Update: news reports coming from Wales are indicating that Cardiff City have performed an about turn on the issue of changing the colour of their kit and rebranding the club’s identity. We’ll offer out congratulations to the supporters for making their voices heard, and also to the club itself for listening to those concerns and acting upon them when it might have been easier to dig their heels in. We’ll leave this post up here as a cautionary tale, though. You mess around with the traditions of our football clubs at your own risk!
How much are your name and your face worth to you? This question, along with other imponderables, has been in the forefront of the minds of Cardiff City supporters over the last few days or so, since the announcement of a plan to rebrand the club in red from the start of next season. The club’s Malaysian owners confirmed earlier this week that they wish to invest heavily in the club – the conveniently round figure of £100m seems to be the agreed value of this investment – but this is coming at a cost that is proving difficult to stomach for many of the club’s supporters. From the start of next season, Cardiff City will wear red rather than blue unless there is a massive change in heart on the part of the owners.
The rationale given for such a divisive move is, perhaps predictably, that the colour red carries a significance that will benefit those putting money into the club, but it is perhaps worth pausing to consider whether this is idea has been properly thought through. To what extent, we might ask, is it possible to quantify such a pronouncement? Can it be converted into a round number, and how does this number compare with any potential number of supporters that have been infuriated by the announcement? These are questions that are worth asking, because since this story turned from rumour to fact it has started to feel more than a little as if it has the potential to turn into something of a “New Coke” moment for Cardiff City Football Club.
Clubs, of course, change their kits with considerable regularity and this particular form of evolution has given birth to a multi-million pound industry that has been very beneficial to both clubs and sportswear manufacturers. It is important, however, to differentiate between a club’s kit and its colours. Most supporters now accept that any specific kit is a transient object which has a specific – and usually relatively short – lifespan. To change the colours which make up that kit is to tap into something far baser. It is to mess with the very relationship between the occasionally difficult to define concept of a “football club” and the very people that – if we can reduce the level of simultaneously consume their product and are its life-blood.
Almost all football clubs work from a base palette of two or three colours, and very few diverge far from this base. There have, in the past, been exceptions to this rule, perhaps most notably when Leeds United manager Don Revie changed the colour of his club’s kit from yellow and blue to all-white in the 1960s, but where this has been done before footballing reasons have been given to justify it – in the case of Revie and Leeds, it was to give the impression of the pre-eminent European club side of the time, Real Madrid. The idea of changing the colours of a football club for the purposes of marketing, however, is a very modern interpretation of how the entire football club should be considered – in particular an interpretation that is explicit in courting a foreign market at the expense of the culture and tradition of a club.
If we set aside the moral aspect of the owners of a football club, though, there are solid, practical reasons as to why this idea may turn out to be less successful than the owners may hope it to be. The matter of shirt replica sales may not be a massive one for a club the size of Cardiff City. It seems unlikely that this would be over-reliant on this particular revenue stream, so supporters boycotting shirt (or other official club merchandise) sales might not affect the club to a significant extent. Levels of anger amongst a proportion of the club’s support are such that it seems possible – if not likely – that at least some will not be renewing their season tickets for next season, and at this point financial loss may be felt a little more keenly by the club.
In addition to this, benefits to the investors seems overstated to the point of spuriosity. Red may well be a popular and lucky colour in the Far East, but it feels as if the likelihood of smaller clubs being able to make significant inroads into foreign markets such as this have long been overstated. Are thousands of Malaysians seriously going to switch their support from global giants of the game such as Manchester United or Barcelona to Cardiff City because of this? In spite of considerable foreign investment into clubs from abroad in recent years, there is little evidence to suggest that this works. It is also worth pointing out that red is not even the corporate colour of Vincent Tan, the investor. His company’s corporate colour is, wait for it… blue. It is tempting to think that the most rational reason for this decision is a flexing of the corporate muscle, with little thought given to the feelings of the supporters of the club.
In a meeting between representatives of Cardiff City FC with those from its official supporters club and supporters trust earlier this week, it seems confirmed that the wishes of supporters against this idea will not be taken into account. The club stated that this decision has “not being entered into lightly”, but this will feel like cold comfort to those of the opinion that their views have been ridden roughshod over. Indeed, there is nothing to indicate that there was any consultation with supporters prior to the decision having been made and this will surely only compound the feeling of disconnect that some are now feeling from their club. This sort of unilateralism really shows up the stark reality of the football club being run solely as a business, rather than as a community asset or as an organisation that is focussed on the best interests of its supporters.
There are, of course, plenty of Cardiff supporters that will take the Malaysian money and not care less about what colour shirt the team wears or what the badge that adorns them. After all, in recent years their club has been eclipsed by rivals Swansea City in a way that would have seemed inconceivable just a decade ago and desperation to get into the Premier League and challenge them again alone makes the club’s recent play-off failures in the Championship all the more glaring. If protests do come to pass against this rebranding, then, it is entirely possible that this matter will only end up creating needless division between supporters of the club. Just how fractious this could become in the fullness of time is not a question that is easily answered. What we can say for certain is that the Welsh clubs that play in the English system have a sense of identity that may even be stronger than many other clubs. Working to the assumption that Tan doesn’t want to antagonise a sizeable proportion of the club’s support, we can only assume that any advantages that he would get from this exercise would have to be considerable but it difficult to see how this could be the case.
Tan should, perhaps, be reminded that whilst he has brought the limited company that owns Cardiff City, he hasn’t bought Cardiff City FC itself. The “Football Club” as an entity can be difficult to define, remaining just out of reach of those that would seek to package it up to sell it. It rests within all of the supporters, a collection of shared memories and experiences that cannot be bought or sold. It should be of considerable concern to those running the club that a new owner is behaving as if these considerations do not matter, he should be politely reminder that other avenues for his investment money do exist. For now, though, we will have to wait and see how many people boycott next year’s replica shirts or other aspects of the club’s commercial arm, including match day tickets themselves. It promises to be a long and difficult summer for Cardiff City Football Club, and even those that are content to take this money at the cost of their club’s identity will surely be wondering whether this sort of disruption and antagonism could possibly worth the potential returns in the long run.
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