“Football without fans is nothing,” goes the quote from the legendary Celtic manager Jock Stein. While the importance of football fans to the game is obvious, it is beginning to seem that it might not be that relevant to the clubs themselves. Last year the BBC found that more than half of Premier League clubs could have played in empty stadiums and still made a pre-tax profit.
Traditionally, professional football matches across the United Kingdom dominated Saturday afternoons. 3pm on a Saturday was the familiar kick off to the weekend’s action and became a much-loved custom in the country’s most popular sport. Now, in the 21st century, 3pm kick offs on a Saturday have been reduced to hosting as little as half of the weekend’s Premier League action. The advent of widespread football coverage on television and the need to satisfy international markets has seen leagues across the world take a more flexible approach to on which day and at what time matches kick off.
But what about the fans?
Last year the rights to show Premier League games from 2019-2022 were sold for £4.464bn. Selected matches are scheduled to fit in with optimum viewing times in Asia or America, and kick-off times and dates are often not confirmed until two weeks before the matches are due to take place. Rescheduling at short notice is commonplace, which can make it difficult for fans to make plans around going to the game.
Just this weekend Tottenham fans had to stock up on energy drinks to travel up to Burnley for a midday kick-off with alarms set for approximately 3:30 am. Last week Alaves supporters in Spain held a mock funeral during their La Liga win over Levante in protest at the match being switched to Monday night for live TV coverage. A large number of fans also boycotted the kick-off, entering the ground five minutes late. A banner saying ‘RIP Football’ was displayed as fans dressed in black and carried a coffin into the stadium.
Fans have also expressed their anger, claiming that UEFA have put supporters last in recent weeks. The Arsenal Supporters’ Trust blasted the decision to schedule the club’s Europa League fixture against BATE Borisov at 5.55pm on Thursday night last week, leaving fans who clock out of work no time to travel to the game.
Are fans being left behind by the growing international success of the beautiful game? Is money ruining the game? Can commercial organisations be blamed for hoping to benefit from its popularity? Can fans have it both ways? Should football be seen simply as entertainment for those watching wherever they happen to be, or should it have a ‘soul’, some deeper connection to the loyal fans who make it what it is?
The big impact is likely to come further down the line when clubs want an even bigger share of the currently evenly distributed overseas TV income. Just last year Spain’s top flight agreed to play one game a year in the US as part of a 15-year deal with media company Relevent. However, the Spanish FA and players’ union have not backed the deal. The question is whether English clubs will follow this decision to please their own international fans abroad. For me fans should always come first, loyal paying season ticket holders should have the opportunity to watch their team in every possible match no matter what.