Rise of Premier League globally has changed local face of fans

Paul Pogba of Manchester United kicking a soccer ball
Paul Pogba of Manchester United scores their first goal during the UEFA Europa League match between Manchester United FC and Fenerbahce SK in 2016 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Matthew Peters/Man Utd via Getty Images)

Whether you root for Arsenal F.C., Raja Casablanca, Manchester United F.C., TP Mazembe or another team, there is no doubt football has been a way of life for many fans in the United Kingdom and Africa. Now with the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia underway, fans have yet another reason to cheer.

Dr. Michael Skey, a communication and media studies lecturer at Loughborough University, U.K. recently spoke at the 12th annual Sports Africa Conference in Lusaka, Zambia, on “Theorizing Football Fandom: Reflections on the U.K. and Africa” and how fandom has developed over the last 30 years.

Skey said one of the things that has changed over time in the U.K. is the skyrocketing price of tickets, which has forced an evolution from the traditional working class fan to the more-affluent middle-class fan.

“So the traditional working class people that used to watch football are being priced out and what we’re seeing is more affluent middle-class people entering the game, becoming interested in the game,” Skey said. “And there’s a huge debate at the moment in the U.K. about what’s called ‘plastic fans.’ These are fans who do not seem to be authentic. They do not seem to be linked to a particular club; they simply follow them because they’re successful.”

Skey used the English Premier League to broaden his focal point and see whether the popularity of the league had any impact on local African leagues.

What made fans in places such as Zambia, Tanzania and Kenya so interested in EPL teams to the exclusion of local teams?

“Local football fans in Africa see the Premier League as well organized, very professional, very skillful, and they look at their own leagues and their own teams and see them as the skill level’s lower, there might be corruption, there’s problems around organization and they’re kind of turned off by that,” Skey said.

However, as popular as football has always been it has become the largest global phenomenon.

Skey explains that football in the 1980s was in the doldrums facing issues of stadiums falling apart and hooliganism, where football fans would fight each other on what seemed an everyday occurrence.  

“For young men, often disenfranchised, often working in poorly paid jobs, the big highlight of the week was to go to the football game and for some of them to get into a fight,” Skey said. “Lots of exhibiting masculinity, it was a major problem in English football in the 1980s.”

But with the help of technological changes like satellite television – such as Rupert Murdoch’s  British Sky Broadcasting – the media landscape expanded. This allowed major clubs to break away and form the English Premier League during the early 1990s.

“In the ’80s, you might have seen four or five games a season on television,” Skey said. “So after 1992, you started to see two or three games every week live on Sky. So that gave football a higher profile. The newspapers followed up as well, and football became trendy in a way that it wasn’t in the 80s. In the 1980s, it was a working class sport, quite violent. In the 1990s, it became, as I said, much more gentrified. Clubs had more money, so they could pay their players more.”

It not only revolutionized the way football was marketed, but it also allowed the EPL to bring in the world’s best players.

The inclusion of foreign players, Skey said, made the league more attractive, especially in places such as Africa, where local leagues were poor. Satellite television gave people access to the English games, and that made them want to be associated with successful teams.

“Most of the African fans followed Chelsea, Man United, Arsenal, etc.” Skey said. “(The EPL has) some of the best players in the world. It’s very exciting. It’s very well marketed by Sky and TV companies now in a very competitive environment that football is a way of accessing significant number of people who are young, affluent and with income, and they’re attractive to advertisers.”

While the U.K. was going through a technology boom, African media was being deregulated. That process allowed public broadcasters to dominate during the late 1990s and early 2000s.

“In the 2000s, the two best clubs in England at the time were Arsenal and Manchester United,” Skey said. “What you’ll find is that in many parts of Africa, Kenya for example, Zambia, Tanzania, those two clubs are incredibly popular because they were successful and, to some extent, because Arsenal, in particular, had African players. … I think African audiences felt that they could relate to certainly the African (players) and the black ones as as well. These are people like us. They’re supreme athletes. They’re winners, and we want to be associated with those clubs.”

One issue that arose was that of glory hunters, fans that follow the most successful teams. Some parts of the world call such fans bandwagon fans. In Africa, the practice is perfectly normal as long as you don’t abandon your support for your original team. In England, the practice is frowned upon.

In places such as Lusaka, Zambia, in the 1970s and 1980s, many football clubs sponsored by a mining company, a bank, the army or the police did not have time to develop deep roots in the community, opening the door for the Premier League.

“In Lusaka, there’s lots of teams; they kind of come and go on the basis if they get funding from a particular company or whatever it might be,” Skey said. “In Tanzania, there’s two huge teams that are supported across the country, so they’re not really local. But, again for historical reasons, they grew to the exclusion of all others. In Kenya, it’s the same, so there’s two teams that are pretty popular, and other local teams don’t tend to generate much interest. In South Africa, you’ve got the Kaiser Chiefs and the Orlando Pirates linked to particular townships, giving them an historical, longer-term affiliation with fans.”

Being a glory hunter in England can have some painful consequences when it comes to online forums for football fans. Manchester United is a club that thrives with “bandwagon fans.”

“There’s a joke that no one that goes to watch Manchester United actually lives in Manchester,” Skey said. “They all live in London. They’re all very affluent. They can afford the new ticket prices at Old Trafford; they’re not real football fans. You’re not seen to be someone who, over time, developed a relationship with a club that’s an authentic relationship because you happen to live in the same area. You’re someone who’s not to be considered as having something valuable to say about football.

Skey finished the discussion reflecting on American sports and what he found most interesting is how egalitarian in terms American sport is, particularly with the use of drafts to stock teams.

“What you try and do is you try and even things out so that one team doesn’t dominate,” Skey said. “I’d love that to happen in England because it’s a bit boring with five teams dominating, so that’s what I find fascinating about American sport is you’ve got this country dedicated to the individual and the cream rises to the top and yet you have this draft system which is designed to balance things out.”

Edith Noriega is a junior journalism student at Arizona State University. 

Based on interviews conducted by Luke Brenneman, manager events and communications at Global Sport Institute

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