Still The Beautiful Game: The Resistance Against The Commercialisation of Football
The following is my MA Thesis, which is an exploration of the intersection between football and visual culture.
With contemporary football now framed in the setting of a Debordian Spectacle that inherently alienates its traditional audience, we begin to see a rejection of this process, with fans forming a resistance against the commercialised game. Manifesting in many ways, this chapter will discuss the agitation growing amongst football fans and how they use creativity and design as a valuable tool to express their dissent.
There are those, however, who are convinced their game is beyond saving, forming ‘outgrowths’ of the clubs they have become disillusioned from. In 2003 when Wimbledon FC relocated from its home in south west London to Milton Keynes, some 50 miles north, fans established AFC Wimbledon. Being one of the few supporter-owned clubs in the Football League, The Dons have now eclipsed the league standing of MK Dons after rising up from the non leagues.
The entire experience is poignant in regards to the underlying themes of identity that run throughout the commercialisation of football. With the publishing of the Taylor Report which forced Wimbledon FC to find a new ground as their current stadium was not fit to host football matches, the club flirted with the idea of relocating to Dublin for financial reasons, before the owner ultimately sold the ground to supermarket chain ‘Safeway’. In the space of a decade, the club had lost their home of almost 80 years, before being dissolved entirely and relocated to Milton Keynes. Over a century of history, tradition and heritage wiped out due to commercialisation.
Born from the ashes, AFC Wimbledon are a paragon example of fans retaining control over their collective identity. With their existing mascot being a womble, the creator of the character protested the relocation of the club to Milton Keynes by revoking the license to use Wandle the Womble. Following this, in 2006, we see the Womble being reinstated as AFC Wimbledon’s mascot, now named Haydon, after Haydons Road – the closest train station to the club’s original home – Plough Lane. Whilst this all sounds somewhat surreal and meaningless, this battle for a club’s identity is symbolic of a club’s inherent belonging to its environment and how a club’s identity draws from its geographic setting. In this example, we see the club building its identity from the association with Wimbledon Common.
Somewhat similarly, we also see the badge of AFC Wimbledon derive from its predecessor – Wimbledon FC, using the two-headed eagle. Here the use of design hopes to evidence the direct link between the two clubs, and how fans frame the club as a continuation of Wimbledon FC’s heritage.
The model of fans owning their club is a collective rejection of commercial and neoliberalist practices that permeate throughout the game. The Dons Trust, which owns the club, operate with the intention of running a “successful, financially stable, professional football club playing at the heart of their community”. This onus on running the club as a club, rather than a business, hopes to ensure the club avoids a return to the business debacles which ultimately saw the desolation of their club at the turn of the millennium.
In another outgrowth club that was established by disenfranchised fans of former clubs, FC United of Manchester are the largest supporter-owned club in England. Founded in the aftermath of the Glazer takeover of Manchester United in 2005, the club prides itself on its Mancunian identity and its commitment to the upholding of the belief that clubs should be not-for-profit (Brown, 2008).
Interestingly, the club is steeped in socialist iconography. Banners rejecting fascism are commonplace at Broadhurst Park. In 2005, a banner was held aloft stating “Hasta La Victoria Siempre” – a reference to Che Guevara. Their club shop is awash with the raised fist, reappropriation and punk graphics, all synonymous with the visual language of grassroots, anti-establishment movements. Of course, this is in theme with the fan’s crusade in instilling their belief of how football should be run.
Operating as a community benefit society, members of the club democratically run the club – with club decisions being decided based upon a one member, one vote basis. It goes without saying that the operation of these clubs contrast heavily with the clubs mentioned in the previous chapter. As out-of-touch owners wreck havoc with club’s identities, as seen in the case of Hull and Cardiff, infrastructure is in place in the case of FCUM and AFCW to avoid this from reoccurring. Written in their manifesto, the club’s constitution is clear in what they stand for. With its aim to “create a sustainable club for the long term which is owned and democratically run by its members” that “is accessible to all the communities of Manchester and one in which they can participate fully”, the club places a strong emphasis on its status in its Mancunian community, similarly to how Wimbledon’s location became paramount to its identity in the case of AFC Wimbledon.
Again, like AFC Wimbledon, we see the inherent link between a club and its location being championed in its visual identity. Drawing inspiration from Manchester’s coat of arms, the club’s badge is made up of the ship, denoting the city’s industrial heritage, as well as the three rivers that run through the city. Celebrating the city’s cultural identity, fans harness lyrics by iconic Mancunian bands, such as Joy Division and The Stone Roses in the various banners that can be found at Broadhurst Park.
