Someone asked me how my blog and newspaper column came to be titled "Bleachers Brew". It's like this, it's an amalgam of sorts of two things: The bleachers area in the stadium/arena where I used to sit when I would watch baseball, football, and basketball games and Miles Davis' great jazz album Bitches Brew. That's how it got culled together. I originally planned on calling it "The View from the Big Chair" that is a nod to Tears For Fear's second album, Songs from the Big Chair. So there.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Being Liverpool: A Liverpudian’s discourse about the city, the club, and the walkout

This appears in the Monday, February 15, 2015 edition of the Business Mirror.

Being Liverpool: A Liverpudian’s discourse about the city, the club, and the walkout
by rick olivares picture from this is anfield

When Fenway Sports Group (FSG), the owners of Liverpool Football Club, announced the ticketing price scheme for next season, it was met with vociferous cries of protest. In the wake of a massive television deal that ensured that no club would not go uncompensated generously on top of other corporate endorsements, the club’s supporters felt they were being unjustly fleeced.

What followed was an unprecedented walkout by some 10,000 fans at Anfield during Liverpool's match against Sunderland. Before the walkout, the Reds led the Black Cats, 2-nil, and three points looked within grasp. Coincidentally, after the walkout, Liverpool’s play inexplicably dropped and Sunderland salvaged a 2-2 draw that felt like a terrible loss given the situation. The protests grew louder with English football legend Alan Shearer taking the side of the fans. Supporters of other Premier League sides also threw in their support. Liverpool legend Jamie Carragher was one of those who joined the walkout while current manager Jurgen Klopp issued a message of concern and stating that this should be rectified soon unless it undo the work being done in Anfield. 

The week of crushing news for this proud club didn’t end there as a few days later, Liverpool was ousted by a West Ham side in FA Cup play. 

Then FSG issued a heartfelt statement of apology and imposed not only a moratorium on ticket price hikes for two years while offering better ticket packages for fans.

I spoke with native Liverpudian and long-time LFC supporter Jeff Goulding whose passionate cry of protest on fan site, This Is Anfield, galvanized the fan base to make their voices heard as well as to walk out.

What followed was an eloquent and passionate discourse into ‘Being Liverpool’ (my play on the short-lived reality television series during the tenure of former manager Brendan Rogers' 2012-13 season).

Mr. Jeff Goulding (right)
"This issue of ‘Scouseness’ is very important to locals who follow Liverpool FC,” opened Goulding. "We are defined by the culture of the city. There is a radical tradition in Liverpool, not only politically, but in terms of art and other forms of expression. Liverpudlians hate cliché and reject the generic moronic football culture prevalent at so many grounds up and down the country."

"We prefer originality and that’s why our songs are so unique and our banners witty and creative. People singing 'who are ya!' in the direction of opposing teams are frowned upon, because there’s no ingenuity to that. It’s not authentic, it’s mindless." 

"The average Scouser looks down their noses at things like ‘half and half scarves’ and jester hats because they are an expression of the mass market culture and commercialisation of our sport."

"Conversely, songs like 'Scouser Tommy' and 'Fields of Anfield Road' have been adopted and then adapted by supporters to express their emotions and love for the club. They are sung with pride and are a millions miles removed from the ‘Sky Sports’ and ‘Soccer AM’ style seal chants, that attempt to subvert football culture and monetise it."

"Perhaps, the city’s ‘bolshy’ and creative nature is encapsulated in the music that came out of the city in the 60’s and to a lesser extent the 80’s. You couldn’t find anything more Scouse than the Beatles. Irreverent, anti-establishment, wonderfully unique and innovative."

"The people of Liverpool are fiercely proud and have a deep sense of justice and fairness. Of course things like Hillsborough and the Thatcher Government have strengthened this, but it was already there." 

"Growing up, it was drummed into me that I should always speak up for what I believe in. Just because someone may be wealthy or in a position of power, they don’t have an automatic right to respect. They have to earn it, just like everyone else."

"Above all, it’s important to understand the sense of ‘otherness' felt by Liverpudlians. The banners that read 'We’re not English we are Scouse' speak to a sense that really Liverpool isn’t part of England. At least it doesn’t feel that way a lot of the time."

"Many Scousers don’t follow the national team and feel more akin to the Scots and the Irish, than they do to people from Manchester or London."

"Why am I telling you all of this? I think that in order to understand how local fans react to the ownership question, ‘out of town’ support and ticket pricing, you need to understand the psyche of the city. That's not to say that fans from outside the city don't feel the same, but I can only speak from my own perspective."

