The Coronavirus crisis has revealed so much about sport-as-business that is bad, argues Mark Perryman of Philosophy Football
The rush to resume has been for the most part unseemly. The manner in how this will be done ill thought-out. The selfishness, with honourable exceptions, revealing. Right now sport isn’t exactly looking as if its bought into the ‘all in it together’ philosophy that we’re hoping against hope will get us through the Coronavirus crisis.
It’s not often that I agree with Karren Brady, Sun columnist, Tory Peer and West Ham’s vice chair but when she argued the best option for football was to null and void the 2019-20 football season I thought she was at least being honest about the urgency and scale of what football, and all other sports is facing. I prefer the term ‘incomplete’, the season ends now, forget about any resumption, the league places frozen in time, no champions, no Champions League places, no relegations, no promotions.
Of course some fans, thinking mainly of themselves not others, accused her of naked self-interest, West Ham currently hover above the drop zone only on goal difference. But the point is such a cessation, for ever of this one season will produce good results for some bad results for others, Liverpool and Leeds especially. that’s the point of being ‘all in this together.’
As for games played behind closed doors, the great Celtic manager Jock Stein once said ‘football without fans is nothing.’ He was right, it is no accident that football markets itself, the clubs, advertisers, sponsors, broadcasters, always with the game represented as much by what’s going on with those watching the action as those making it.
Coca Cola, one of world football’s principal sponsors, summed this up very well with one of their advertising slogans. If transfer fees were paid for fans what would you be worth?’ Of course such a value to the game of fans should not be monetised in such a way, but the fact that it is reveals the absolute worth of fandom cannot be numbered just in pound signs.
Immediate incompletion would have revealed the sheer abnormality of the times we are living - or for far too many – dying through. A welcome self-sacrifice as football faced up to its responsibilities. But no, the desire to get back, fuelled mainly by the huge commercial merry-go-round, driven more than anybody else by the deals with subscription only broadcasters that funds football’s largesse at the upper end, cannot be allowed to stop for any longer than could possibly be got away with.
Incompletion would need to be Europe-wide, incomplete seasons would mean no Champions League, this season, and none next either. An eighteen-month break, is that really too much of a sacrifice to ask? Yes, apparently as UEFA and the clubs scramble to find a way to keep their money-spinning show on the road.
And the international game isn’t much better. In a rushed decision Euro 2020 becomes Euro 2021, the awkward fact that this was the year designated for the Women’s Euros solved by bumping that into the following year. What does this produce? The almightiest of global fixture pile ups. The world sporting calendar is delicately balanced between providing a summer of sport to look forward to and forgetting that sometimes, even with sport, less is more.
The women’s Euros in 2022 means England hosting both these and the Commonwealth Games at the same time, madness, both will lose out big time. And there’s another reason why 2021 should be summer tournament free for the men’s game. To give the players and the fans, a summer off before having World Cup 2022 to look forward to.
And this fixture pile up when the crisis is over isn’t restricted to football either. Another rushed decision had been to move the 2020 Tokyo Olympics to 2021. This means all manner of Olympic Sports’ World and Continental Championships being postponed to the following year to clash with other events carefully diarised for 2022 to avoid that.
Null and void the lot. Tokyo 2020 becomes Tokyo 2024, Euro 2020 becomes Euro 2024, the existing hosts move along to the next time, a four-year wait not that much given the current global crisis while providing the time for the event organisation to recover.
That recovery to be worthwhile necessitates change, for the most well-paying sports. The obscenity of football clubs laying off non-playing staff to claim state aid when the average wage of a Premiership footballer is £60,000 a week. Chairmen, directors, owners taking a wealth out of their clubs of even greater magnitude. Clubs lower down the leagues, non-league, the recreational game facing extinction.
When the wealth at the top end is so huge to be almost imaginable the cost of self-sacrifice and solidarity borders on the negligible but to date have proved too much for too many.
The very welcome exceptions to this sorry tale, from executive boxes and boardrooms given over for temporary conversion by local hospitals to clubs and players keeping the foodbanks going that depend on matchday collections are to be applauded. There is, of course, a community around every club that amounts to more than just gate receipts and replica shirts sold. Maybe, just maybe, this crisis, will force a greater recognition of this, that the Fans Supporting Foodbanks stalls outside Anfield , Goodison and numerous other grounds every bit as part of what football is about, or should be about, as anything else.
Sport will take time to recover. It won’t be the same when it does. Rushing back for ‘business’ reasons won’t help. Sport as a culture will have to rebuild relationships. The hard core fans’ loyalties won’t have changed. But for the more casual fans many will have discovered they didn’t miss it as much as they expected to. And the inevitable financial pressures a huge chunk of the population will face might well mean the money previously spent on being a fan is needed for more pressing priorities.
For way too long sport has taken the never-ending financial loyalty of fans for granted, it would be distinctly risky to assume this can continue. And something else has happened during the lockdown. What sportswriter Jonathan Liew calls ‘small sport’. Away from work, stuck at home there seems to have been a rise in physical activity. A walk, a jog, a bike-ride, home weights for keeping fit selling out online, Joe Wicks youtube keep fit lessons for at-home primary schoolchildren topping 1.5million views per session.
This is nothing to do with the failed model of elite sport success spurring participation, it doesn’t. Rather this is sport as a social movement, ‘small sport’ may just prove to be a darn sight more useful than ‘big sport’ when finally we emerge out the other side of this crisis and have a society to rebuild.
When we do plenty of sports, including fans will want to celebrate, ‘we’re back’ In that moment let’s remember sport has an extraordinary ability to spark a conversation. It cannot, despite too often both sport and campaigners claiming this mantle for it, effect social change on its own but it does get its audience thinking in a way that political parties, protest movements, books and newspaper articles often cannot.
Since the mid 2000’s sport has vigorously embraced the ‘Help for Heroes’ movement. Nobody should begrudge the aid veterans very much deserve but the unthinking manner in which sport has propagated this otherwise noble cause has had consequences which have been barely considered. As the sportswriter Richard Williams has put it, very sharply:
“There is something disquieting about this gradual blending of sporting and military culture, with its underlying assumption that all the spectators at any given event involving an England international team necessarily share the government's view of the rightness of what our forces are doing overseas (as opposed to simply honouring their courage in doing it). “
What this produces is a very specific definition of who our ‘heroes’ are, and in the process all those that aren’t. This crisis has served to reveal NHS staff, care workers, refuse collectors, shop assistants, cleaners, posties as just some of those whose public service the rest of us depend on, and right now for plenty, to live.
This demands that financial reward while it isn’t everything is at least a start in providing a recognition of the centrality of these workers to our society. No, in most cases at any rate, they might not have the ability to dribble past three defenders, feint one way, send the goalie the wrong way, and put a screamer in the top left corner of the net. But maybe, just maybe they have something different to contribute and that deserves our support too.
When sport resumes let’s not only celebrate that, as surely lots of sporting events will rightly do, but also ensure these public services and their workers aren’t a charity case, instead are valued, invested in, rewarded as part and parcel of the society that depends on them.
Mark Perryman is a member of both the Labour Party and Momentum. Co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka Philosophy Football, he has also edited numerous books on the politics of the Left. The latest is Corbynism from Below and is published by Lawrence & Wishart, available to order from here.