Is it possible to love football but not like it? And is it safe to admit to such an inconvenient yet important truth in the north east “hotbed” of football, where we’ve allowed the national sport to dominate our cities and towns?
A large chunk of my childhood was spent acting out Marshall Cavendish Football Handbook diagrams of Liam Brady or Tony Currie free kicks, trying to curl a ball around my parents’ gable wall. And I still get a buzz when teams run out to Local Hero or when the breeze carries a Gallowgate roar the 10-second journey to my back door.
Yet while the game itself has scarcely changed in 100 years, the business around it has ballooned. By financial measures, football is the business success story of the last 25 years, more impressive than Apple or Google. From Europe to Africa, China… and Qatar in between, the empire of football reigns supreme.
In Britain, the business of football has come a long way since the 1980s, when Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday Times sneered at it as “a slum sport watched by slum people in slum stadiums”. Thanks to the billions paid by Murdoch’s TV station, the English Premier League has evolved into a global giant, serving homogenised, celebrity entertainment to those who can afford to fund the lifestyles of its rich and famous.
There are no secrets to football’s success. It’s a simple meeting of demand. People crave football, and like any drug, football is an easy sell. For TV broadcasters and back-page editors, gorging on football is the easy option.
So this is not a rant about how football is in its death throes. The football business is an unstoppable juggernaut that will continue to enjoy success because it is loved by millions addicted to its soap opera storylines, heroes and villains.
But there is a consequence. Not only do their stadia dominate our north east town and city skylines, but the affairs of the three “big clubs” dictate the news agendas of our regional media, both traditional and social. In the north east, football enjoys not just a near sporting monopoly – crowding out minority sports – but also a cultural hegemony, at a time when so many of our arts and culture organisations desperately need the oxygen of publicity and funding to survive.
Supporters of the business of football point to its economic dividends. A recent report, for example, suggested that football provides Greater Manchester with the equivalent economic impact of an Olympic and Paralympic Games every four seasons.
But there is also an economic cost – what economists would call the opportunity cost. What else could the money be spent on in our cities and towns?
Let’s do some crude calculations. Should Middlesbrough gain promotion to the Premier League and Sunderland avoid relegation, we can expect more than 80,000 north easterners to invest in Premier League season tickets next year – an investment of £40m in three football clubs. That equates roughly to the entire Arts Council budget for supporting north east theatres, concert halls, venues, libraries, museums and galleries.
The latest TV rights deal between Sky/BT and the Premier League will add another £10m per game to the three clubs’ coffers. But outside the directors’ box, the bench and the pitch, few people will see a penny of this windfall.
Who can blame the club owners, coaches and players for taking what they’re offered? What we can accuse the Premier League clubs of is divorcing themselves from the cities and towns that host them. The Premier League currently spends just 3% of its TV money on community programmes and facilities.
Our region can be proud of its rich football heritage. But as our own Harry Pearson has pointed out, it’s been a while since the north east exported its talent to the top clubs. Herbert Chapman’s all-conquering Huddersfield team of the 1920s may have fielded no less than eight north east players, but the link between local clubs and local heroes is long-broken as north east scouts scour the globe for global talent to appease global audiences.
Football has played an important role in the history of our cities and towns, giving workers and citizens an opportunity to express collective identity. It can still do that. But football shouldn’t be our only claim to fame.
In cities like Barcelona, Munich, Milan, Amsterdam, Bilbao, successful football clubs are just one of several strings to their bows. Healthy cities grow, nurture, promote and take pride in a breadth of strengths from science and innovation, to arts and culture, food and fashion. A Geordie in a replica shirt shouldn’t be our only calling card abroad.
On match day, in a city like Newcastle, we spend £1m at the St James Park turnstiles. What if, just for one day, we chose to spend that money on something else? What could be the impact if we invested £1m in our city’s talented artists, actors, chefs, craftsmen and musicians, instead of just 11 footballers? What could be achieved if, for just one Saturday, we donated that £1m to our city’s charities, food-banks and other community organisations?
Just a fantasy? Maybe. But either way we’re making a choice. Just as the editors of our local newspapers and regional TV news programmes can choose to redress the balance, giving their readers and viewers a healthier, more diverse diet of what’s going on in our cities, so we as fans can choose to enjoy and support a wider variety of sports, arts, cultural, charity and community activities.
And who knows, by letting go of football just a little, we may in time get back the sport we love.
Ian Wylie is the editor of The Northern Correspondent. You can follow him on Twitter.
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