"Liverpool’s collectivist and socialist (with a small “s”) ethos is completely at odds with the commercialization of football. Shankly spoke of everyone working hard for the common cause and everybody sharing in the rewards at the end of the day. He was completely in tune with the heartbeat of the city and the people. To a degree, so too is (Liverpool FC manager Jurgen) Klopp, I sense."

"However, this approach is at odds with the ethos of investment groups like FSG. To them the object is of course success, but I don’t sense there is a commitment to everyone sharing in the spoils of victory. Rather the supporters are seen as just another means to an end; another revenue stream."

"This is why a lot of local fans are inherently sceptical of the motives of these ‘businessmen’ running our club. Some, not all, fear that the drive towards globalising the ‘brand’ and bringing in more ‘tourists’ to Anfield will further dilute the club’s culture (of which they are fiercely proud) and marginalise local supporters."

"Most of us can see that having such a global fan base is positive, Actually the city its self is built by people from all over the globe, so I don’t believe this a parochial or racist thing. It genuinely stems from a fear that the traditions and history of the club are being ignored."

Rick: I spoke with some friends of mine from Boston about the price increases at Fenway Park (for the Red Sox, the other team owned by FSG) and this was the general response: "With a small stadium and a high payroll, ticket prices needed to rise. It's just the cost of doing business. It's a competitive league and you have to keep spending just to keep up with the competition. From an economics perspective, with Fenway always sold out, you can actually argue that ticket prices can still be raised higher because there is still demand. But, that's not an argument that will be too popular around the streets of Boston."

Jeff: This is at the heart of the issue, Rick. What we have here are two completely different approaches to the sport and the running of the club. Of course in a literal sense your friends in Boston are quite correct. At Anfield there is sufficient demand to justify a higher ‘market price’ for seats.

If every Scouser stopped going to the game, because they couldn’t or wouldn’t pay these prices there would be many more who would. According to the business model described above that would be perfectly fine. However that is at odds with the way I and many others view Liverpool Football Club.

To us it is not a business. Let me clarify that. We understand the club has to make money and the more money it makes the better its chances of competing are. However, there is a need for balance here. We feel that we are a part of the club. In fact we could argue that the club is really ours and FSG simply hold it in trust.

Local supporters view LFC as a community asset. We identify with Shankly, when he said “at Liverpool there is a holy trinity of supporters, players and the manager. Directors don’t come into it, they just write the cheques. In fact we write them, they just sign them”. This is exactly how Liverpudlians still view the club.

We understand the club must maximise revenue, but not at the expense of a key part of that “holy trinity”. If you price us out of the game, then the club ceases to be a community asset and becomes just another business. We may as well be selling cereal or some other mundane product. It will mean little to the community it serves. That may be fine for Ian Ayre and FSG, but it’s an anathema to us.

Rick: Personally, I do not like the expensive prices. Having lived in NYC, the prices to the 
Giants, Knicks, and Yankees were murder on my finances. Some folks say that the price increases will help the club compete with the bigger clubs and get better players. Is that true to a degree or can they get their money elsewhere such as TV deals?

Jeff: I think when you view the proposed price rises in the context of the £8 billion TV rights deal; it really is hard to justify them at all. As I said earlier, the club needs revenue to compete. That’s not at issue. Really, it’s a question of where the burden should fall?

Is it really fare that the club raise prices, when they are about to receive such an unprecedented windfall? Shouldn’t they be seizing the opportunity to actually freeze, or even reduce prices? Imagine if the passion showed in opposition to the price rises could be harnessed in the stands. That will only happen when supporters are treated fairly and made to feel like they are more than a ‘cash cow’.

The club currently earns £35 million from match day revenue. If they froze prices that would increase to £37 million (due to the Main Stand expansion). By increasing prices they will generate £39 million. Surely, an extra £2 or even £4 million is immaterial to a club the size of 

What would that buy in terms of players? Surely the goodwill and pride generated by a fair pricing structure would be worth far more to the club. Instead, we have a fan base becoming deeply skeptical about the club they once loved and that’s bound to translate into a poorer atmosphere at the game. It already is.

I’m sure FSG will find it much harder to market such a poor match day atmosphere and experience.

Rick: As a long time fan of the club, did it hurt to walk out on a game like that? 

Jeff: It broke my heart, truly. I never leave early. I’m there to support the team and the manager. I give everything until the final whistle and I expect no less from the players. So for me to leave early was really difficult. Others around me felt exactly the same, but we knew we had to do it and hopefully the club has listened to the message we have sent them. If they don't there will be more protests.