Outgrowth clubs provide disillusioned fans complete collective ownership of their club, identity and by extension, their brand in a non-commercialised footballing space. In this environment, fans are not treated as consumers, contrasting with how they were viewed by their former club’s owners. Free from fat-cats, the clubs operate with an emphasis on the club’s standing within its community, with fans at the heart of that vision. Visually encapsulating this, they celebrate their cultural and historic identity of that location, by appropriating its heritage in a visual context, as we have seen with AFC Wimbledon and the Wombles, and FC United of Manchester and The Stone Roses.
There are fans, however, who do stay with their clubs, despite their alienation due to commercial culture at which clubs operate in. Hoping on reforming from within, fan activism has now become an increasingly ubiquitous aspect of football supporter culture, relationships between club and supporters growing more and more hostile each season.
Intertwined and imperative in this is creativity, with fans relying on harnessing means of creativity to voice their dissent and effect positive change. Perhaps the most recognised and drawn-upon medium from which this occurs is the banner. Accessible for all to produce, banners offer a canvas of expression for fans to voice their opinions in numerous contexts – be it to celebrate something or to dissent, and are now very much part of the graphic space within a stadium.
Symbolising this, is Liverpool FC. Each game, The Kop becomes a mosaic of creativity with fans creating banners containing messages with their political beliefs, or their idolisation of their heroes. Again, like with the aforementioned clubs, fans harness their city’s culture and appropriate it visually. Powerfully, the sea of red that’s ubiquitous in the red half of Merseyside was subverted in February 2016, in an activist effort that would make many creative agencies envious at the raw creativity evoked by fans.
When Liverpool’s owners planned on increasing some ticket prices to £77 a game, again reinforcing the gentrified nature of the commercialised game, Liverpool fans protested with Black flags flew over The Kop instead of the usual red wall that forms each match-day. Then, in the 77th minute of the game, fans walked out en-masse. The reappropriation of fundamental structures within football here are harnessed by fans to effect change. Visually subverting their own identity to visually establish a sense of dissent at the commercialised game is such a simple protest that engaged all who saw it. And, with exposure of The Kop being something which occurs in all broadcasts, it ensured that the protest would be given a massive amount of screentime. The activist efforts demonstrated by fans worked flawlessly, with owners subsequently scrapping the plans shortly after the protests. Perhaps in some senses, this shows a glimmer of hope for the alienated fans of commercialised clubs, in that they do still have some power to effect change and protest is the process at which this can be achieved – creativity being instrumental in ensuring their success.
Arguably, there’s a link to be made here, between the fan’s use of banners to voice dissent and traditional working-class protest movements. Like we see in the Miner’s Strike, the working class have traditionally used creativity as a collective means of expression of their struggle and their dissent.
Another example of fans reapproprating their club’s identity in an occasion to effect change through dissent were alienated Manchester United fans in the aftermath of the Glazer Takeover. Drawing on their traditional heritage in the form of the colours associated with the club’s former name, Newton Heath, fans began wearing green and gold scarves to visually signpost their frustration against the Glazers. Again, we see the importance of a club’s heritage to fans. The visual simplicity of the protest also highlights that, collectively, fans possess a raw sense of creativity that is to be admired, respected and celebrated.
Solidifying this, is the event which occurred in 2015 when a group of Grimsby fans collectively protested in response to the ejection of a fan for bringing an inflatable football into the stands. Their response? A mass protest which saw hundreds of fans bring their own inflatables in a show of support for the ejected supporter. A visually surreal event, the fans had inadvertently used a Situationist Prank / Détournement to subvert the spectacle at which the Commercialised game exists in.
Defined as “turning expressions of the capitalist system and its media culture against itself” (Holt, 2010), Grimsby fans reappropriated the sense of injustice they felt that a fellow fan was ejected for simply having an inflatable ball, and staged a protest that couldn’t be thwarted by those who perpetuate the commercialised match-day experience due to the collective nature the protest manifested in.
This championing of creativity by fans in the resistance against the commercialisation goes to show the collective well of creativity fans possess and how they can express themselves in innovative and powerful ways to effect change.
Now becoming the antithesis of the commercialised game, are non-league clubs. Once viewed as an ugly, sleepy, forgotten part of English football, the non-league is now heavily growing into an alternative sub-culture within football. With the gentrified premier league experience inaccessible for many, the non-leagues offer a lucrative option for fans who wish to stand and drink in the stands, whilst paying nominal fees for tickets.
