Has the evolution of the beautiful game been for better or worse?

 

English football has never been more popular, more powerful or more wealthy.

In the space of just two decades, the Premier League has transformed the way the game is played, watched and run in this country.

Run-down grounds have been turned into shiny, all-seater stadiums with megastores and restaurants serving three-course meals and fine wines.

More women and children are going to games and, apart from Millwall's FA Cup semi-final at Wembley two weeks ago, crowd trouble inside stadiums is extremely rare.

Fans file through turnstiles

When I started watching football, most grounds were clapped out old relics. All fenced-in terraces and stands with corrugated roofs.

I remember when things were very different. In the 1980s, when I started watching football, most grounds were clapped out old relics. All fenced-in terraces and stands with corrugated roofs. The atmosphere could often be sinister and forbidding.

The experience of watching a game in this country is now, happily, unrecognisable from those days. The Hillsborough disaster forced the game to change and fans now enjoy a much more comfortable and enjoyable experience.

Yet there is still a nagging sense that something has been lost. That, in the rush to cash in on the economic boom of the 1990s, clubs left their core audience behind.

Over the last couple of weeks, I have been working on a film for BBC News: The Editors programme on how the national game has changed.

I met parents and children at a junior football game in Bracknell. I got up at the crack of dawn to travel from Manchester to Wembley with 10 bus loads of Man City fans bound for their club's FA Cup semi-final with Chelsea. And I went to Germany's industrial heartland to see the head of Borussia Dortmund, one of the powerhouses of the resurgent Bundesliga.

Everyone I spoke to was full of admiration for what the Premier League and English football had achieved in recent times. But all said they had concerns - whether it was over ticket prices, players failing in their role as role models or owners exploiting supporters.

Hans Joachim Watzke, the chief executive of Dortmund, says clubs like his ensure fans feel a part of the club by involving them as members. Thanks to the 50 plus one rule, no one businessman or company can take control of German clubs. He believes the English ownership model results in fans being treated as clients and has killed the romance of the game.

Borussia Dortmund fans

Clubs like Borussia Dortmund ensure fans feel a part of the club by involving them as members. Thanks to the 50 plus one rule, no one businessman or company can take control of German clubs

Other people I spoke to during my filming for the programme talked of a disconnect between the very top of the game and the grassroots.

As players have got richer and richer so there is a perception, it seems, that they are out of touch with the people who help pay their wages.

As the playing talent has got richer - earning on average £1m a year in the Premier League - so ticket prices have gone up again and again to help pay the bills for such talent.

Even as television has poured unprecedented amounts of money into the game - the next round of three-year TV deals could break through the £5bn barrier for the first time - ticket prices have continued to rise. In fact, since the start of the Premier League in 1992, tickets have gone up several times the rate of inflation.

This has led to a shift in the demographics of football's supporter base with many fans from the game's traditional working class heartland now priced out. With so many live games on TV, lots of supporters choose to watch in the pub or at home instead of paying for a season ticket.

The Premier League argues that if ticket pricing was such an issue then crowds would have fallen. Instead, it points out the opposite is true with attendances rising by 60% since 1992. Grounds in the old First Division were only 70% full at the time of the Premier League breakaway. Now the number is almost 95%.

The League says that its member clubs "price according to demand", an unfettered free market approach that ensures they can maximise revenue and profits which in turn can be spent on improving facilities and on developing and buying new talent. They also insist that cheaper or subsidised tickets would only lead to an explosion in touting which would rob the clubs of valuable income and leave genuine fans paying even more money.

TV cameraman at Wembley Stadium

Have the demographics of football's supporter base changed? Do expensive tickets encourage people to stay at home and watch games on the television?

But by allowing the market alone to decide the cost of watching football, there is undoubtedly a risk that clubs will alienate their traditional fanbase and a younger generation of supporters will be lost.

What's more, treating fans purely as consumers fails to take into account the special connection they have with their club. Or the fact that a supporter of one club can't simply walk down the road and follow another team if they aren't happy with the prices or the team on offer.

This is where treating football as any other product falls down. There is something different about being a fan of a club. It comes with an emotional attachment that is quite simply different to going to watch a concert or a film.

These arguments are well rehearsed and it is, of course, a giant leap to blame all of English football's problems on the business model which drives the game. Economics cannot be held responsible for players who bite their opponents, for example.

But the media money has brought with it intense levels of scrutiny for all those involved in the sport. Set against that level of attention and expectation, is it any wonder so many come up short?

The smallest of incidents can be horribly distorted - a side effect of being the most popular sport in the age of social media and 24-hour news.

Yet, for all its popularity, there is a sense that football has lost touch. It was a sentiment best summed up by a judge, Justice Leonard, at the end of the Harry Redknapp tax evasion trial last year.

"Football," he said, "is a sport which has become so commercial it may be thought by some to have rather lost its way."

English football's journey from the dark old days of the 70s and 80s has unquestionably brought great progress. But not all the changes have been for the better.