‘The Sports Direct Arena’ is a symptom of a sick game

The news isn’t going short on stories to shock or depress us at the moment, so you’d be forgiven for letting the re-naming of a football stadium slip your attention. But the announcement that Newcastle United’s St James Park is to be re-christened ‘The Sports Direct Arena’ should alarm even those who don’t like football. It tells us a lot about what the game has become, and by extension a bit about the country we live in too.

The move, undertaken by owner Mike Ashley to “showcase” sponsorship opportunities, is so offensive because it flies in the face of everything the game is supposed to be. Clubs have always drawn support from afar, but most have their roots in local, often working class, communities. A football club is a focal point of a town or city; match day throws together in common interest people who have never met or have nothing else in common as well as old friends and family. A lot of father-son relationships have some of their formative moments at football games.

At heart football is about collectivism – us against them – and relationships. A football stadium is a public space. Its name is obviously a part of that – it’s a common reference point throughout generations, usually synonymous with local history or geography. Corporate sponsorship of new stadiums is bad enough, but what Ashley has done is the outright commodification of 120 years of history, and of something that by right belongs to Newcastle and Newcastle United supporters.

Unfortunately, it hardly comes as a surprise. Like much of our economy as a whole, the Premier League is increasingly dominated by business and governance models that privilege rampant maximisation of short-term profit at the expense of everything else. Hence the cold, unfeeling language NUFC used to justify the sell off to horrified fans: the old name was “commercially unattractive”, adding with a note of optimism that re-branding “presents would-be sponsors with the opportunity to acquire both the naming rights and shirt sponsorship deals”.

This way of running football inevitably leads to a shriveled view of supporters as just spectators: atomised, passive consumers whose loyalty to the brand is to be squeezed through price hikes, dodgy cup ticket schemes and the like. And increasingly this just goes towards servicing debts, or ends up in the owners’ pocket.

As a result, many top level football clubs have become detached from their support base and cut off from their community. Working class communities surrounding most grounds still exist, but are frequently priced out. Others are put off by sanitisation: the proliferation of reserved corporate tickets, boxes, the banning of drinking on terraces and the refusal to consider safe standing. All this exists in the name of ‘enhancing spectator experience’, but all limit atmosphere, participation and togetherness. To be fair, lots of football clubs do some good work in the community, but it feels more like corporate social responsibility. It doesn’t run through their ethic.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Just as it’s a false choice to say we can only have Britain’s current model of capitalism or Soviet-style central planning, so too it’s disingenuous to present the only alternative to football today as a return to the violent, rickety old terraces of the 1980s.  Fans need to be better integrated within the running of clubs to act as bulwarks against the dominance of business interest. At the very least every club should have a supporter’s representative on the board, as the 2009 APPFG recommended. But the long term vision should be to transform football governance entirely, ensuring majority fan ownership.

In Germany, at least 51% of every club is owned by supporters, while strict financial rules limit spending and wages to a proportion of turnover. This helps keep ticket prices down – a Bundesliga season ticket is 25% of what it costs here – discourages financial recklessness and predatory takeovers, and creates a more genuine match day experience (including safe terracing). It’s not a panacea, nor does it not always prevent over-commercialisation. But it does ensure democratic control and accountability. If 51% of Newcastle United had been owned by the fans, would the Sports Direct Arena ever have come into being?

While Labour’s creation of Supporters Direct in 2000 to support fan ownership was a good move, it remains under resourced and unsupported by the necessary wider governance. Supporter run clubs are confined to the lower leagues. Labour has widely swung behind democratic forms of ownership within public services and business. So why not extend it to the top levels of sport, and vocally back a wholesale transformation of the way we do football in this country?

None of this has to lead to deterioration of the game on-the-pitch. The current Barcelona team is one of the greatest of all time, and is supporter controlled. 7 of the last 17 Champions League winners have been fan run. There is nothing inherently wrong with there being big money in the game. That is very difficult to stop. The trouble is our footballing economy reflects our political economy. Huge amounts of capital fly into the game without the structures, organisation or regulations to prevent its domination of everything.

This can’t be solved by laws or regulation alone. Fans also need to be more organised and involved, beyond just demanding billionaire tycoons take over their club every time they get beat (Manchester United’s ‘Green and Gold’/MUST model is a good place to start). But politics can do its bit too.

I love Football, it’s bloody great. Walk from neighborhood to neighborhood in almost any city in the world and everything will change around you, but the one constant will be football – on the streets, in the parks, in the pubs. Those on the left should never underestimate it as a force for good, and its capacity for healing division and alienation. But while fans may spend an unhealthy amount of time thinking about football, football doesn’t spend enough time thinking about them. It’s an increasingly unrequited love affair, as the Sports Direct Arena shows, because Football has become so up-rooted from the ethos and communities it was set up to serve. We need to bring it home again.

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