The Premier League season has begun – and Arsenal fan Alex Clark will take her seat as usual. But as supporters' protests grow, ticket prices rise and wages soar, how long can the game as we know it last?
The 23rd season of the richest show on earth got under way on Saturday as the curtain came up at Old Trafford, with Manchester United taking on Swansea. Average attendance figures suggest that by Monday night about 360,000 fans will have watched the opening of the Barclays Premier League 2014-15 season in the flesh. And, in the little patch of north London where Arsenal so lovingly stroke the ball around greensward, I was one of them.
These people are many things: committed football fans, naturally, with the possible exception of the lotus eaters on back-slapping corporate jollies; at once scientifically knowledgeable and spookily superstitious about their team and its chances; in possession of enough spare cash to afford a season ticket and/or organised enough to have got their hands on a one-off through some or other complex scheme; and, in many cases, hardy enough to have made a lengthy, expensive and probably highly uncomfortable journey.
But they are also extras. They – we – are there to provide the atmosphere for the show. We are there to make the noise, to create the tension, to whoop jubilantly and howl desolately, to congratulate and to goad, to complain and to delight. We are there to go home when we're told and get ready to do the whole thing again next week.
We are the bit-part players in a multi-event entertainment package that is watched by 4.7 billion people in more than 200 territories around the world, and which will generate £1.2bn a year from broadcast revenue alone. Without us, the show could certainly go on – whistles could be blown, tackles rashly slid into, onion bags made to bulge – but a football match played in an empty stadium is a sad affair. If, in some parallel universe, the top tier of England's domestic league lost its live audience, how long would it be before it also lost its lustre?
It won't happen. And if it did, it would more likely be a gradual decline than a dramatic disappearance of fans. But, as Thursday's demonstration by the Football Supporters Federation at Premier League headquarters illustrates, we are beginning to balk at being not merely unpaid extras, but extras who are turned upside down and shaken to see if there's any loose change in our pockets. And told off, too: among its recent bids for popularity was last week's Premier League announcement that it plans to clamp down on fans posting their videos of goals on social media. "I know it sounds as if we're killjoys," said Dan Johnson, director of communications, "but we have to protect our intellectual property."
Remember, this announcement came in the same week that the free-to-enter National Gallery decided to relax its policy on visitors taking selfies, and run that argument about art being the preserve of the elite and football being home of the people past me one last, exhausted time. Reflect also that – in the same week – Christian Seifert, chief executive of the Bundesliga (Germany's league), said there would be a "huge shitstorm" if his clubs were to charge the entry prices of English clubs. No, Dan, I don't think you and your colleagues are killjoys. I think you're greedy.
I also think that you're trapped; your hands are tied, albeit with the most luxurious of silken scarves. You must indeed protect the goose that lays the golden egg, because it's all you have. Your 20-strong membership may have additional revenue streams – the sale of shirts and assorted merchandise, sponsorship and naming deals, the gate money itself – but the TV money is what keeps it all going.
And there's a fundamental problem with "it", a feature of this unprecedentedly lucrative industry that suggests its much vaunted success hasn't quite panned out the way a truly brilliant business mind might have wanted it to. In most hugely successful commercial enterprises, the bosses get to keep the lions' share of the profits. In the English Premier League, they've got themselves into the tricky position of giving far too a large slice of the pie away to the workers.
Take Manchester City, for example, the club that offers the league's cheapest season ticket, at £299. Their most expensive is £860, significantly cheaper than Arsenal's lowest cost ticket, which comes in at a staggering £1,014, rising to £2,013. Arsenal's north London rivals, Tottenham, run them a close second for price; Arsenal must this year go through the qualifying rounds of the Champions League, and Tottenham will play in the Europa League. Go figure. Or don't.
Meanwhile, in the context of a world that sees Man City as the very acme of value for money, the club has been busy agreeing new long-term contracts with its star players, most notably Sergio Agüero, Vincent Kompany and David Silva, and forking out £32m for Porto defender Eliaquim Mangala. City are reported to have spent £175m in four days; it is also reported that Agüero will be earning £150,000 a week.
Fifty years ago, when Match of the Day arrived on our screens, football had only recently waved goodbye to its maximum wage of £20 a week, courtesy of Jimmy Hill, the chairman of the Professional Footballers' Association. The Etihad, Man City's stadium, has a capacity of 48,000 and there are plans to increase that to 55,000 before next season. Quick quiz: take a pencil and the back of an envelope and work out what its capacity would need to be to pay its squad's wages.
Ticket prices, therefore, are a drop in the ocean when viewed as a proportion of clubs' income, while the fans provide a captive market that has proved itself, at least thus far, highly price elastic. Crucial extras we may be, but we are also entirely interchangeable, at least for the clubs at the top of the league with full waiting lists. But it is a one-way street; while I might find City's prices highly attractive, I am lashed to the mast of the good ship Emirates in perpetuity (or until it's called something else).
Not that fans aren't pushing back. I love Arsenal, but I am not my friend Alison, who is perhaps the most committed football fan I have ever met; the sort of person who texts you an injury update about an obscure member of the junior squad in the middle of the night during the close season. Despite the fact that she has lived hundreds of miles away from Arsenal for many years, she has been a longtime home-and-away supporter, also arranging her foreign holidays around pre-season training.
A few years ago, she moved from Greater Manchester to the Peak District market town of Glossop, where her first nesting instinct was to go and see the local football team, Glossop North End. She is now one of its most active supporters; she knows its management team, its players, gets involved with its charitable and recruitment drives. Daily, I expect to read that she has won the pools and bought it. She doesn't go to Arsenal much any more, though she watches every kick on the TV. What has supporting Glossop meant to her? I ask. "It's reconnected me with football," she says.
She is not alone; attendance in the lower leagues is on the rise, precisely because of the experience – rather than the perceived glamour – it provides. But let's get real. If there is a threat to the Premier League, it doesn't come from the North West Counties Football League, or the Conference or the Isthmian League. And it won't come from any of football's half-hearted attempts at self-regulation – Uefa's financial fair play rules, for example, which are easy enough to circumvent and will surely fall at the first serious legal challenge. But that doesn't mean it doesn't exist. Among this summer's transfers was the much-travelled French striker David Trezeguet's move to FC Pune City, one of the teams in the nascent Indian Super League, which will be run on similar lines as cricket's IPL, with player drafts and teams based in large population centres.
Brazil, Russia and China are also potential sites from which the next must-watch league may emerge. There's no rule to say that English football is the only way to sell television and broadband subscriptions, and the foreign investors who have so cannily set up camp in this country have no loyalty to these shores per se. One day, they may set sail for franchises new. The extras, of course, will stay put.