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Tragedies in UK stadiums in the 1980s sparked changes in the business of “the beautiful game” that made it the global sport it is today, writes Darren Sketon
Text by Darren Sketon
Country: UK

very football fan in the British Isles remembers 30 July 1966: On that day, England won the Football World Cup, and the country was full of joy.

Every football fan in the British Isles remembers 15 April 1989: On that day, 96 people were crushed to death and 766 others were injured in what became known as the Hillsborough Disaster.

On that day, the police and the British government lied to the public and covered up some brutal truths about how the game was viewed and policed. On that day the Football Association (FA) realized that changes had to be made.

Football had to step out of the dark ages. Football had to remove the fencing at stadiums. Football had to treat the fans like humans. The police had to change their attitudes to policing football games in the UK.

Football and Violence

Football hooliganism reared its ugly head in the mid-1970s at English football grounds and grew into a monster of an issue for both football and for society as a whole in the mid-1980s.

The Bradford stadium fire and the Heysel disaster, both in 1985, killed a combined 91 fans watching “the beautiful game”.

The words hooliganism and hooligan began to be associated with violence in sports, UK football in particular.

The phenomenon, however, long preceded the modern era; for example, one of the earliest known instances of crowd violence at a sporting event took place in ancient Constantinople. Two chariot racing factions, the Blues and the Greens, were involved in the Nika riots which lasted around a week in 532 CE; nearly half the city was burned or destroyed and tens of thousands were killed.

The disaster at Hillsborough in 1989 led to the Taylor Report on how to prevent such a tragedy. Due to the Taylor Report, all top-flight football stadiums were transformed into supposedly “safe”, all-seating stadiums. The fences were removed. Closed circuit TV (CCTV) was introduced. The police authorities started working with the clubs and the fans – not against them.

Famous football terraces were lost forever – Old Trafford’s iconic ‘Stretford End’, Anfield’s legendary KOP, the ‘Holte End’ at Villa Park to name a few. These terraces – wide areas where fans were packed in like sardines to stand and watch the game — were replaced by expensive new stands with seats. One drawback of the seats is that far fewer people could attend the game. Thus, the ticket prices started a continuous rise. These flashy new stadiums needed to be paid for, after all. And the clubs had the fan base to extort translate>ever increasing prices from.

Nowadays the entire demographic of fans attending football games has altered dramatically.

When I was a teenager from 1993 to 1995, I could go stand on the terrace at Hillsborough’s kop with friends from school to watch Sheffield Wednesday, or down at Glanford Park to watch Scunthorpe United play. We paid perhaps £5 a ticket. The crowd was mostly male – from teenage boys to old men. It was a good, cheap day out, albeit slightly intimidating, as fans did often clash. Sometimes I got crushed a little when the crowds on the terrace surged forward after a goal, and I witnessed angry mobs of fans baiting each other, throwing objects at each other – separated by a cordon of police officers on horses with big dogs. Not many families were attending football games due to the undercurrent of violence.

Nowadays – the costs have soared – tickets now are upwards of £40 each. The average fans are being priced out of “the people’s game” in England. However the stadiums are much safer, with much tighter police controls and the complete coverage by CCTV.

Money talks

Football in England transformed again in the 1990s when big money for television rights entered the mix.

In 1991, talks were held for the broadcast rights for Premier League for a five-year period, from the 1992 season. ITV had current rights and fought hard to retain the new rights. ITV had increased its offer from £18 million to £34 million per year to keep control of the rights. BSkyB joined forces with the BBC to make a counter bid. The BBC was given the highlights of most of the matches, while BSkyB paid £304 million for the Premier League rights, which gave it a monopoly of all live matches, up to 60 per year from the 1992 season. Since then, these streams of revenue from TV companies have grown.

When you add the TV money, the advertising streams the big Clubs use, the shirt sponsorship deals and the match-day ticket sales, the turnover for clubs has grown exponentially.

With the massive influx of television money coming in to clubs, the players started wanting bigger cuts of all that money, so their wages started creeping up. It is not uncommon now for top players to earn £150,000 a week; and even just adequate players are taking home £30,000 to £40,000 a week. This, when the average wage in the UK is approximately £22,000 a year! An example of how obscene it has all become is that Cristiano Ronaldo at Real Madrid just signed a five-year contract in which he gets paid 288,000 Euros a week, after tax.

The big clubs are generating so much money through ticket sales, TV sponsorship, advertising and sponsorship streams, plus commercial activities, that they can absorb these wages and spend yet more money on buying the best players around. For example, Gareth Bale was transferred from Spurs to Real Madrid for 100 million Euros.

The people’s game

Football is a safer and more family-orientated event, but it ain’t cheap.

Consider a father and a son going to a game. That is two tickets, a program for the game, half-time snacks, a trip to the club shop for a new shirt or scarf, a little gamble at the bookies on the first goal-scorer, plus the cost of travel to and from the game. The father would be looking at spending at least £100 on this one day out with his son.

On the other hand, many more fans from all over the world have come to know the English football league, and clubs have fans everywhere, from China to Colombia, from Chile to Canada! The people’s game has become the global game! On my formative back-packing days, I have met fellow Manchester United fans in the smallest corners of the world.

The people’s game as it was is no longer the people’s game as it is. It was a game played by the ordinary person, run by the ordinary people – for the average person. It is now a game of vastly overpaid athletes, watched live by only the more affluent in society who can afford to do so. The real fans are priced out of the game and sit at home now as ‘armchair’ fans watching games through their TV subscription.

Player wages throughout the years (highlighting the great leaps in salary through the years)

Player Year Salary per week
Johnny Haynes 1961 £100
Bobby Charlton 1968 £250
Peter Shilton 1979 £1,200
Radamel Falcao 1985 £5,000
Roberto Baggio 1993 £25,000
Fabrizio Ravanelli 1996 £40,000
Sol Campbell 2001 £100,000
Samuel Eto’o 2012 £500,000


The changing faces of football .

Football is a national pastime in the UK, but it has changed a lot over the years. Tragedies in UK stadiums in the 1980s resulted in changes to the business of the game. In 1989 during the Hillsborough disaster, 96 people died and 766 others were injured. On that day the British government and the police lied to the public and blamed the incident on the fans.

Eventually it was revealed that it was actually the fault of the police. This led to many changes for the game. Football had to be modernized, fences were removed from stadiums, police had to change their attitudes and treat fans like humans. Football terraces, where fans could stand and watch the game, were replaced with new expensive stands with seats. These new stadiums were safer and fancier, but did not have as many seats as the old stadiums. All these changes cost a lot of money and these costs were passed on to the fans.

In the 1990s television rights were sold to the highest bidders and with all the money coming in from advertising and sponsorships, the athletes decided they also wanted higher wages. All these high costs meant higher prices for tickets and so the types of fans that could attend a game started to change also. Football used to be a game played by ordinary people, managed by ordinary people, and watched by ordinary people. Now it is a game played by overpaid athletes, watched live by only the very rich while the real fans sit at home and watch the game on TV.



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The changing faces of football



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