Originally published on Future Sport on January 27, 2017
Football is a global sport, uniting people form all backgrounds. Could the Premier League do more to make games and stadiums more accessible to disabled fans?
Premier League football clubs are really different now compared to 20 years ago. Millions of pounds are going from fans and sponsors to privately-owned Premier League clubs, football players, football managers and their agents. A club like Manchester United FC can make £12 million in revenue per match, a player like Yaya Touré from Manchester City FC is paid an estimated £1,306 per hour, and a football agent like Mino Raiola can make £20 million from a single player transfer. Foreign Club owners have been attracted by double digit returns in a global low economic growth rate. And yet despite these huge sums, clubs are not investing enough in accessible facilities and they are not providing their event day staff with customer service training.
There has been a clear demographic and social change in football fans: there is an ageing fan base that requires venue managers and staff to understand older customers’ needs and accessibility requirements. Premier League football clubs’ neglect of disabled fans is astonishing and very latent. The Forgotten Fans, fans with a disability or reduced mobility, are not generally treated well by English Premier League and Championship clubs. In my opinion it should be mandatory for English Premier League clubs that participate in UEFA, Premier League and FA tournaments to comply with the existing disability and accessibility legislation; unfortunately some clubs have a different agenda.
According to the Premier League Handbook 2016/17 each club should provide sufficient and adequate facilities for disabled supporters; unfortunately, only a few clubs have an accessible facility or have upgraded their stadia taking accessibility considerations into account, for example the Etihad Stadium, the Emirates Stadium, Old Trafford and the London Stadium (thanks to the legacy from London 2012 Paralympic Games). Premier League Clubs generally do employ an official to liaise with disabled supporters; however, Disability Liaison Officers are generally not senior managers, and therefore they can only deliver what their club Executives help them to achieve. Unfortunately, there is no existing professional qualification for a Disability Liaison Officer or standardised recruitment process.
My personal experience working at Wembley Stadium is that, as a sport facility, it has been designed with a thorough understanding of accessibility following consultation with multiple stakeholders including Level Playing Field and accessibility experts. It has competent part-time Disability Liaison Officers at Wembley and Club Wembley levels; it has great wheelchair platforms at different levels with space for companions; it offers secure accessible toilets in good locations, and it offers a good experience for blind and partially sighted football fans with a 90-minute commentary service via Alan March Sport.
However, the customer experience at Wembley Stadium for older fans and fans with a disability still differs to the experience of able-bodied fans in a number of ways: the lack of an “Ability Suite”; the lack of accessible food and drinks kiosks; the lack of training of event day staff; the lack of sufficient Blue Badge accessible parking spaces; a sub-optimal Shuttle Bus Service from Wembley Park Station to the Stadium. My suggestion would be to have an accessible Shuttle Golf Kart Service from Wembley with access to a secured and secluded lane of 600 metres following Olympic Way to the stadium, and adding Shuttle Bus Services from Wembley Central and Wembley Station as traffic on event days is too congested and not all buses that travel to the Stadium are fully accessible.
Thanks to Sir Alex Ferguson and Phil Downs among others, a club like Manchester United FC have considered disabled fans for the last 25 years as an important group and incorporated accessibility and disability in the Manchester United culture as part of its CSR policies, bringing football and its communities together. Currently, various non-for-profit organisations work with clubs, the Premier League and UEFA (for example, Level Playing Field and CAFE) to evaluate football clubs’ consideration of disabled fans’ needs (mainly based on the ratio between accessible seats compared to the total seat capacity); however, these non-for-profit organisations have no jurisdiction to sanction clubs for not complying with the UK or European disability and accessibility legislation.
It is great news that Premier League clubs may face sanctions over lack of improvement; however, in my opinion sanctions are not the best way forward. I strongly believe that the FA, UEFA and the Premier League in consultation with other European leagues should create a reference Accessibility Guide, with shared best practices, technical guidelines and recommendations from experts, to help clubs deliver inclusive football events and build new, accessible facilities. I also think the UK Government could legislate to ensure that Premier League clubs invest in accessibility and for example spend at least 0.5% of their revenues on training event day staff and 5% on making stadia more accessible.