Tim HillComment

The McDonaldization of English Football

Tim HillComment

Mr Tim Hill, ladies and gentlemen.

Football “has always been”, writes David Conn in The Guardian, “riven with contradiction between the amateur sporting principles of the game’s founding fathers and the professional carnival to which they unwittingly gave birth”. This is undoubtedly true, and such a split is wider now than it has ever been. The chasm between the grassroots and the £100,000 salaries of celebrity players or £100 non-VIP tickets at the Emirates Stadium emanate from the popularity of the 1990 World Cup and the advent of Sky Sports soon after.

Football was entrenched in the day-to-day lives of the working class, but now the sport that was once the fulcrum of a community has now become a gentrified, branding exercise that carries the principles of McDonaldization found amongst many industries and services. The process of ‘modernising’ football and the gradual, if unplanned, introduction of dimensions of have had a grave effect on how we, the fans, interact with the sport.

George Ritzer first coined the phrase McDonaldization to describe the aggrandizement of rationalisation in the modern era. Three of the four dimensions are that of efficiency – the optimal method for accomplishing a certain task; predictability – the standardisation of a certain process; and finally, control – the replacement of humans with non-human technology and overarching control over peoples’ behaviours.

Mick Finn describes a typical scene at the majority of football stadiums just before three o’clock with striking accuracy:

"8 March 1997, Molineux Stadium, Wolverhampton. Nationwide League Divison 1, Wolves v Tranmere. As the crowd begins to grow, the surveillance cameras sweep the ground. At this all-seater stadium customers hand in their tickets and make their way quietly to their seats. To keep us entertained, a roving compere circumnavigates the ground broadcasting messages, making presentation, and play records. He is supported by a veritage menagerie of Disneyesque characters who 'amuse' the crowd by dancing, falling over, and joining in the pre-match kick-about with the players. At 2.50pm., the public address system broadcasts a tape of an American voice - 'ladies and gentleman, please give a big Molineux welcome to the Wolverhampton Wanderers ball boys'. Tina Turner's 'Simply The Best' follows as the ball boys run on to the middle of the pitch, face the four stands in turn, wave and receive polite and unenthusiastic applause in return. 2.55 p.m., Copland's 'Fanfare for the Common Man', rings out, a signal that the players are emerging from the tunnel. We stand and applaud our team. No sooner has this been done than 'The Liquidator' is played - the club tune, an instrumental to which the supporters have added their own lyrics. The 'official' lyrics are displayed on the video wall, but the supporters' version does not have the expletives deleted as reference is made to arch-rivals West Bromwich Albion. Indeed, some weeks the supporters are punished for their swearing by the withdrawal of 'The Liquidator', such is the penalty for departing from the script. 3.00 p.m. and the game starts. Attention switches between the pitch and the two video walls in opposite corners of the ground. A player is injured - we know this to be the case because the video wall shows a cartoon character in tears, followed by another cartoon character running on to the pitch with a sponge. 3.15 p.m., Wolves nearly scores - we might forget to applaud this near miss, but fortunately we are prompted by the clapping hands on the video wall and the reminder that 'We are Wolves'. 3.35 p.m., goal! What are you meant to do when your team scores? Thankfully the public address system comes to our rescue as James Brown's 'I Got You (I Feel Good)' is played, and so we can sing along and clap our hands to this for a few seconds. Half-time, and it's sing-along-a-compere time with Presley's 'The Wonder of You', Jeff Beck's 'Hi-Ho Silver Lining', and 'Wooly Bully' by Sam The Sham and The Pharoahs. It's always these three records, the lyrics, you see, can be adapted - The Wonder of Wolves, Hi-Ho Wolverhampton, with Wooly Bully referring to Molineux folk hero, Steve Bull. And so it goes on until 4.45 p.m. when the final whistle blows and we shuffle quietly out of the stadium and make our way home."

This identikit experience played out across the English football league has undoubtedly brought financial success, however, the fan ‘experience’ has been used as capital. Fans are now seen as pure spectators of the sport - in the truest sense of the word – and the subtle control measures employed produce an increasingly predictable and McDonaldized experience.