Considering the smaller nature at which non-league clubs operate, you could argue it offers a greater sense of community to fans. This sense is also expressed in the numerous amounts of community and charitable activities non-league clubs frequently carry out in their community, with clubs routinely helping local food-banks and other causes. The notion that Dulwich Halmlet FC donated sponsorship money the club received from The Isthmian’s League’s new sponsors, Betting.net, to charity speaks volumes in contrast with the scramble Premier League clubs frequently exhibit in the signing for their sponsors, even more so given the gruelling financial nature at which non-league clubs operate within.
Of course, with disillusioned fans flocking to non-league football as an escape from the commercialised game in the higher leagues with the sense of optimism that fans can reinvent the game from the ground-up, the hipsterfication of non-league football could ironically see it come full circle. ‘Outsiders’ being drawn to a ‘trendy’ new game does draw some parallels with what happened to the Premier League from 1992, albeit somewhat cynically.
Dulwich Hamlet, perhaps, epitomises what draws over a thousand fans to their games, something extraordinary for a non-league club, often eclipsing clubs several divisions higher than them. Founded in 1893, the club have developed a reputation of its progressive values. Affectionately now known as The Rabble, fans routinely contribute to community causes such as food banks and worker’s rights campaigns (Greenhalgh, 2018). Interestingly, the club also has a sub-section within its fans, a communist group that uses “For Future Football” as its slogan, seen as a more positive spin on ‘Against Modern Football’. The club, too, also do their bit; playing against Stonewall FC, the country’s highest ranked gay team to celebrate LGBT month in February 2015, whilst offering cheaper match-day tickets to recipients of JSA and DSA, as well as NHS staff.
Visually, this is represented on the terraces, with anti-fascist and pro-LGBTQ banners being commonplace. From a graphic design perspective, this helps to illustrate the accessible canvas of creativity banners provide, and the similarities between football banners and traditional working class movement’s banners; the creativity of people without a discipline in art and design endearing to say the least.
Currently, the club is embroiled in an ownership issue in regards to its stadium that encapsulates the prevalence of gentrification that’s so ubiquitous in the capital city. Their ground in East Dulwich, Champion Hill, was purchased by American property developers, Meadow Residential. Hoping to find a new home for the club, the investment fund wished to replace the stadium with luxury flats – a move rejected by Southwark Council due to the breach of its affordable housing rules. This resulted in Meadow Residential subsequently evicting the club from its ground, and billing the club with £121,000 in back rent (Pitt-Brooke, 2017). With no venue for the club to play out its last 6 league games, local rivals Tooting & Mitcham offered to share their ground, in a wholesome move of solidarity (BBC, 2018).
Meadow also filed copyright proceedings against the club, trademarking ‘Dulwich Hamlet Football Club’, ‘The Hamlet’ and ‘DHFC’, whilst forbidding them from using their badge (Pitt-Brooke, 2018). This authoritarian move can only be perceived as an attack on such a traditional club’s identity. The club later reverted back to the club’s original badge, as a celebration of its 125th anniversary – again, representing the idea that heritage is paramount to fan and club identity that has been an underlying theme throughout this thesis. This is also somewhat similar to how FC United drew from their heritage in times of adversity.
Dulwich Hamlet FC are a testament to the sense of belonging that non-league football clubs offer to alienated fans. With its progressive-minded community that surround the club, it symbolises the principles and values that is often associated with the game that is now fading from the upper echelons of the commercialised game.
It must be said that Dulwich are not an isolated example of a non-league club with a leftist identity. Across the capital, Clapton FC are another non-league club with a progressive ethos surrounding the club. Whilst the club itself isn’t overtly political, a group of fans have commandeered the club, starting a movement which explicitly oppose far right politics (Wetherell, 2016).
The Clapton Ultras, however, directly oppose the management of their club, and at the time of writing this have boycotted the attendance of their home games due to their owner raising ticket prices, and endorsing their competitors from banning them from attending away games (Cooper, 2018). Perhaps this is indicative that corrosive owners are not exempt from the lower-leagues. Nevertheless, fans are still militant in their support for local causes, such as distributing information locally on people’s immigration rights and organising regular food bank collections for the Refugee & Migrant Project. They also support asylum seeker and refugee families with no income whilst also working with Forest Gate residents to clear fly-tipping from the grounds of the Old Spotted Dog public house, and have raised funds for Newham Action on Domestic Violence. Theorising this, you could begin to frame the idea that football itself at these levels is less important for fans, with a larger onus being placed on the community spirit that surrounds the clubs.
