easily drive a short distance to rivals Tescos, Adsa or Morrisons. Supply and demand dictates that Sainsbury’s must therefore stay on their toes or risk losing my custom and that of many other like-minded individuals.

To use such an analogy in football is meaningless, as is the term ‘customer’. I am a Spurs supporter. If my team let standards slip on or off the field, or ticket prices rise, I may complain but I’m not going to watch Arsenal from now on, or indeed stop off en route to Tottenham from Kent on the many clubs that are closer to my home. I’m not a customer, I’m a fan, and this is a lifetime commitment. If only, the chairman of Sainsbury’s must wish, he could encourage similar devotion in his customers.

So if I wish to watch my team, I have no choice but to pay. I might protest at the price rises that are way above inflation, but the chairman would shrug and point to the season ticket waiting list of 20,000. So I pay. Spurs reached a Wembley final and as a season ticket holder I’m fortunate to be guaranteed a ticket. But to get them I must pay various fees to the club, over and above the ticket price, that add up to about £10. I must pay £4.95 in special delivery postage.

No alternatives are offered; I can’t make my own mind up to chance the normal post, I can’t go to the ticket office to pick them up. I must pay, even though one reason behind this is the security imposed after the club allowed a ticket fraud to operate from their office last year. That wasn’t my fault but I end up paying for it.

Sainsbury’s could also charge £5 extra, for delivery if I order online. Unlike Spurs, they are offering me an extra service for this price and I can therefore make my choice.

Finally, any extra revenue generated by the 39th game will go back to the clubs, but there is no guarantee that ‘customer’ will benefit. Shareholders will do well, as will agents as transfer fees increase – supply and demand again, good players in short supply, greater demand, more cash, so up go prices. That’s how supply and demand works, and we ‘customers’ have no protection whatsoever.

This is not about the relationship between customer and club as regulated by supply and demand. Rather, clubs hold a monopoly position vis a vis their fans, and as with all monopolies it is ruthlessly exploited. I thought legislation existed to protect against monopolies, but that does not apply to the Premier League, in keeping apparently with so much else. That’s how the powerful operate – aloof and untouchable.

So reject the blandishments of this devious and mendacious League. Hold on to your passion. It’s the one thing they can never take away, no matter how hard they try. Use that energy to protest, to argue. Let them know you can’t fool all of the people all of the time. And remember, they are afraid.

Monday, February 11, 2008

We must take action - Richard Dickinson

If you have ever watched a reserve game, you may be forgiven for wondering what the difference is to a first team game. There are a couple of first-teamers recovering from injury in the stiffs, a couple of players who have provoked the big chap in the long coat's ire, and a few kids on their way up.

A strange atmosphere of pointlessness hangs over the whole thing. For the bigger players in particular there really isn't much to play for, except perhaps not being seen too visibly sulking. That remains the first choice centre-forward's job after all. Otherwise it's the same as a normal game. You still leap up involuntarily if your team scores, and you can still negotiate the purchase of a Balti Pie and some luke-warm German urine in a plastic glass at half time.

Reserve football is a top day out. But, in practice at least, your club is really no more than this. It is no more than four or five teams playing at different levels in the same colour shirts, all backed up with a couple of history books. It is only the support that really makes the otherwise rather empty framework of a football club come to life, and with that it becomes… pass the sickbag… a "brand". Support is the essence of a club.

How did the brand of your club come into existence? Was it in 1992 when an assortment of good spin fairies and marketing witches invented the Premiership product? Amazingly no. Whatever Scudamore and his evil minions might like to pretend, the Premiership and the assorted club chairmen over the years have "just" developed and profited from their brands. These were instead created over the course of a hundred years or so by the exploits of players, managers, and above all the unfailing support of their core support.

Fans' relationships with their club are profound and tribal, informed by location, family history and psychology, love, dreams, irrationality, nerdiness, and quite probably psychosis. Over the last 15 years, these poor saps have been squeezed for every last penny, every cubic millimetre of their seemingly ridiculous and outdated loyalty has been market-researched and exploited to within an inch of its sorry life.

They have seen ticket prices rise to Royal Opera House levels as attendances at some grounds slumped. They buy a new shirt for their kids every year now, instead of every two years as was the tradition. And they can only watch most live games on pay TV at home or in pubs.

Indeed don't think Match of the Day will stay free forever. Here in France the recent bidding for TV rights has seen the national "free" channels lose out to Canal Plus (pay) and Orange (mobile phones) with the result that anyone who doesn't subscribe will see just one and half minutes per weekend of football on the news. All of this, we have learned to live with and, masochistically, even find ways of quite enjoying. We have been sold back at a phenomenal price what was actually ours for almost nothing. We're loving it.

