This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.
The vast wealth of the Premier League and its cash-rich clubs relies on the endurance of a myth. This crystallised for me when talking to a Frankfurt season ticket holder, who told me that he would love to attend a game at my club, Arsenal, to experience the amazing atmosphere of the Premier League and the passion of its fans first-hand. You can imagine how disappointed this fan would be to fork out almost half the price of his Frankfurt season ticket for one game at the Emirates, only to be confronted with the reality of its utterly tepid atmosphere.
This gap between expectation and reality isn't unique to Arsenal. It's a symptom of a problem that is affecting clubs up and down the country. "There's been a decline, it's a commonly accepted position," Jay McKenna of Liverpool fan group Spirit of Shankly says when I ask about the state of the atmosphere in Premier League grounds. "It's not talked about by the authorities or the clubs themselves, certainly not publicly, because they know it would damage their product."
Indeed, cultivating a certain image of the Premier League is vital to the league and its clubs when it comes to how they make their money. The idea that English fans have a passion for the game rooted in a rich tradition and history, unique in world football, is a key part of a brand that is sold across the world. You only need to look at the figures that have seen Manchester United hit the top of football's rich list to see how significant this is. Deloitte reported that the club had a total revenue of £515.3m in 2016, with £272.1m of that coming from commercial income and £140.4m from broadcast rights. That means that 80% of the club's revenue is linked to the branding of the Premier League and Manchester United as a club. That's what sells those lucrative TV rights abroad, that's what persuades fans in growing markets to emulate the perceived dedication and passion of the fans in the stadium by buying Manchester United shirts in China, that's what gets the club those soft drink sponsorships in Nigeria and the cash from their confectionary partner in Thailand.
"We are selling this product [the Premier League] to people," McKenna says. "Liverpool know that to such an extent that, rather cynically, they've placed advertising hoardings at the top of The Kop. So, when a fan takes a photo, or when the media take a photo, or when TV cameras turn to that, it's almost picture postcard perfect," he explains. "The Kop, flags, scarves, banners, full voice, 'You'll Never Walk Alone', surrounded by Standard Chartered and New Balance. They're selling this story, this myth, this history and tradition."
Yet this perfect snapshot of what English football is, this myth that is being sold as part of the Premier League package, is increasingly at odds with what fans are experiencing on the terraces. Fans like McKenna are seeing the core of supporters that generate the atmosphere the Premier League wants to be associated with getting ever smaller, and grounds getting ever quieter as a result. Ask any match-attending Premier League fan what's to account for this decline and you'll probably get the same answer. "I think the first thing would be the prices," Raymond Herlihy of Arsenal supporters group REDaction Gooners says, echoing McKenna in telling me that he's seen plenty of long-term fans being priced out of the game.
What should perhaps be of even greater concern to clubs and the league, however, is that high prices threaten to stop the next generation of supporters coming through. "I think what's significant is the age of the matchgoing supporters now," Herhily suggests. "At Arsenal, the average season ticket holder is in their fifties and, with the best will in the world, a fiftysomething is not going to make the same amount of noise and contribution to the atmosphere as someone in their teens or early twenties. What teenager can afford an Arsenal season ticket now?," he asks. In an economy that's already hostile to a debt-ridden generation being faced with prohibitive house prices and exploitative zero-hour contracts, the answer is very few. With Brexit looming on the horizon and the Resolution Foundation predicting that we are midway through a decade that will prove to be the worst for wage growth since the Napoleonic Wars, it seems unlikely that the situation is going to get better.
The problem with pricing in the Premier League and its impact on atmosphere isn't just about who it prices out. It is also about how it is transforming fans' relationship to football. "I don't go to Anfield thinking: 'I'm going to watch 90 minutes of high quality Premier League action', as Sky or BT, or even the Premier League themselves, might like to say," McKenna points out. "I'm going because I want to watch Liverpool Football Club". He argues that there is a place for the fan who comes to spectate rather than participate, but that those affluent spectators who have come to taste the Premier League product are being prioritised at the expense of the supporters committed to generating an atmosphere, even when the "high-quality Premier League action" might be lacking. Those who come to spectate, on the other hand, expect value for money when it comes to the quality of the game they are watching. "It's almost like the phrase in Gladiator when Russell Crowe turns around and says, 'Are you not entertained?'," McKenna suggests. "Well, no, clearly some people aren't."
However, it is not as simple as drawing a distinction between the spectator and the supporter when it comes to how high prices are twisting fans' relationship to the game. Spectators may well expect entertainment in exchange for their cash, but the treatment of fans as consumers means that a transactional logic has, justifiably, crept into the mind of the supporter, too.
"My season ticket is a minimum of £1000 and that's the cheapest in the ground," Herlihy explains. "When you charge the fans that amount of money, you create the expectation that we should be performing better on the pitch." Arsenal fans' continued frustration with the club's apparent lack of footballing ambition – owner Stan Kronke infamously said that he didn't buy Arsenal to win trophies – is perfectly understandable in a context in which they are paying the highest prices in the league. Why should they not expect more from their club when they're paying higher prices than supporters whose teams are winning silverware? "From my point of view, we're not trying to win, we're trying to come fourth," says Herlihy. "We're trying to make money without overstretching ourselves. That's not acceptable when you charge fans the prices that we do."
You might argue that the situation at Arsenal is somewhat unique, but the fact that even their hardcore supporters expect something in return for their money is not. "I love Jürgen Klopp," says McKenna, "but there's a bit of me at times when he turns around to those fans in that main stand behind him, telling them to get behind the team, that's like: 'Mate, they're paying £59 to watch this shite.'"
There are hints that the Premier League and its clubs are aware of the problem of declining atmosphere. That the introduction of safe-standing is being seriously considered, for example, is a tacit acknowledgment that atmosphere needs to be improved. The capping of away tickets at £30 has also been a positive move that highlights the Premier League's awareness of how important atmosphere is to the product it sells. In a statement about the initiative, the league described the move as "essential for match atmosphere", noting that away fans "stimulate the response from home fans that distinguishes Premier League matches from those of other leagues."
Perhaps we must simply accept, as Herlihy suggests, that "the days of the raucous atmosphere in the home stands for run-of-the-mill games are gone." Perhaps the marketing juggernaut that is the Premier League is adept enough at obfuscating that reality for it not to matter when it comes to how they make their money. Herlihy also makes a convincing argument in pointing out that fans can too easily slip into a "rose-tinted view of the way it used to be", forgetting about the violence and safety issues that have largely been tackled as our football stadiums have become more sanitised. But surely we can find some middle ground? Surely, there is a way to reverse the trend we are seeing in our football stadiums before they fall silent?
One thing is certain: unless the issue of high ticket prices is properly addressed, that trend will not be reversed. Outside of government regulation on ticket pricing – for which it would seem there is little political will – the only chance a change will be made is if declining atmospheres hit clubs financially. That will require us to reach a tipping point where the gap between what the Premier League claims it is and the reality fans are experiencing becomes apparent to such an extent that it stops being an attractive product. If the noise, the history, the tradition, and everything else that goes into constructing the great myth of the Premier League becomes exposed as just that, the league may find it has nothing to sell. What then? Where will the fans on which that myth was built be?