There was a time when big football clubs weren’t corporate beasts with expansive marketing departments, synergies coming out of their arse and a list of corporate partners as long as your arm. They were just football clubs and ones that had their roots in the local communities from which they emerged. Local lads played for the team, local people paid to get in on a Saturday and support was largely confined to the city or town the club resided in. What’s more, where sponsors existed they were drawn from nearby and the club’s links with the local area formed a symbiotic relationship that benefited all.
Could you say the same thing today? I doubt it. What you have instead are brands, slick corporate brands backed by companies who happen to still be partly involved in the football business. You could choose any of the big five to prove this but because I’m an Evertonian and a kn*bhead, I’ll go for Liverpool.
Let’s take getting into a game first, because this is the starkest example of how little the big clubs think of the average local fan.
Back in 1990 if you wanted to go and watch Liverpool at home then the cheapest ticket available would set you back £4. Fast forward to 2011 and that same ticket cost £45. If football had followed the rate of inflation across the rest of the economy over that same period then the ticket should have cost around £7.
And the picture was just as dramatic when it came to the price of season tickets. During the 1989/90 season the cheapest one available at Anfield cost £60. Again, following the rate of inflation elsewhere, that season ticket should have only set Kopites back just over £100 in 2011. Instead, the average punter was expected to fork out a staggering £725 to get in to watch the reds all season.
Considering the fact that most people in Liverpool have not enjoyed inflation busting increases in wages since 1990 and that the city contains five of the top ten poorest districts in England, it’s not an enormous stretch of the imagination to think that the thousands that flock to Anfield on matchdays now are probably rich punters from outside the city.
Aside from their cavalier attitude to existing local fans, the club has also proven to be no friend to the nearby community. Back in the early 1990s, as part of their long-term plans to expand the stadium, Liverpool FC began buying up houses around the ground.
According to the Guardian, the reds used an agency to approach some householders, while other homes were bought by third parties then speedily sold on to the club. This approach left residents with the feeling that the club was buying up houses sneakily, in order to keep prices low.
A belief also persists amongst those same residents that these homes were then left empty in order to deliberately blight a previously vibrant community, something that would compel those left behind to sell-up. The fact that the area around Anfield is now in desperate need of regeneration would seem to back this theory up.
All this is behaviour less suggestive of a community football club and instead more like that of a soulless private company. And with that in mind, let’s look at the corporate partners that the club has acquired in recent years.
Just last month, with much fanfare, Liverpool announced a multi-million pound partnership deal with Dunkin’ Brands Group, the American company behind Dunkin’ Donuts and ice-cream chain Baskin-Robbins. This is the same company whose wholesome food includes a turkey, cheddar and bacon sandwich (400 calories), a blueberry crumb donut (500 calories) and its signature Pumpkin Spice Coffee Coolatta (1,040 calories).
Keeping in mind that the club is situated in a city in which up to half of all 11 year-old boys and 40 per cent of all 11 year-old girls are overweight and which also has one of the highest childhood obesity rates in Britain, from a certain perspective you could say that tying the iconic Liverpool FC Crest together with a brand renowned for producing high-fat, highly sugared products might seem a tad irresponsible. But then responsibility and sponsorship rarely go hand-in-hand in top flight football. And if you want proof of that then take a look at Liverpool’s shirt sponsor, Standard Chartered. Back in 2012, it agreed to pay a $340m (£220m) fine to the New York Department of Financial Services, which had accused Standard Chartered of scheming with Iran (that’s right IRAN) to hide billions of pounds worth of transactions from the US authorities, leaving the financial system susceptible to "terrorists" and "drug kingpins".
And this is not an isolated case. If you take a casual glance down the list of Liverpool’s principal corporate partners, partnerships that the club trumpets with glee, then you can find plenty of examples of shady practices.
Gatorade: Until recent public pressure this sports drink contained BVO, a flame retardant chemical that is banned in Europe, but its parent company PepsiCo has been criticised for operating in countries with oppressive regimes, such as Burma, China and the Philippines. It’s also been accused of testing its foodstuffs on animals and of collaborating with biotech companies that use technology originally derived from human fetuses in order to develop new food products.
MBNA: As if being a major contributor to George W. Bush’s Presidential Campaigns isn’t bad enough, here in the UK, MBNA have been criticised for mis-selling payment protection insurance and charging exorbitant interest rates on their credit cards.
What you have at Anfield then is essentially a company, one little different from any other company that operates in the UK. Profit maximisation is key, regardless of whether this means shafting your traditional supporter base, f**king-over the local community that once sustained you and jumping into bed with any other company waving wads of alluring cash, even if that cash is morally and ethically tainted.
Liverpool FC are far from alone from straying so far away from what a community football club is meant to be. In their place you could easily substitute any other big gun plying their trade in the upper reaches of the top flight. But they do illustrate a point. And that point is: what the f**k do we support nowadays?
There are still lots of us who follow football that claim to be left-wing, specifically in cities like Liverpool, Manchester and London. And yet we give our support and our money to companies that often represent capitalism at its ugliest and which bear almost no resemblance to the clubs that they once were.
I know that changing the team that you support is virtually impossible in football. But as fans, the next time our club wins the league, qualifies for Europe of bags a piece of domestic silverware, maybe we should remember that this has come at a cost and that cost is the very soul of the clubs we follow.