Fan, Patron or Consumer?

Professional corporate sport in the 21st century, is so different to the amateur community-based sport I grew up with in the 60’s.  Shit, the Olympics and Wimbeldon were shamateur back then, and even the “professional” codes like footy and cricket paid a pittance.

Yes sport is more ‘professional’ these days, and there have been incremental improvements in performance standards.  But is bigger, faster, stronger also better??  Is the fan/patron/consumer experience better for all the cash we have thrown at players/owners/coaches/clubs over the past 50 years?

The brilliant Almanac piece by Stainless ( got me thinking about the issue.  The English Premier League (and European football generally) is the pinnacle of market capitalism in world sport.  The private owners (including oil sheikhs and the mass murderer who have recently owned Manchester City) and players take an enormous slice of fan and TV revenue.  As Stainless indicated, their stadium facilities make Victoria Park look like a palace, but games still sell out months ahead at exorbitant prices that exclude most but the corporates.  At best only a half dozen of the wealthiest clubs have any chance of winning either the English Premier League or the European Champions League.

As one of my political inspirations RH Tawney observed 100 years ago “freedom for the pike is death for the minnows”.

As always when you start thinking about an issue you find you are not alone.  The 2 articles cited below highlighted a couple of paradoxes for me:

  • England is the home of political socialism, but has the most market centred sporting system in the world.  England’s sporting achievement has thrived in the last 15 years.  The triumph of Thatcherism and the Friedmanites?


  • The US has a sporting system that is very internally focussed.  Gridiron, baseball and ice hockey are the most popular US consumer sports, but have little impact globally.  These codes all have very protectionist competition policies replete with salary caps and preferential drafts to ensure that most teams have a similar shot at success.  At the same time American performance is in free fall  in global sports that they once dominated (eg tennis, athletics and swimming).   With the rorted crap game of Wall Street and the US Dollar as the international reserve currency, Americans talk free markets as a way of picking other people’s pockets – not a philosophy for living.


  • Kicking the AFL is the national sport for most Australians, and I am an enthusiastic participant.  But when you look at other countries and other codes, it makes you realise that Andy and the boys run a pretty good balancing act.  They take on enough free market (paradoxically from the UK) to enrich the sport’s participants, but they do a pretty good job of equally embracing US protectionism (socialism might be a step too far) to ensure that fans have world-class stadiums and the majority of games and clubs are competitive.  Who knew?

The first article is from David Hepworth’s blog

David is one of the great music and popular culture writers.  He was the publisher of the much lamented “Word” magazine that was my music/movies/books bible until its circulation was fatally undercut by the Internet and social media.  His observations on technology and the future of media and publishing are pure gold.  As befits a man who grew up on now defunct s45’s; New Musical Express and Smash Hits.  Change is eternal, and there is no point in being sentimental about things we are no longer prepared to pay for.

To my surprise Hepworth is a Spurs fan, and he took umbrage when their Manager (AVB – Andre Villas Boas ex Porto and Chelsea) blamed silent fans for a poor team performance.  Hepworth’s argument is “what do you expect when you charge the average weekly wage for a seat?”  The response to his blog piece are often better than the original (as with the Almanac).  Make sure you read them.  Take these for example:


I was there for the old football, pre-Premier League. Lots of it was dire, with
bonehead racists cheering homegrown dullards picked by isolationist managers in
a tactically sterile league – and of course we watched from inside cages looked
over by callous policemen treating us as subhuman scum. But at least it wasn’t
£50 a ticket.

So, I think there is a different experience for the casual attendee and the
season ticket holder. But for me I love it! Including booing at Benitez, calling
Torres ”The Girl”, repeatedly telling Ballack “You’re Rubbish”, but best of all
jumping into my friend, Guy’s arms whenever we score. It’s really not just about
the game. It’s a culture – funny, passionate, social, scary – and a way of life.

My other piece is from the London Review of Books at

It is by an American sports academic Benjamin Markovits who spent some of his growing up years in England, so he is an acute observer of the cultural contrasts.  When he goes to Chester-Le-Street to see the recent Ashes Test he immediately gets to the nub of the conflict between the short and long forms of cricket:

The sport is in a funny kind of crisis. The big commercial ticket remains the international test; to support the international game you need a strong county system; yet the only way the counties can survive is by playing a version of cricket that teaches skills directly opposed to the ones players need to thrive in international tests. It’s a problem.

Why can a Yank see that, but Cricket Australia seems oblivious?

Happy reading.





