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Football without fans… a distant reality?


There were many arguments put forward to see the culmination of the football season – most of which were economic – but there was also a need for the escapism that football can bring, a welcome distraction from the weighty sincerity of our everyday lives.

However, one thing that the return of football from its three-month hibernation has demonstrated in these post lockdown times is that it could be argued, the significance of fans to football clubs and the game in general in the higher echelons of the sport – beyond the notions of sentimentality and loyalty – is at an all-time low.

There was an unsettling eeriness to the return of the Premier League on Wednesday and the return of a rudderless uninspired Town yesterday. There was not the usual buzz of excitement and intoxicating enthusiasm, nor was there the irrational (perhaps even delusional) hope or the crushing crash back down to earth as Jamal Lowe unmarked in the six-yard box chests the ball in.

Instead, it all felt just a bit hollow.

In fact, if anything, it felt worrying. It was almost like watching what a post-modernists depiction of what football and sport should be like. The injection of artificial fan noise was meant to add authenticity to the viewing experience and offer a cathartic release, but if anything, it felt sinister. The crowd noises as a result of artificial intelligence algorithms which indicated when and when not we should cheer or jeer had more of a feel of an Orwellian dystopia.

When Bob Lord, Burnley’s Chairman, made the case to the Football League in the 1960s that televising 3 pm football matches would hurt attendance figures, a media blackout was put in place.

Therefore, to see Jake Humphrey’s delight to announce that the long-held blanket blackout of televised football matches at 3pm, of course, whilst making sense during these uncertain times, shouldn’t be seen as some form of victory. It merely adds more to that sense of unease and the notion that in the near future, regardless of the circumstances, flouting the 3pm blanket blackout could become common practice.

For so long, the concern was ensuring that football fans attended football matches. The loyalty provided by fans who followed their football club up and down the country meant there was a continual stream of revenue. It was this support which was the lifeblood of football clubs and without the fans, many clubs would have fallen into the ether.

However, when you now offset the revenue generated by fans compared to the princely fees needed to host a mass event of tens of thousands, including insurance, security, and even the wages of matchday and hospitality staff, the incentives to draw attendances is lessening by the day.

Over time, particularly in the Premier League and the Championship, clubs’ dependence on gate receipts and the revenue generated by fanbases has depleted and the worrisome fact is that the major influences for clubs now lie elsewhere.

With the growing influence of sponsorship and television on the game, the power no longer lies with football fans, and instead, it is television executives and sponsorship officials who can influence which direction football as a whole goes in.

You often see disgruntled fanbases threaten to talk with their feet and protest by not attending, but if this past week has demonstrated anything, it has provided definitive proof that football can continue without fans in the stands.

As the plethora of broadcasting and streaming options continue to grow, there is a serious possibility that the ‘pick n mix’ culture which has enveloped the entertainment industry will move into the sports industry. Whilst it may provide us with accessibility and convenience in these uncertain times, it could well be a slippery slope.

This reboot of the beautiful game has been described as football being back, but in my eyes, the intentions of this iteration of the sport are precisely the opposite. Whether it is being used as a means to detract or distract or the decision has derived coldly from the economic necessity to do so, that’s not the beautiful game.

If we are momentarily beyond the looking glass and this is what the future holds for football, without the emotional attachment between the club and the locality of their fanbase, it feels nothing more than a sport further selling itself out to the entertainment industry in the pursuit of a mass casual audience.

For me, this isn’t football.