Again, for the fans, design and creativity go hand-in-hand in the way they use it as a medium to voice their dissent and support for their causes. Like Dulwich, anti-fascism and other political causes are celebrated on the terraces in the form of flags and banners. One example, which symbolises fan’s innate ability to reappropriate their culture creatively into visually supporting their cause is the “Against McBean Football” – a play on the “against modern football” rhetoric that’s became synonymous with the alienated football fan’s relationship with the modern, commercialised game that subsequently voices their dissent against their owner.
Not confined to the capital, another non-league club which also has a strong underpinning of commitment to progressive causes is Eastbourne Town FC. Despite the area being a hotbed for UKIP support, amongst other far-right political causes, Eastbourne Town, like the previously aforementioned clubs, have developed a reputation for being involved in progressive, leftist activities. Again, like Clapton, the club’s leftist identity came to fruition through the formation of supporters groups for the club. ‘Pier Pressure’ and ‘Beachy Head Ultras’ consist primarily of disillusioned fans from other Premier League clubs, who see supporting Eastbourne Town as an outlet to experience the match-day experience without the rampant commercialisation that is now prevalent in the higher leagues. The groups are also heavily involved with the running of the club, often volunteering in local initiatives, such as local foodbanks. In light of the Royal Wedding in Windsor whereby conservative MP Simon Dudley implored police to clear the borough of homeless people, the supporters clubs collected funds for The Windsor Homeless Project at the club’s game with Windsor FC.
Another way in which the supporters groups are involved with the operating of the club is their volunteering, in which they “maintain the club’s social media presence and design match-day programmes, posters, merchandise and the club’s website” (Eastbourne Town, 2017). Figure-heading this, is Alex Brown, a freelance designer who formerly worked for Pentagram. Few words can do justice to the multitude of design work Brown has produced for the club. From posters, to programmes, the work draws heavily from Swiss design principles, creating a body of work that is jarring in comparison to the design work associated with the footballing world. ItsNiceThat described the work as “some of the most stylish merchandise of any football club in the country” (Pritchard, 2017). In an interview with the website, Brown cites the work reflecting the ‘punk rock’ ethos surrounding non-league football, and how he didn’t “want the aesthetic of our club to mimic the design and art direction of top tier football” (Brown, 2017). As a designer, there’s something so alluring about a club’s design work being so clean and succinct.
That’s not to say the design work is inherently devoid of any character; Brown draws on the town’s heritage in forming the backbone of his work – frequently referencing the town’s coat of arms and Eastbourne Pier throughout his work. What’s most admirable about the work, however, is the way it synthesises with the visual work that other fans produce. As is so often ubiquitous on the terraces of non-league clubs, banners and stickers are ever-present, again, often denoting political messages. There’s a certain beauty to be respected, about seeing a black ‘Pier Pressure’ banner set in tightly-kerned Helvetica bold co-existing with loud, vivid anti-fascist banners in an environment that is inclusive of everyone – a group of fans all collectively striving to effect positive change, using football and design as their vehicle to achieve exactly that.
Concurrent to this, it’s also worth discussing the movement surrounding the proliferation of stickers amongst non-league clubs in giving identity to non-league clubs. Producing their own stickers conveying a variety of messages, fans take it upon themselves to distribute them across the footballing environment – be it at on their own terraces, or at away games, the footprint of non-league stickers is something akin to The Situationists and psychogeography.
It’s at this stage that we can frame the draw non-league clubs provide to football fans who feel detached from the commercialised game. By offering fans cheap access to a game who’s match-day experience has not been gentrified or blighted by commercialism, where clubs view fans as fans, and not customers, a resistance has certainly formed, and gathers momentum each day.
If there is one unifying aspect that unites all these clubs, it’s that they owe their existence to FC St Pauli. Becoming the first club in Germany to outlaw anti-racist, anti-sexist and anti-homophobic activities at the ground and to draft a constitution that outlines its stance on these issues, the club developed a cult status within German football during the eighties for its left-leaning political identity. Positioning itself as an anti-establishment club, FC St Pauli quickly garnered support from the politicised, younger demographic within Hamburg, a place “no stranger to punk music, squatters and anti-nuclear protests – essential ingredients, perhaps, for developing a leftist, anti-establishment rather, movement.” (Daniel & Kassimeris, 2013). Somewhat militant, the anti-fascist identity of the FC St Pauli fans have engaged in a number of activist measures over the years, such as protesting against men’s magazine Maxim’s advertisements around the stadium because of their sexist depictions of women.
