The Briefing Column from the March 1982 issue of the Socialist Standard
While the collapse of Laker Airways may have hogged the headlines, media attention was also devoted to the near-collapse of a far less well patronised institution, Bristol City Football Club. For the “national game”, taught by Britain to all those foreigners who are now so good at it, is in a state of crisis. Several clubs are on the brink of going under, losing money boot over foot and struggling with large overdrafts and interest payments. Even the larger clubs are having to tighten their belts.
The short-term reason for the crisis is clearly the current economic situation. As registered unemployment tops the three million mark, short-time working increases, and real wages fall, workers have less and less money to spend on leisure activities. Even enthusiastic supporters may decide that there are better things to do with their hard-earned wages than stand in the rain for two hours waiting for a piece of skill that would merit being an edited highlight. Spectator sports are always sensitive to the ups and downs of the economy, and cannot avoid the effects of booms and slumps, whether local or national. Look at the locations of the clubs which have been forced out of the Football League in recent years Workington, Gateshead, Barrow—and replaced by the likes of Peterborough.
There are longer-term factors too, though. In the last thirty years, the number of spectators each season has been halved (it’s now just under twenty million). It is significant that the largest drop has been for games outside the First Division, from twenty-three million in 1951 to eleven million in 1981. Whereas even reserve games once attracted crowds numbered in thousands rather than hundreds, now only the best can expect sizeable audiences, and even certain First Division crowds are down to the ten thousand level.
When faced with rival leisure activities, football has failed to compete. Other spectator sports —basketball, for instance — have gained in popularity while football has declined. Television enables one to watch football at weekends without the hassle and expense of getting to the ground, getting crushed and soaked, and running the risk of involvement in a fight. Even the daring experiment of three points for a win has failed to make the footballing package more alluring. Success in the World Cup may give the game a temporary boost—as happened in 1966—but that success is unlikely, and in any case would hardly alter the long-term picture.
If attendances cannot be increased easily, so that (sponsorship apart) income will at best remain stable, clubs will have to reduce their expenditure to survive. And the main possibility for this is a wholesale change to part-time footballers, as are found outside the Football League and in many Scottish League clubs. This has not yet been actively proposed, but it’s surely on the cards. Players of Third and Fourth Division clubs will resist this, in the realisation that it will mean a drop in living standards, and that they will have trouble finding jobs outside football. Most, of course, are unskilled in anything beyond ball-trapping and dummy-selling. The footballing equivalent of short-time working will be part-time playing, with another full-time job or full-time unemployment. What effect this arrangement would have on the quality of football remains to be seen.
Of course, it might not happen. The recession might suddenly end, workers might suddenly find lots of spare cash in their pockets, the missing millions might return to the terraces. But that’s not the way things work. The present recession will end in time, but the long-term decline of football as a spectator sport is unlikely to be reversed even then. Of course, unexpected things might happen; while we're on the subject of fairy stories, England or Scotland might even win the World Cup.