Rick: I am surprised with the venom towards FSG. Forgive me if I am not knowledgable of all the issues. But surely, ticket pricing aside (and I do not like the price increase too), FSG must have done some good, right? Have they? 

Jeff: I think my earlier comments will go some way to explaining the attitude of some, not all, Liverpool fans towards FSG and the previous ownership.

The first thing to say is that this protest is not against the ownership (at least not at the moment) it is primarily against unreasonable prices. The greed fans sing about is related to a feeling that they are taking more from us than they need, in view of television and other revenue.

I acknowledge that the club was in a precarious position before FSG came in and the takeover spared us potential administration. We also need to accept that they are a business and can’t possibly feel the same affinity to the club as we do. 

They have also invested in the new Main Stand and spent a lot of money (gross) in the transfer market. Although a lot of Liverpool fans will feel that the money hasn’t been wisely invested.

Having acknowledged the good things they have done, I still feel there is a real disconnect between them and us. They seem to running the operation from the States and that sense of community is being further diluted.

We have non-football people making footballing decisions. I grew up knowing that the people making decisions about transfers, were steeped in football and what they didn’t know about the sport wasn’t worth knowing. That’s not the case now and the suspicion is that non-football consideration play a much greater part in transfer decisions than they should.

Rick: I am also shocked also to read comments at TIA about those who sit at the hospitality boxes/seats. I sat there as a guest of Standard Chartered. I sang the songs but also took the time to take photos and videos since I am not there all the time. I planned for over a decade to go to Anfield and it finally materialized at great cost since aside from Liverpool, I traveled around the UK. While at Anfield, I chatted with the locals and hung outside to talk to fans and take pictures. I hope people understand that there aren't many tourists who go to Anfield and for first timers/second timers like me, sometimes, I just stand and sit in awe because I can't believe I am there.

Jeff: Again see my earlier comments for context here. I don’t want an ‘all Scouse’ support. I want people like you to love the club and be able to get to a game. I actually believe that the passion displayed by fans in places like Manila and the the rest of Asia is incredible. I watch the pre-season tours in awe of the support on show. The flares, the banners and how those supporters know all of our songs.

In a very real sense those fans are every bit as “Scouse” as I am. This is not about excluding our global fan-base. However, it is about preserving the history, culture and tradition of the club. To do that we have to ensure that local supporters have a fair chance of getting to the game. These price rises will jeopardise that.

Liverpool is a growing city. It’s a great place to live and visit, but it has some of the poorest neighbourhoods in the country. The average wage is much lower than the national average. 
If you are visiting Anfield two or three times a year, you may not object too much to a £20-30 increase in your match ticket. But if you are going 19 times a season, that becomes unsustainable. If you want to take your children it becomes impossible. 

Add to that the cost of buying a replica shirt and travelling to away games, you can see how very quickly the local demographic is priced out.

Ultimately though this campaign is about making going to Anfield affordable for everyone, including our overseas supporters.

The anger fostered by this can sometimes be channeled in the wrong direction. This may explain the comments you read on TIA. However, I want to be clear you are not the problem. Overseas supporters and tourists are not the problem. In fact, entertaining corporate guests isn’t the problem either really, within reason.

What is the problem is a business model based on bleeding the supporters dry. I believe most local supporters appreciate that and wouldn’t support the types of comments you see on internet forums. Liverpool is a friendly and welcoming place and I love the fact that so many people from all over the world come to our city and long may that continue. 

I hope you are here again soon and would love to have a chat with you and show you around.

Rick: FSG did a turn-around, apologized, and announced a moratorium on price hikes while offering more suitable packages to fans. What are your thoughts about this?

Jeff: Yes, FSG deserve credit for acting swiftly and decisively in response to the protest. However, I feel we now need to learn the lessons from this sorry event.

We still have issues to resolve but there is at least evidence the club is ready to listen in a meaningful way. Even with the freeze, tickets are still too expensive and we need further dialogue around reducing burden on supporters.

The freeze does however buy us time and goes some way to rebuilding trust and dialogue. But I keep coming back to the fundamental problem, which is one of disenfranchisement. Does the club take into account the views of supporters and do fans feel they can influence decisions made that affect them?

I feel that what we need is meaningful supporter involvement at board level. There needs to be a supporter rep with voting rights on the club board in my view. 

This would be groundbreaking and would hopefully prevent a repeat of damaging protests and disengagement of supporters.

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