Football Fan Engagement – A Psychobabble Special
I’m so ‘old school’ that I don’t even spell ‘old school’ ‘old skool.’ So when I read Arsenal’s Head of Marketing Charles Allen in the Independent on Sunday newspaper recently, my heart almost audibly sank. “In all of our international territories,” Charles said, suggesting a previously unheralded set of regime changes, “we want to build our reach and engagement.” As he explained: “Our focus is to connect with fans via social media and engage them in a dialogue with the club. Monetisation is further downstream.” Allen’s psychobabble-heavy quote came in an excellent article – terrifically-researched and depressing in equal measure – entitled World will soon be worth more to the Premier League than the UK, by Jonathan Dyson, who is working on a book on the EPL’s global “reach.”
Leaving aside the headline-writer’s assumption – oft-made but rarely-challenged – that the “UK” is the English Premier League’s ‘domestic’ market, the article was a timely reminder that the nature of football consumption will change quickly and radically during the lifetime of the latest EPL overseas broadcast rights deals. And one of the demonstrable downsides of this will be the use of language such as “reach and engagement,” “monetisation,” and concepts such as “continuing the conversation” which will be “key drivers” of the new football “fan experience.” Psychobabble is becoming football’s vernacular.
If Allen’s bottom line demonstrated that the bottom line is still the bottom line, the idea that matchday attendees are a football club’s “major asset” (itself a horribly-clinical description) is nearing the end of its natural life. This was demonstrated by another quote in Dyson’s article, from Debbie Winardi. “Indonesians like to gather and be involved in communities,” she noted. “And this makes them more passionate about their clubs.” That has been the basis of ‘traditional’ support of organised, professional football to date. Winardi, though, was not talking about the Indonesian Premier League (current champions, the disconcertingly-named Semen Padang), as she is the “International Relations Manager” for “BigReds, Indonesia’s official Liverpool Supporters’ Club. And for her, “a contributor to the phenomenon of the Premier League in Indonesia,” (the English Premier League, that is) “has been the growth of”… wait for it… “Premier League Communities.”
So talk of “fan engagement” is just as focused on Djakarta as Derby. And as a recently-published “White Paper on Flexible and Future Proof Fan Engagement for the Modern Football Club” informed us, apparently seriously, “Fan engagement continues to be the buzzword in UK football.” (With arithmetic like that, UK football’s financial mess is a little easier to explain). The “White Paper” – entitled “Taking Matchday Fan Engagement Beyond the Stadium” – is only an advertising feature… I hope. It is a ‘White Paper’ only in the sense that it is printed on white paper, 12 pages of it (making it a very extensive advertising feature). But it addresses something which the “football industry” is turning into a ‘buzz’ topic. The ad came with the March issue of FC Business magazine, “the business magazine for the football industry.” And features on ‘Fan Engagement’ are magazine regulars. Eight of the March issue’s 76 glossy pages are devoted to the topic alongside other features on marketing, sponsorship and facilities.
But in a week when Aston Villa, Liverpool, Queens Park Rangers and Glasgow Rangers all announced multi-million pound losses – over a ten-month period for Liverpool and seven months for Rangers – there might be conflicting views on whether ‘fan engagement’ is THE top priority for UK clubs. On the one hand, responsible financial management might seem to some to be a greater immediate need (although Rangers’ £7m losses, despite being a fourth-tier Scottish club with average home gates of 45,300, are more to do with their start-up costs than any fiscal irresponsibility). This sense of a “run-before-you-can–walk” mentality was heightened in the latest FC Business, which published fan engagement material alongside a feature on a Freedom of Information request which “uncovered a range of pest problems lurking in English Premier League football grounds.” And they didn’t mean players’ agents…
On the other hand, both the cynical and realistic view of fan engagement is that of Charles Allen and his “further downstream” monetisation. The “white paper” is written entirely in psychobabble, much of which would be funny if there wasn’t a danger that it might all soon matter. Its thinking is driven by “the global demand for British football,” which shows “no signs of slowing,” especially after the lucrative overseas broadcast rights deals Dyson chronicles. Fan engagement “must maximise the experience for fans on the matchday whilst replicating that matchday passion and atmosphere within conversations beyond the stadium.” The reference to “global demand” suggests that “beyond the stadium” doesn’t just (even?) mean within the club’s local community. Among the populist pipe-dreaming to which Rangers’ Australian fans were treated by CEO Charles Green recently was the very good idea of opening a “fan museum and café bar so that fans can spend 3-4 hours at Ibrox on non-matchdays.” Of course, spending money for “3-4 hours at Ibrox” might have better represented Green’s ambition. But the general concept was genuine. The paper’s concepts sound more artificial, envisaging fan engagement via technological advances: “multiple ‘touchpoints’ for clubs to interact with fans” inside stadia and the ‘touchpoint’ of social media elsewhere in the world.