The soaring TV revenues have lead to even quite average footballers earning in a week what a doctor might in a year. Understandably the behaviour has become correspondingly ludicrous. Rich comedy is afforded by the antics of Cashley Cole or Jermain Defoe but every now and again your laughter inevitably turns sour and bilious.

There was the recent rape allegation at Manchester United's Christmas party where top comedian Rio Ferdinand wheeled in a couple of busloads of would be WAGs while the players left their poor old Eileens at home. We see John Terry, our national captain, scream at some unfortunate referee week after week. We see the amazing mathematical hazard that lets the top four play each other on the same day twice a season. We see the Tevez fiasco. We see a decision not to allow Spurs and West Ham to cancel an illness stricken game made and announced on the Highbury touchline. And worst of all we see England's national team play.

We see, chew over, swallow, and digest all of this, washed down with a vintage bottle of Britain's saving grace, our supposed ability to laugh at ourselves and "get on with it". Yet if we ignored a weekend's action and took to sheepdog trials instead, the "product" would have little more value than the reserve games mentioned above. Of course we'd have to import a few aircraft carriers filled with sheepdogs from the Falkland Isles, but you take my point.

This brings us to the Premier League's recent cock-eyed proposal to play a 39th game in far-flung world cities. This must serves as the final straw. We have swallowed all of the above because of our deep and passionate ties with the clubs we love. If you'll pardon my French, the piss has not just been taken, it has been ripped out, processed, put in dinky bottles with a picture of the club mascot on the front, and sold back to us with a prawn sandwich.

An outrageous amount of metaphorical laughing and pointing at fans' gullibility has no doubt quite rightly been done in the game's boardrooms. This time however a line has been crossed. It is quite possible with this scheme that Spurs-Arsenal will be played in Miami and a Manchester United-Manchester City will take place in Beijing. And this will apparently provide "travel opportunities".

If you need help following why that is plain WRONG then I will draw you a proverbial diagram. For the first time in 120 years, the perfectly even field that League teams compete upon will be shat on from on high. Your club can draw Chelsea three times while your neighbours get three against Watford. There is absolutely no further argument required to explain why this is WRONG and cannot work.

I must say now that I would actually quite look forward to seeing Sir Alex or Wenger's reaction to such a fixture-based injustice. But, oh no, silly me, even that subtle and rare delight will be denied us because they will be SEEDED! They won't have to play another "top four" team three times., and thus when the league campaign starts, all teams will no longer be deemed equal under the rules of the game.

And why are we doing this? Because apparently "90%" of the potential audience can't get to see a game. Well this may come as a surprise to Scuddy, but there is also a substantial audience in Britain who can't get to see a game because of ticket prices, a lack of sufficient seats, or ludicrous kick-off times that don't coincide with transport schedules.

Strangely the concern for these people has drawn no response. Ticket prices have not fallen and Sky's kick off times still don't correspond to railway timetables. But, hey, no doubt those changes are in the pipeline.

They want to use the games abroad as a "development tool" in Africa and Asia. Now I couldn't say that with a straight face if I was tricky Dicky Scudamore himself. I would have to protected by a black curtain with a hole for my eyes and mouth so people couldn't see me cringe. But that's what they say so it must be true. Likewise no corporate ticket sales will be allowed, and this is in no way just an effort to make yet more money for people who by any reasonable standards have too fucking much already.

Now let's finish with some unjustified sexual metaphors. Perhaps that will help.

This scheme is rampant, it is a right old goer - in three days it has threatened to perform the most unspeakably saucy acts on the sorry arses of the fans' understandable yet foolhardy belief that they might have a chance of getting a ticket for a home game.

It has swaggered into the living-room in a pair of knee-high leather boots and proclaimed its desire to shaft the whole League fixture system up its battered old ring. It has pranced around in edible lingerie taunting inhabitants of Third World countries with the promise of a sizzling Wigan-Reading in their boudoir.

If the pole dancing stripper that is the English game is being lunged at by her despicable and power drunken audience made up of Sky and clammy chairmen, then us fans must be the bouncers. We grew wary and failed as they lingered too long when stuffing bills in her garter. We let the lewd degrading suggestions slide because they were too much effort to halt. But now the perverts have climbed onto the podium as they unfasten their belts, and thus they break the one rule that matters most.


So this has to stop here. Not because you couldn't make an argument for the scheme on its own. But because it must be viewed in the context of 15 years of total disregard and disrespect for the people who put these bastards where they are and without whom the EPL would still be the old Football Combination, albeit with knobs on.

So make your protests heard. enough is enough.

Down Shep !