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Jack Flanagan has a look at the fan culture in Austria; something the Premier League bigwigs could learn a thing or two from.
I do not think I am alone when I say that one of the greatest aspects of watching a live football match is the atmosphere. Sure, watching a team you love has its obvious perks, and mentally noting individual performances on the pitch can be a lot of fun, but it is the atmosphere that makes the occasion so special. It is the reason fans go to such great extent to attend games, create flags and tifos, and the reason we highlight derby fixtures on our calendars. It is also the reason watching a match live on TV will never compare. However, in the modern game, it seems as though atmosphere is taking a back seat, especially in the highest reaches of football. The Premier League in particular, arguably Europe’s highest standard of domestic competition, has become increasingly focused on marketing, TV rights and profit generation in recent times.
Just to put things into perspective, Sky and BT Sport paid $5.136bn for TV rights for the Premier League for 3 seasons, starting from 2016-17. That’s a ridiculous amount, and a record, worth more than the GDP of many countries – Montenegro, Fiji and Barbados, to name a few. It’s not just TV rights – sponsorship plays a larger role in the league now than ever. Barclays, for example, sponsor the Premier League name, for which they pay a tidy sum of £40m a year. Kit providers pay a hefty sum too – Arsenal recently sealed a 5 year, £150m deal with Puma to supply their kits, boosting their annual revenues by £22m a year. Liverpool is also paid £25m a year by Warrior, and Manchester United is paid a whopping £75m a year by Adidas. This culture of maximising revenue streams has therefore begun to influence day-to-day operations of many clubs.
As an Arsenal fan I know this all too well. The Emirates Stadium fills me with a lot of pride, because it is a beautiful piece of architecture, and it blows me away every single time I walk inside. Despite this, it has grown a reputation for being pretty quiet, and apart from derby days this is a pretty accurate description. It doesn’t help that the stadium has a huge club level section, where people come along to the game more concerned with enjoying a meal or entertaining a client than focusing on the match itself. So, there isn’t really an atmosphere resonating from this club level, since the boxes are often filled with businesses, or simply those rich enough to afford them – not your average chanting fan. Add this to the fact that Arsenal’s season ticket prices are the highest in the country – at least £1035 and at most £2039, which is obscene for a ticket which only includes home games and the first 7 cup fixtures played. Champions League tickets aren’t even included. Such a price clearly only attracts some, and excludes many.
In European football, a large part of the atmosphere created comes from the “ultras” section of the stadium, which is considerably cheaper than the rest of the stadium. This is partly due to potential restricted views, from pyro or flags and whatnot, but also because the ultras element is traditionally working class. At the Emirates, and in fact at pretty much every level of English football, ultras do not exist in the same lung-bursting fashion. Premier League stadiums are particularly devoid of them.
Currently, I live in Austria and have been going to quite a few Sturm Graz games over recent months. It is the reason I am writing this article. Sturm do not play the highest standard of football, and the Austrian Bundesliga itself is not the most enthralling league in Europe. But there is a section of Sturm’s stadium, the UPC Arena, which is retained by the ultras. It is the cheapest section of seating, roughly €15 per person. Week in, week out, the ultras are there, rain or shine, derby or no derby, great recent form or terrible recent form. That’s impressive, and a commitment I’d never really witnessed before. This section of seating features many aspects of fan culture you just don’t see in England any more. Everybody stands up for the entire 90 minutes in this section, jumping and chanting at the discretion of men who stand on stalls with megaphones, screaming at you for 90 minutes. They don’t even watch the game! Sure, the flags can restrict the view, and the noise could be annoying for some, but it’s passion in its purest form. Even if you’re not in the stand, sitting somewhere more peaceful, it’s great to just sit there and admire their commitment. The chants are repeated so often that I learnt most of them after my first match there. The ultras draw you in with their energy, and you can’t help but be a fan.
For me, this is what football is about. Turning up to a match, rain or shine, and giving your all to support the team you love. The magic of live football is that whatever you may be experiencing in your life, as soon as you enter that stadium it’s all forgotten for 90 minutes. As Diego Maradona once said, football is a religion, and turning up to church is, for many including myself, a weekly highlight. The highest reaches of English football are so focused on revenue maximisation that they’re very much in danger of alienating those who helped to create the sport in the first place. More and more people are giving up their support for the big teams to support a local, lower league team – just because the atmosphere is livelier, the emotion is fresher and the prices are cheaper.
Austria is not the only country where there is such a culture – Italy and Germany are also well known for having passionate fan bases. So, embroidering such a culture at the higher reaches of football is not unforeseen – it’s perfectly achievable. In the case of Arsenal, there are so many options. Having a lower priced section of the stadium, reducing season ticket and match prices or even opening more seats up to non season ticket holders are all easy routes to help eliminate the growing passion vacuum. The reason I single out Arsenal is not just because they have the highest season ticket prices in the country, but also because I am a fan and have been for as long as I can remember. But the problem isn’t just about Arsenal – the whole league, especially the biggest teams, are becoming more and more exclusive. The love for the game is slowly being sucked out of England, and something has to be done before it’s too late.
Written by Jack Flanagan