Visually, the fans use The Millerntor Stadium as their stage – a backdrop of flags and banners frequently denoting political / activist messages during match-day, which, in conjunction with the volcanic atmosphere fans create through a repertoire of left-wing chants, contrasts heavily with the commercialised, gentrified match-day experience in Britain. Again, it goes without saying that fans harness graphic design and creativity as a means of effecting change through creating visual dissent. Interestingly, however, the fans have systematically produced a brand to represent their status as an anti-establishment club. Represented by a skull and crossbones, the Jolly Roger flag is a ubiquitous symbol around the stadium that obviously denotes the same non-conformity attitude that’s associated with pirates – yet this raises an, albeit ironic, paradoxical critique – are we seeing FC. St Pauli’s identity and reputation become commoditised, and subsequently commercialised to appeal to a larger audience? As tourists flood in to soak up the atmosphere at Millerntor, merchandise with the Jolly Roger ‘logo’ is becoming a common sight. The St Pauli quarter within Hamburg itself has became gentrified over time “with the advent of larger, more expensive accommodation, expensive restaurants and office buildings, as well as attempts at commercialization through malls that combine shopping with entertainment” (Daniel & Kassimeris, 2013).
Nevertheless, the importance of FC. St Pauli as a club that encapsulates the collective power fans possess and its impact on football cannot go unquestioned. Its influence spreading across the globe – the club now has fan clubs in New York, Edinburgh, Athens and Buenos Aires to name a few – all keen to uphold its principles at a global scale.
Most notably, Yorkshire St Pauli are a Leeds-based fan-club of the German club, founded by a group of like-minded St. Pauli fans. The group regularly meet up to discuss the team, watch games and organise charity work. Like their mother club, they have a membership scheme and a constitution, as well as a commitment to upholding the same principles that saw St. Pauli become a symbol for progressive values. In 2012, the club formed a relationship with PAFRAS, a local charity which helps asylum seekers, refugees and migrants in the Leeds area, in which the fan-club donates £100 a month from its membership fees to contribute to a ‘kitchen fund’, which helps the vulnerable (Foster, 2016).
Their collective devotion to using football as a vehicle for positivity is also epitomised with their ‘Football For All’ scheme – a weekly event which allows anyone to attend and play football in a friendly and welcoming environment regardless of their race, sex, religion or background. The fan club provides kit, boots and lifts to the event, whilst covering the cost of renting the facilities. Through this, the event lives up to the very ethos that makes football such a globally revered fundamental structure within our society. Inclusive for all, Football For All provides the properly alienated a refuge, an escape from the difficulties of modern live and a chance to connect with others.
It’s with this that perhaps becomes the most poignant place to draw this thesis to a close. Over the course of this text, we have explored how commercialisation has transformed football into a now unrecognisable sport with design implicit in this. It’s an experience that has forced me to question my relationship with the game I love, as well as question my own discipline. Concluding at a point which encapsulates all football is about is perhaps a healthy reminder of what we have, and what we have to lose.
The resistance against the commercialisation of football is an endeavour by fans to protect the game from losing its identity. Manifesting in different ways, it’s at this level that the sport truly champions the values it was founded upon, away from the now-commercialised and gentrified football played at the higher levels. Be it through fan-clubs, or outgrowths of commercialised clubs, football at these levels will continue to draw in the alienated. It does, however, face the danger of itself becoming fetishised, as we have seen with St. Pauli – the buzz created from the ‘trendy’, rebellious cult-status threatens to drown out those dedicated to sustaining football’s identity.
Of course, playing a vital role in all this, is design. Walking a tightrope, design has the ability to perpetuate and accelerate the commercialisation of football, in which football would lose its identity with fans becoming alienated from the sport they see as an extension of themselves, whilst also acting as a vehicle for fans to bring about effective change through creative dissent and conserving the game’s heritage. Designers have the responsibility to ask themselves the role they will play in this process.
During the writing of this thesis, new examples and ideas presented themselves on a weekly basis as the game becomes more commercialised, with fans more alienated. On one occasion, shortly after Amazon announced it too would become another broadcaster with exclusive rights to screen Premier League games, I encountered a tweet which so eloquently encapsulated the very theme this thesis sought to explore. In a tweet which denounced the deal, Daniel Harris argued that it is the right of a fan to see their team play and not a privilege for those who can afford it, claiming that streaming is the best thing to happen to fans in a generation. Poignantly, he then summarised that football doesn’t exist to make money – it makes money because it exists (Harris, 2018). In an exploration that, at times, critiques the ubiquity of digital media and its impact on the game, there’s a definite sense of irony that one statement can encapsulate the aura of this thesis so well in less than 140 characters.