IT WASN’T just football in Britain that dramatically changed over the past 30 years, the world also shifted and became a far more uncertain, darker place. People lost faith in trusted institutions such as banks, regulators, law firms and political systems and we started to see the creation of digital society. In Britain, indeed much of the world, some of the truly basic requirements of life; our security, our finances and basic healthcare were all severely tested. No longer could we take anything for granted, but football was still there for us in some shape or form.
As for football, the arrival of the Premier League in 1992 completely transformed an ailing sport that had been hit by tragedy and strife in the 1980s, including Hillsborough, Heysel and the Bradford City fire. Something had to change and inspiration came, in part, from continental Europe. Britain looked at the glamorous, colourful and star-studded Italian league, Serie A, as the epitome of footballing spectacle.
The story goes back to the mid-1980s when people like Tottenham Hotspur chairman Irving Scholar saw greater commercial potential within football. Author and consultant Alex Fynn, who worked for Saachi & Saachi at the time, saw the benefits of the “live event” and was involved in early discussions around the creation of the Premier League. “Scholar was a visionary and as a result of those early meetings, the bold decision was taken to launch the first TV advertising campaign for Tottenham’s fixtures. It worked to a degree, the only thing letting them down was the team,” recalls Fynn.
A number of proposals were made concerning a new format at a time when the Football Association and Football League had a difficult relationship. Fynn championed a structure comprising slimmed-down leagues and some regionalisation. The outcome was the Premier, but it initially resembled the same product with a different label. The changes in televised football and the internet revolution brought new technology to all aspects of life and football eventually came on board. Online media and commerce now delivers a significant contribution and since the early 1990s, broadcasting deals and club revenues have grown spectacularly.
The demographic of the football audience also changed, along with the expansion of the game to include professional leagues for women’s football which are now gathering momentum. Today, no stadium is complete without its bankers, celebrities and CEOs and clubs have tried to meet this new clientbase, but 30 years earlier, well-heeled city folk would not have gone near a football stadium. More than 30 new grounds have been built in the Premier League era, some of which – Arsenal’s Emirates and Tottenham’s new stadium for example – are eye-catching structures while other, cheaper arenas are more about function than statements of intent. Some clubs have cashed-in on land values and sold ancestral homes which has distinct parallels with the real world where property development has become something of a dirty word. Britain has now realised it has a shortage of housing with younger generations being priced out of the market, but as with so many public services, politics have become a major obstacle.
The new venues have changed the user experience for the better, although some people still bemoan the fact that football is rapidly becoming too gentrified and as a consequence, the matchday atmosphere has been diluted. Nevertheless, the game has come a long way since the hooligan-plagued years of the 1970s and 1980s. Attendances have risen astonishingly and some clubs have waiting lists for season tickets. At the same time, ticket prices have risen to ridiculous, unaffordable levels, but where is the motivation for clubs with queues of fans longing to buy a place in the stadium?
With so much cash rolling around the Premier League, it has been no surprise to see players’ wages rising at such an accelerated rate. This trend, which was initially triggered by freedom of movement rulings as well as vast sums of broadcasting money, has been a distinct contrast to wages across other industries, which have clearly stuttered since the financial crisis of 2008. It is a sign of football’s resilience that while so many sectors of society were devastated by the crisis, football managed to navigate its way through some difficult macro-economic years without too much damage. The same cannot be said of the covid-19 pandemic which closed stadiums to the public, and the war in Ukraine could yet unleash further problems.
Supporters expect clubs to secure top talent, hence the Premier League, a product of globalisation, employs coaches and players from around the world. This is a strange situation given the British electorate’s decision to vote against continued membership of the European Union in 2016. One of the driving factors was the number of “foreigners” taking jobs that could easily have gone to British people. Now, with Brexit dividing the country, there is a chronic labour shortage in what has become a service economy. Interestingly, nobody ever seemed to complain about the very high number of foreign footballers playing for their clubs. Indeed, part of the broad appeal of the Premier League has been its globalisation – where would we have been without the likes of Eric Cantona, Gianfranco Zola, Thiery Henry, Dennis Bergkamp and David Ginola, among others? Similarly, the nature of football club acquisition has changed, with the traditional model, largely philanthropic, giving way to strategic ownership. Like the corporate world, UK clubs are in the hands of foreign investors, some of which are controversial, and only 30% of Premier League clubs have British backers.
There are now calls for greater regulation within football, around owners and financial structures, which does mirror what happened after 2008 in the financial sector. Meanwhile, the Premier League remains the great distraction for people and in an era of war, adversarial politics, climate change, rampant inflation and political mayhem, it may become even more important. We may not like the huge wages and the ticket prices and the overbearing hype that is attached to the game, but the appeal of football in times of crises seems only to solidify. The Premier League may become the modern version of “bread and circuses”, but the next few years may severely test that theory.