In 1997, in the heady aftermath of their landslide election win, New Labour set up the formidable sounding Football Task Force. Chaired by former Conservative MP David Mellor, the group was meant to formulate policies to soften the rampant commercialisation of English football. Though they had limited power when it came to enforcing their recommendations, the Task Force had the weight of a newly elected government behind them, not to mention the support of thousands of disgruntled fans. With the Premier League era well underway, ticket prices were soaring and corporate practices were on the rise. Football was gradually becoming a marketing exercise, and it was decided that clubs needed to be held to account.
The Task Force made some progress in its early years, gaining concessions from the Premier League on the funding of grassroots football, ticket prices and transparency of ownership. They encouraged the formation of supporters' trusts, and tried to foster dialogue between clubs and fans.
In 2000, it appeared that the Task Force had also gained a significant compromise on the increasing frequency of kit releases. Having recommended that Premier League clubs restrict the release of home kits to once every two seasons, their proposal was made manifest in the Premier League charter. This was meant to act as a general code of conduct for clubs, and was signed by the 20 sides then in the top flight.
While the frequency of kit releases might not seem like the most pressing concern for football fans, the practice of churning out new strips every season still hits people hard. While it represents only a small part of the ever increasing financial onus on supporters, it is still reflective of a corporate culture in which fans are squeezed for every penny they have. Releasing a new home kit every season is especially punishing for parents, who inevitably end up shouldering the burden on behalf of their kids. It's an exploitative practice, especially considering that the price of kits has been rising steadily for years. The average adult Premier League home strip now costs just under £50, while kids' kits aren't all that much cheaper. That's exactly why they shouldn't be tweaked and reissued year in, year out.
The Football Task Force saw the need to address the frequency of kit releases almost two decades ago, when strips were significantly cheaper. Created in consultation with supporters, the Premier League charter was meant to set some restrictions in stone. That's why it included a pledge that "all replica strip designs should have a minimum lifespan of two seasons."
The question that now needs to be answered is: why has that pledge been consistently and comprehensively ignored?
First of all, it should be said that the Premier League charter was not legally binding. It was a voluntary agreement, and depended on clubs' good faith. At some point in the last decade, that good faith seems to have evaporated. The majority of Premier League clubs now issue new home and away kits every season, not to mention third kits and vintage strips. Often, new designs vary only marginally from their immediate predecessors. Kits are now released so often that suppliers seem to have run out of ideas.
It's obvious that the Premier League charter has been disregarded, then. The charter seems to have been removed from the Premier League's website altogether, with the original page apparently unavailable. When we entered 'Premier League charter' into the website's search bar, no reference to the agreement signed in 2000 was forthcoming. If the kit pledge has been repeatedly flaunted, that's perhaps because the charter itself has been quietly and indecorously dropped.
It's hard not to feel that the fans' manifesto has been swept under the carpet, an inconvenient obstacle to clubs cashing in. With directors now doing everything within their power to attract and please sponsors, it suits their interests to have near-constant kit turnover. The sense of secrecy around the semi-defunct Premier League charter has only been borne out by the lack of communication from the league itself. Having contacted the Premier League regarding the issue, we received no response. Having contacted all 20 top flight clubs over the frequency of their kit releases, we received four replies, all of which can be summarised in two words: "No comment."
One organisation which was willing to give comment was the Football Supporters' Federation. While admitting that the frequency of kit releases is a lower priority than issues like ticket prices, safe standing, stewarding and policing, a spokesperson for the Federation told us that they are aware that kits can be "very expensive" and have tried to suggest certain measures to clubs. For instance, they have advocated 'use by' dates on strips to ensure some sort of longevity and value for money. Whether or not the powers that be will heed their suggestions is yet to be seen, though the precedent of the Premier League charter suggests that fans shouldn't hold their breath.
In fairness, exploitative kit practises are not unique to the Premier League. The majority of clubs in La Liga and the Bundesliga also release new strips every season, while almost all of Europe's big clubs do the same. That said, those clubs did not enter into an agreement with supporters which they have now broken. The Premier League charter was meant to reign in the rampant excess of constant kit releases. Unfortunately, thanks to surreptitious non-compliance, it appears to have stuttered, faltered and failed.