I just finished reading Peter Caton’s excellent new book Stand Up, Sit Down: A Choice To Watch Football – a very good late Christmas present for any football fan. It’s a very careful review of the issues : safety, hooliganism and choice. As most people know, all-seater stadiums in England were mandated by the government following the 1990 Taylor Report into the Hillsborough tragedy but only fully enforced for the top two divisions.
As Caton shows, the claims that all-seater stadiums increase safety and enable the authorities to control violence are not supported by convincing evidence. Taylor himself seems to have been prejudiced on the issue and while the authorities (police, DCMS, FA, FAPL, FL etc) seem convinced that all-seating is the only safe choice, they seem to rely almost entirely on the authority of Taylor.
What is clearly shown is that most fans would like to be able to make a choice, and many would prefer to stand. If a safe and secure way could be designed to make this happen, why not consider it? One might have expected FAPL clubs in particular to embrace the idea, since many of them are playing to sell-out crowds and more standing would increase capacity. Caton argues, correctly I think, that this represents a revenue opportunity. That’s how capitalism is meant to work- the owners of the clubs should meet the demands of their customers because it is profitable to do so.
So why isn’t this happening? Caton advances a theory- each of the authorities listed has little to gain, and would have to face the risk of being held accountable if they made a change and things went wrong. As he points out, since the time of Hillsborough violence and safety problems have diminished beyond recognition- if it ain’t broke… why fix it?
I think there are two interesting issues here. First, Caton is right to say (as far as I can tell) that there is little firm evidence that all-seating has caused greater safety and reduced violence. But “absence of evidence” is not “evidence of absence”. In particular, we just don’t have good data and research about the causes of reduced hooliganism over the last two decades. We have many competing theories (gentrification, aging fan base, CCTV cameras, tougher laws, greater fan awareness, commercialization of grounds, and probably others) – figuring out which elements (if any) are causal is very tricky, and I’ve not seen a convincing analysis.
Right now David Conn never tires of telling us that Germany is the model we should follow, with low ticket prices and safe standing. Caton himself went to watch a game in Germany and came away approving. However, there is growing evidence that Germany has a serious hooliganism problem- over 8,000 cases of criminal proceedings last year, compared to fewer than 2,500 arrests at football grounds in England, despite attendance at the top four divisions being much higher in England than Germany (BL1 is about the same at FAPL, but the Championship is about double that of BL2, and there is no equivalent of FL1 and FL2). The German police have aired the view that standing may be a problem. I don’t think this should be dismissed out of hand.
The second issue concerns regulation. We have had football ground regulation in law since 1975 now. It is shocking to think that Hillsborough could happen 14 years after government regulations were introduced to ensure safety. Since 1990 English football has largely prospered- bigger crowds despite astronomical increases in ticket prices, better standards of play and even a better performance by the national team. My own view is that the improvements are largely due to increased commercialization of the game- making the owners of the clubs more responsive to the demands of fans- perhaps not the vocal minority who oppose all things commercial- but the majority who are just interested in the football. I don’t credit the owners with any altruism- they do it for their own profit, which turns out to be very small and frequently negative because of cut-throat competition. I would advance the following theory- in the absence of regulation, several FAPL clubs would re-introduce standing in some form or another.
I’m not one of those crazed economists who believes that the free market must rule in all things. I’m well aware that markets can fail, and judicious regulation can help. On the other hand, much regulation in practice turns out to be injudicious- and the restrictions on standing may be an example.
Caton’s book appears to be another good example of the market at work- it appears to be self-published, in which case he may profit royally from the substantial sales he can expect. He fully deserves to do so.