It is generally accepted that ‘The Taylor Report’ , published fully in 1990, and the introduction of BSkyB to football in 1992, has modernised the English game beyond recognition. The onset of McDonaldization can be traced back to this period.

Before examining how football reflects this process of McDonaldization, it is valuable to understand how fans are a factor of production in football – without them, there would be no game, nor money - therefore the application of a theory to describe processes found in industries is admissible.


Football has now been carefully positioned firmly in the ‘entertainment’ industry, with new football stadiums having to increasingly offer new amenities as to be a polestar for people wanting to be ‘entertained’. With the birth of restaurants and casinos in stadiums, the simple football stadium has transformed into a place of multifunctional entertainment. Such transformation can be interpreted as football becoming more efficient in its goal for satisfied ‘consumers’. This follows a trend in consumer behaviour studies where consumers are seen as passive actors, just looking to move from one mindset to another, in the quickest possible way.

New all-seater stadia are increasingly homogenous in their design. This is not for purely cost purposes but a generic stadium rid of idiosyncrasies aids fans in getting to their pre-defined seats. This provides fans with the opportunity to turn up the stadium ten minutes before kick-off and find their seat with ease – affect the crowd atmosphere before the game. Compared to the halcyon days of the terraces and community-led support, this is a heavily streamlined and efficient experience.


One of football’s greatest qualities is that each match is seldom predictable, an aspect which keeps the game so watchable. However, the match-day experience is increasingly foreseeable. The depiction of a match by Mick Finn is comparable to the experiences one will find around the country on match day; the spontaneity of football crowds have largely been lost through measured and predictable inclusions in football games such as cheerleaders, half-time competitions and chummy stadium announcers who request involvement. The tailored experience provides a comfortable environment so one can ‘spectate in comfort’ without any ‘nasty surprises’. These covert mechanisms are designed to remove the natural spontaneity and unpredictability in crowds – giving fans a fixed point of attention, displacing the traditionally bawdy inclinations in crowds.

The FA, who, in 1997, looked to implement ‘Designated Fan Zones’ which would be used as a way of removing the passivity of the fans nowadays, noted this banality in modern crowds. However sensible and proactive this proposal may seem, it is also looking to introduce more McDonaldized principles to combat the results of McDonaldization. David Lacey, ever wise and always pertinent, recognised that this “[does not] really address the lack of spontaneous reaction among Premiership crowds”. The predictability in crowds is in essence dehumanising, removing the organic and primal instincts of the crowd.


Going to a match around the top-flight is heavily controlled; from the introduction of non-human technology such as swipe cards, to the controlled concourse areas, right down to the four foot by four foot space you’ve been designated to hover over for ninety minutes - and don’t even try and stand up, Ned Kelly of Old Trafford will almost certainly tell you to sit down. This herding and bastardisation of a once rich and valuable experience is irrational and fundamentally degrading.

A greater philosophical point relating to the Taylor Report can be made. When reading the report and scanning the words in the report, the emphasis on control and management is reminiscent of Michel Foucault’s and Jeremy Bentham’s idea of the ‘Panopticon.’ A Panopticon is a disciplinary construction where everyone can be observed and the purpose to influence and normalise behaviour. New stadiums such as the Emirates are increasingly circular, allowing everyone to be observed easily; this, along with the introduction of CCTV could be seen critically as a modern manifestation of Bentham’s ‘Panopticon’.

The kinship and spontaneity between crowds have largely been lost, making place for a heavily rationalised and normalised behaviours – completely void of the meaning that fans once found value in. In 1929, JB Priestly described being in a football crowd as “all brothers together for an hour and a half ... with half of the town and there you were, cheering together, thumping one another on the shoulders, swapping judgements like lord of the earth”. This rich, resonant description is mournfully no longer applicable, and the attempt to rationalise an irrational kinship with the game has undoubtedly aided the alienation of fans in recent times.

To read more from Tim, visit his blog. You can also follow him on Twitter @TimHi.