The introduction of safe standing was on the agenda at a Premier League meeting today, and reports coming out of it were cautiously optimistic that it could be introduced to the Premier League in the not-so-distant future. That would be a great thing for both fans who attend games and those who watch them on television.
Thirty years ago, most English stadiums had standing-only sections. Tickets for these were cheaper, and the somewhat true stereotype is that these sections were filled with young, male, lower class soccer fans, chanting and singing the entire match, and perhaps brawling with opposing fans afterwards. The sections weren’t particularly safe, were conducive to crushes and stampedes, and were often surrounded by fences like a cattle pen.
After the Hillsborough disaster in 1989 killed 96 soccer fans—it was caused by police error but contributed to by poor stadium design—the Taylor Report’s recommendations led to huge changes in soccer stadiums across the UK. Among other things, by law, soccer teams in the top two divisions in England and Wales must have all-seater stadiums.
In the context of soccer, hooliganism, and safety in the 1980s, these changes made sense. But they had knock-on effects, like making soccer matches less accessible to kids and the less well-off—which weren’t mere knock-on effects but the goal for Thatcherites—and killing the atmosphere in stadiums.
But not everybody across Europe adopted a wholesale ban on standing sections. Most notably Germany did not, and many Bundesliga stadiums have standing sections today. The most well-known is the South Bank at Borussia Dortmund’s Westfalenstadion, where 24,454 fans stand, sway, chant, and wave flags at each home match:
Getting rid of standing sections hasn’t stopped some Premier League fans from standing. It is tacitly accepted at many stadiums, but is unsafe because thousands are standing where there are shin-high barriers, it’s an inefficient use of space, and it pisses off the people who bought tickets and don’t want to stand.
In recent years, various fan groups have pushed for a reintroduction of standing sections, with the PR-approved name of “safe standing.” There are a number of different ways to implement safe standing, but the most common one has seats that can be locked upright, and rails every couple of rows to prevent crushes. This allows stadiums to transform sections from standing to sitting at will, or as required for certain matches (like European or international ones).
Two recent events have given hope that safe standing could come to the Premier League. The Hillsborough Family Support Group has always been against standing sections, making safe standing extremely difficult politically and emotionally for Liverpool (and to a lesser extent Everton and the Premier League generally) to support. But in April a British jury found that finally found that the fans who died at Hillsborough Stadium were unlawfully killed, ending a 27-year-long battle for justice, which has helped move the issue forward.
Scottish club Celtic also introduced a 3,000 person standing section to their stadium this year, after previously having multiple permits to do so denied on safety grounds. They are the first British club to introduce safe standing, and Premier League clubs are touring the grounds to see it for themselves.
It won’t happen in the Premier League immediately. There are still laws and Premier League rules to overcome, and one of England’s biggest and most influential clubs, Liverpool, is still formally opposed. But there are at least 13 clubs interested, and so far Celtic’s experiment has been a success (not to mention the numerous successful examples in continental Europe). Safe standing is a way for the Premier League to eat its cake and have it too, to appease fans being priced out of attendance and to make matches a lot more exciting when watched on television thousands of miles away. Safe standing is good for soccer.