'The business culture in sport will find infinite ways to separate fans from their money'
Anfield supporters are in the vanguard of 'customer' resentment and the ill-feeling is spreading fast
Nobody told Jurgen Klopp his job would extend to conflict resolution. Nowhere in the offer did it say he would be the diplomat in a war between Liverpool fans and a sports/media model dropped on one of the most deprived neighbourhoods in Britain.
The Anfield walk-out and the spreading anger over ticket prices is most certainly to do with the cost of watching modern football. But at the heart of it is creeping alienation from a culture that has turned spectators into customers and finds infinite ways to separate them from their money.
When resistance to this culture reached boiling point, it was a good bet the steam would rise first from Anfield.
Like most Premier League clubs, Liverpool are founded on a highly developed business model that takes in every aspect of modern marketing and communication.
The homepages of Liverpool and Manchester United for example greet with you an official ‘rewards’ credit card offer that rewards you with a replica shirt it you spend £200 in the first 90 days (representative annual interest rate, 18.9%).
Soon you ask yourself: what is a big football club for? What is its function? Playing football matches, yes. But in the Premier League the games themselves can seem almost incidental.
A few examples. Click on the LFC Official Boot Room and you are taken not on a tour of Bill Shankly’s sanctum but to a retail store for footwear. Liverpool can communicate with you through “official” channels on Facebook, Twitter, Google +, Instagram, YouTube, Fancred, Pinterest and Photo Blog. Live TV is available from £4.99 per month. There are official stores in Hong Kong, Japan, Thailand, South Korea and Vietnam.
Lined up to support this formidable merchandising operation are 20 official partners, from Dunkin’ Donuts to Gatorade, Subway and Jack Wolfskin.
There is no intention to single out Liverpool as a particularly acquisitive club. In fact Anfield is playing catch-up in the battle for hearts and minds after many years of allowing Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal to plunder the market. But missed in all this frantic dollar-chasing is the subliminal effect it has on fans who are already paying inflated ticket prices and television subscription charges to Sky and BT.
The word you keep coming back to is alienation. And the breaking point figure is not the £77 Liverpool want to charge some fans to sit in their new stand but the £8.3 billion Premier League clubs will earn from the latest broadcasting deals.
This is the juxtaposition that forced Klopp from hospital (where he had an appendix operation) to a lectern to talk about “finding a solution” to the exodus by 10,000 fans at the Sunderland game. Klopp has enough on his plate, you might think, without having to answer for the mindset of clubs who extrapolate from full-houses that they can charge what they like.
When Fenway Sports Group bought Liverpool in 2010 they must have known Liverpool fans were a feisty bunch, quick to fight their corner. They arrived as saviours, rescuing the club from another set of American proprietors. That credit has expired. After Saturday’s exodus, indignation extends to club sponsors such as Subway. Stick that in your baguette.
By themselves the increases at Liverpool are comparatively small, yet big enough to form a critical mass across football. As with much of modern British life – the utility firms, most obviously – there is the sense of passing through an endless series of tolls, of being shaken down, every step of the way. Football may be bearing the brunt of a much wider resentment.
Its problem, though, is that the triumphant (in one sense) £8.3billion TV bonanza has become the measure for everything, from the £25million a club might waste on an overseas winger to a ticket price rise that lights the touch paper of disgust.
“I don’t go any more, it’s too expensive,” is a lament you hear in every English town and city. Our prevailing economic culture instructs us to reply: tough luck, Jack, there are plenty who can pay, the devil takes the hindmost.
But this creeping disenfranchisement was never going to pass unchallenged. Until last year, when it shed the dubious honour, Merseyside was officially the most deprived region of England. The brand has been sweated enough.
FSG’s mission statement offers every clue to how football has migrated into media-and-entertainment land: “Fenway Sports Group’s portfolio of companies includes some of the most storied names and clubs in worldwide sport: the Boston Red Sox, a Major League Baseball club; Liverpool FC, an English Premier League football club; Fenway Sports Management (formerly FSG), a sales and marketing company; 80 percent of New England Sports Network (NESN), a regional sports television network; and 50 percent of Roush Fenway Racing, a NASCAR racing team.
“Fenway Sports Group also owns two of the most renowned venues in sports: Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox, and Anfield Stadium, home of Liverpool FC.”
Teams, stadiums, TV companies, management, sales and marketing: today’s owners do it all, with digital media to spread the message and shift product. This is the world we signed up to and conspired in.
FSG were among a number of speculators who spotted that Premier League entertainment was worth more than it was fetching when they first moved in. In sport, love is exploitable, but not unlimited, unlike the greed that has detached many clubs from fairness and reality.