Since the arrival of the pandemic led to the abandonment of sporting activities across the world, I have been missing football dearly. Recently, in an attempt to fill the ball-shaped hole in my life, I have been tuning in on weekends to watch the Bundesliga.
The Bundesliga (the German first league for the uninitiated) returned to action in mid-May, and by doing so before any other major European league it has become a surrogate league for many fans missing their weekend fix. However, this is not football as we know it; the league is being played behind closed doors, in vacated stadiums, with nothing but the sound of the players shouting at one another and the TV commentary to fill the silence left by the lack of supporters.
In tuning in every weekend, I have been struck by the thought that not only do we miss football, but football misses us too. Evidently football clubs need supporters in the financial sense - many clubs are finding themselves with grave monetary concerns without the matchday revenue generated from live games, which is worth £677m per season for Premier League clubs. It is for this reason that leagues are doing all they can to keep the show going, and the Premier League’s impending return on June 17 is undoubtedly welcomed by the majority of fans - although as a Liverpool fan I welcome it more than most.
But this is not what I am referring to. More than football’s financial dependency on its supporters, games played in empty, echoey stadiums have shown just how integral fans are to the survival of the game. Without the atmosphere and intensity provided by the crowd, baying at the opposition and roaring their side forward, these televised games have felt like sterile training games - a feeble imitation of the real thing.
Since the advent of big TV money from Sky in the 1990s, British football has been on a relentless commercial drive, with clubs transforming into financial giants, raking in millions in broadcasting rights and ploughing this money back into purchasing the greatest talent from across the globe for ever-increasing sums. The sport has become a highly commercialised, mediatised spectacle, and match-goers have been pushed away from their teams by rising ticket prices and TV-centric fixture schedules.
While this has led some to turn their back on the Premier League in favour of grassroots clubs, the footballing establishment has managed to keep most people onside, the idea being that rising ticket prices and declining accessibility are a price worth paying in the pursuit of sporting excellence. In fact, the financial excesses of these mega clubs are even packaged as another form of entertainment in itself.
However, the pandemic, by taking football away from us and returning it to us in this diminished form, has made it very clear that fans can no longer be an afterthought. Without the passion and emotion of the crowd, these games feel hollow and meaningless. We have been given a sudden vision of where football will end up if it continues to marginalise fans, and those in charge must now reflect on what football is for. The Premier League is a highly valuable product, but it is obvious that this asset will lose value if we continue to prioritise the financial side of the game at the expense of the supporters.
Perhaps this is also a lesson that can be applied beyond football; as we come out of lockdown and into (don’t say, don’t say it….) the new normal, businesses must consider who and what they are working for. The pandemic has allowed us to focus on what is really important to us, and it seems clear that those without clear purpose and authenticity will soon be left by the wayside.
Football Association chairman Greg Clarke has said it is hard to see fans returning to matches "any time soon" and the Premier League is preparing for the possibility of playing next season without fans. Increasingly lucrative broadcasting deals and commercial opportunities mean matchday income contributes a smaller proportion of total revenue to clubs in the modern era than before - but it can still have a significant impact.