Progress is inevitable. What’s also inevitable is how we humans feel about it. We don’t usually love it so much. Show me a guy who’s happy about progress and change, and I’ll show you the one guy who will definitely profit from it. The rest of us are dragged along, kicking and screaming.
Progress in football is no different. The commercial progress that’s happened at Arsenal and in the Premier League almost certainly was intended to and has produced fans like me. Far away fans, straight-laced folk, who watch on TV, buy shirts and visit infrequently if at all.
Case in point: Arsenal’s current home, Emirates stadium, was a replacement for the nearby, legendary Highbury, open from 1913 through 2006. At the time it closed, Highbury could seat fewer than 39,000 fans. But because at some points in time it included areas where spectators could stand–as did most football stadiums–it held more than 70,000 fans on at least one occasion. When it was closed as a stadium, Highbury was redeveloped as a housing complex called Highbury Square. The old field is now a park-like space surrounded by townhomes and flats on all four sides. It’s gated for residents. The outer edge of the original east and west stands remain intact. When my family visited in 2012, we came to the stadium early and spent some time walking around the Highbury complex trying to see if there was a way to step inside. The overwhelming feeling I had was similar to how I feel in a graveyard. You sense and are touched by vibrations of lives gone by, lived in passion and community.
The Emirates, by all accounts, bears little similarity to Highbury except that Arsenal play there. It represents that trend in sports toward corporate sponsorship, bearing the name of the bidder of greatest economic value. It’s a beautiful, shining monument to the club and its history, clean and spacious with a seat for all 60,000 fans. Like a living room that no one is allowed to sit in, food and drink can’t be consumed in the seats. It’s family- and female friendly. Game tickets are very, very expensive by historical standards, so games tend to be attended by the more well off, or for a special occasion. Some of the ticket expense is clearly about the cost of paying for a new stadium. But some of it is because of simple economics: demand far exceeds supply of seats. Arsenal can more or less charge what they want because there are people lined up to buy.
I love the Emirates. It’s beautiful, comfortable, easy to get to, and safe.
But all the things that make it so are not embraced by every fan. They miss the messy, tight, sweaty, raw, passion-filled stands of Highbury. A man’s place for much of its history. The cheap tickets. Tough, mostly English players who drank beer before, after and, by some accounts, during the matches, unlike the carefully-tended often-foreign thoroughbreds that compete today. Now, that’s clearly a picture that was in transition long before the Emirates opened, but that was a part of the history that fans experienced when visiting Highbury.
The Emirates presents a history that’s told.
Although it’s hard for a middle-aged American woman to understand the atmosphere of Highbury, I imagine it has a feeling similar to Wrigley field here in Chicago. It’s impossible to be in Wrigley without being overwhelmed by personal attachment to history. You are able to easily picture your father, or his father or uncle before him, as a boy or young man with no cares–or with cares that are forgotten during that time–enjoying a day at a ball park like that. But even Wrigley must progress, this year changing its profile by getting a jumbotron after a protracted fight by the Chicago Cubs owners with the city and the owners of nearby rooftops who had sightlines into the park that supported their businesses.
Ok, let’s face it. Baseball is not football, and it never will be. (To that, both baseball people and football people will say “damned straight!”)
So I must admit it. My presence at the Emirates this season is likely a product of the commercialism and “progress” sweeping the sport, the stadium naming and shirt sponsor money, TV money, the impact of the internet, and technology. I can’t know what it is to have Arsenal deep in your blood and bones. But I do know what it is to have it in my heart. This year I hope to be able to experience it from a Highbury point of view.