  1. Really great topic Pete, the comparison between the AFL and Premier League is an interesting one.
    Using 1955 as a starting point (the year after Footscray held the cup aloft for its one and only time)there was 12 Division 1 title holders until the inception of the Premier League in 1992/93. The VFL/AFL in the same period of time had only 10 premiers which included firsts for St.Kilda,North and West Coast.
    Since the Premier League began there has been only 5 title holders of which 3 teams have won 19 times(Man U 13,Arsenal 3, and Chelsea 3).In the same period the AFL has had 11 different winners.
    The AFL’s comparatively egalitarian approach is based on necessity due to its finite expansion options

  2. What about the game itself? Soccer that is. (I still can’t bring myself to call it football) I went to an Arsenal match with my Pohmmy Son-in-Law. At the old Gillespie Road ground. Ben waited till the last minute and knocked a scalper down to a hundred quid for each seat about a minute before kick-off. And that was in the bad old days when the Little Aussie Battler bought about 42p.

    After 90 minutes of frustration in a nil zip draw I wanted the burn the first five cars I came across to get my money’s worth.

  3. Mr Wrap,
    Ross Lyon v Paul Roos in 2014. Plenty to look forward to there. 0-0 at half time (which was pretty close to the half time score in the GF this year).
    Men in glass houses……………

  4. Harvard Political Philosopher Michael Sandel has an excellent section on sport in ‘What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets’

  5. PB – interesting topic this. Are we better off? I suppose we need to define “better”.

    Perhaps the key question here for all sports is: “What does our sport look like in a perfect world?” Tough one to answer.

    Enterprise is impossible to crush (and neither should it be crushed) but greed is the weed that it spreads.

  6. Paul Daffey says


    Interesting – and convincing – the comparison between fan and patron.

    But you missed a vital bit among the comments.

    “Before I pay £50 for a West End theatre ticket I read the reviews and decide if I think it’s worth going to. There’s no preview option for a football match so if I’m charged £50 I expect to be entertained. If I’m not entertained, don’t complain to me about not cheering and shouting – I’m not the one who set the expectations with the ‘best league in the world’ malarky.

    They misspelt Malarkey.

  7. You are right Daff. There was so much interesting stuff in both pieces, I just pulled out a couple of interesting grabs to entice Almanackers to click through to the linked pieces.
    The difference between theatre as theatre; and sport as theatre; is that once you have read the theatre reviews you can consistently expect to get within 5% of that every night. Theatre offers consistency, where there is always the possibility of the unexpected (for good or ill) in sport.
    What struck me reading the comments on the Hepworth piece is how much we all go to sport as ritual and for connection. A good game and/or a win is a bonus – but the true fan enjoys the occasion and their mates regardless of winning or quality. Probably explains why the Avenging Eagle and I turned down tickets to see The Whitlams and WASO to ‘farewell’ Andrew Embley and Adam Selwood. Unfortunately for us the other 20 Eagles players had decided they preferred a casual night out at the theatre also.
    As for Malarkey, I have often wondered if it is named after the famed Geelong and East Perth full back, or the Irish slang for “stuff and nonsense”? Can you let us know the origins of this auspicious name in publishing?

  8. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Interesting article and debate yes it is about the experience about going with your mates and in , SA the barby at footy park is a institution but winning certainly helps the experience . The other point is bigger better? In mp opinion no as I hate and think it is sheer incompetence by the , AFL that they don’t care about any comp below there own
    they have destroyed the , VFL , WAFL and now it is our turn the , SANFL by not having a national reserves comp yes you have a bigger comp at the top but lesser underneath I would rather have the old way than the so called better bigger of now

  9. Phil Dimitriadis says

    Thought-provoking stuff PB. I reckon that we tend to oscillate between all three. However, the reason we conform to patronage and consumerism is because we are fans first. We had a relationship with place and that is still pivotal in the success of the EPL. They have a home and away ‘draw’, not a fixture and that makes a world of difference because passion for place is much more acute and real than following a brand that once belonged to a place that was meaningful. AFL should not ignore this because the kids are rightly fickle with brands.
    Saturation coverage also curtails the mystery. Maybe we know and see too much these days for our own good.

  10. John Butler says

    PB, The Word is much lamented by those who read it. Thanks for the thought provoking tips.

  11. I’ve worked in the Health and Community service fields since the mid 1980’s. In the 1990’s the term client became prevalent to define those people rerquiring our support/services, that being bad enough, but now it is superceded by the term, consumer. This indicates our contemporary world where we are no longer a society, but a market, where the sole nexus in human relaltionships is a cash exchange. Phew, that’s me on my soapbox for today, but in all seriousness we live in a world where everything is commodified for purchase , a veritable market, not a society, losing our humanity.

    I’ll leave my polemic there, but there is more i can say.


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