It is tempting to think “good luck installing ‘multiple touchpoints’ at (insert unfashionable Football League club here).” That exposes what some might believe to be a flaw in the fan engagement concept. Yet it could also be considered part of football’s general, even natural, progression – the increasing gap between the world’s elite clubs and the rest. And, of course, the increasing gap between English and psychobabble. The paper insists that “a wide-range of technologies” will “act as integral cogs in the fan engagement mechanism.” “Clubs and partner brands can now target fans with dynamic, high-impact messages and imagery.” The afore-mentioned ‘touchpoints’ will be features of “supporters’ journeys through stadiums.” And of course, “the backbone of any successful fan engagement platform is good connectivity,” which is “the non-visible backend of the platform,” while “continuity and immediacy are vital elements to creating engaging content” which can “only be achieved through a joined-up solution.”
Imagine all that at world football’s major grounds – Allianz Arena, Camp Nou, Emirates Stadium, Old Trafford, Santiago Bernabeu (alphabetical order, before you type in to complain). Now imagine that at Craven Cottage, Accrington Stanley… the New Den. Actually, you don’t have to imagine it at the UK’s newer, almost purpose-built stadia. It’s already arriving. If you thought Cardiff City’s kit change was the extent of their Far Eastern fan engagement, you’ve overlooked their “unique broadcast and delivery solution to create bespoke programming for the overseas market combined with digital perimeter technology to monetise the space.” Of course, the paper is an advert for companies producing these joined-up solutions and back-ended platforms. So it isn’t going to be a subjective appraisal of the near-future of football supporting. And however hard it tries to cover the main motivation for all this, it fails.
It will be important to “separate advertising from Engagement” because of “the Digital Perimeter Anomaly.” Clubs must resist the “temptation to view fan engagement as a revenue stream” because it can be “over-commercialised… to the point where it becomes disengaging.” And clubs must avoid “over-commercialising the activity at the expense of real engagement.” But “the end result of over-commercialising everything is reduced value,” it notes. And lest you think “value” = value for money for fans (mercifully not called ‘customers’ anywhere in the paper), we are soon told that avoiding over-commercialisation “creates…the ability to drive more value.” And while “fan engagement is about long-term investment in your fanbase, not short-term profit,” this “fan-centric shift in football” also “helps cement lucrative partnerships… producing a noticeable difference to a club’s bottom line.”
Some club finance directors and CEOs may be fulfilled by the sight of their club’s shirt being worn by kids worldwide. There may have been a warm glow along the M62 when coverage of a recent South Africa/New Zealand cricket international revealed more Manchester United and Liverpool shirts in the crowd than those of the teams involved. But there would have been a warmer glow if the shirts weren’t so obviously charity hand-me-downs with “Sharp” and “Hitachi” emblazoned across kids’ chests… or locally-made replica replicas. And there was almost certainly a warmer glow when one fan was filmed watching the Manchester United/Liverpool build-up on his, paid-for, mobile phone application. There is no point to a “Liverpool community” in Indonesia if it is based round a Djakartan café’s big screen from which the proceeds of any ‘monetising’ will be shared across the EPL. And there’s little point in a 600m worldwide fanbase if their ‘support’ of ‘their’ club doesn’t involve ‘their’ money.
So, ultimately, fan engagement is about engaging fans’ money. Not least because under Uefa’s ‘financial fair play’ initiative, such monetisation counts as “acceptable income,” which will help stem any multi-million-pound losses threatening entry into the Champions League elite…and its elite money. “What happens on the pitch over 90 minutes” does warrant a mention as “engagement in its purest form.” But it is just one paragraph, about “Saturday afternoon worship,” – which ignores the influence of those great fan-engagers SKY & ESPN. Otherwise, fan engagement remains a “complicated, multi-faceted discipline aimed at creating touchpoints with fans throughout their everyday lives,” creating “increasingly personalised, continuous conversations” and is “a far cry from the pie-and-a-pint days of old.” But that doesn’t fully replace the qualities of “days of old”… after all, what better creator of “increasingly personalised continuous conversations” is there than a “pint”? Why must fans choose between days of old and new? And there are a few basics to get right; not least the price of tickets to access to these back-end platforms. Again in the March issue, FC Business ran a feature in which EPL ticket prices were “compared pretty favourably against the elite games from rival sports” rugby, cricket and tennis.
This, though, compared club games with top rugby and cricket internationals and…Wimbledon tennis – cricket and tennis offering far more playing time, rugby a far more elite fixture, way more expensive than its top club games. It also ignored how quickly top-flight football has caught up with these comparators, especially since 1992, for some reason. Until then, technology-driven “fan engagement” will be viewed as just another means to make money for clubs and take money from fans, just like the pie-and-a-pint days of old; the same old horseshit (speaking of pies), disguised as a brave new world. And such cynicism is wholly justified if clubs spend more energy “creating an immersive, dynamic stadium, fan engagement platform as part of a global delivery strategy” than on balancing the books, cleaning the kitchens or making “immersive, dynamic” stadiums affordable to the people who want to get into them in the first place.
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