Is there a worse thing imaginable for a common or garden football supporter than Soccerex? The annual global convention of marketing pricks completed its three day mission to showcase new and inventive ways for football clubs and other attendant vultures to wring money from its paying punters earlier this week and the world is, it should go without saying, a slightly grubbier place for it having occurred. This world of business expositions is, of course, a bleak one, in which authenticity only means anything if it can be repackaged and sold for twice what it cost before and in which the only form of loyalty that is worth anything is brand loyalty. It’s a glass of lukewarm pinot grigio from a bottle that’s already been open for five hours served with sandwiches served on a tin foil tray that wasn’t completely covered in cellophane. It’s conversations in which the word “synergy” is used simultaneously both with and without irony. It’s a world of navy blue pinstriped suits worn with a tie to add a splash of colour. In these respects, at least we might argue that modern football “synergises” very effectively with modern marketing.
Soccerex therefore was, in these respects and many more, the perfect venue for the Football League to announce, without a hint of irony, that it has engaged the services of a thing called “Futurebrand” in order to rebrand itself, with chief executive Shaun Harvey telling a presumably smirking journalist from the Daily Telegraph that, “We’ve entered into a very extensive consultative process with all the stakeholders, including the Premier League, sponsors and fans.” Fans, hmm? If the Football League has already been “extensively consulting” with fans, they’ve been doing a very good job of keeping it quiet. They certainly didn’t seem to “extensively consult” with anybody when they sold off free to air television highlights rights to Channel Five, who proceeded to find a way to spray lukewarm diarrhoea out of television screens the length and breadth of Britain on their first broadcast and about whose flagship programme the kindest thing we can find to say now is that it’s less like it was when it first aired. Similarly, it’s difficult to imagine the Premier League, an organisation that has perfected the art of extracting haemoglobin from granite, being that interested in helping its smaller, more impoverished rival from growing its slice of the pie that much.
We’ve been here before, of course. In 1992, when the twenty biggest clubs in England finally realised that sows’ ears make a perfectly acceptable material for the manufacture of a new form of silk purse if only the marketing is right, the Football League’s response was to rename Divisions Two, Three and Four as Divisions One, Two and Threein the manner of a middle-aged man draping a medallion around his neck before heading out to a nightclub. Twelve years later, after the ITV Digital fiasco somehow persuaded a clutch of clubs to hurl themselves towards insolvency on the basis of a contract that hadn’t paid them any money yet, the Football League rebranded itself again, this time renaming Divisions One, Two and Three as The Championship, League One and League Two. Another twelve years has now passed, and now the whole cycle seems likely to start all over again.
But what is it, exactly, that is going to be rebranded, and does it even need to be done? The Football League is, after all, already a highly body, in some respects. No clubs have gone bust while a member of it since 1992 – though some have come close – whilst the levels of competition that its divisions have offered in recent years have outstripped much that the Premier League has been able to offer. On the other hand, though, the reality of life in the Football League is one of mundanity. This is a world of faded tip-up plastic seats, grounds named for sponsors that only the most dedicated can remember, Bovril with the consistency and flavour of rusty water and the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy. Just as neither you nor I could reinvent who who we are by changing our names to Spartacus X Rockefeller III, so will the Football League – post-1992 edition – be unable to shake off its quintessential Football League-ness just as a result of changing its name.
This, however, is okay. We’re all consenting adults. We know what we’ve got ourselves involved with, and we know that it doesn’t come with – depending on your opinion, though it could conceivably be both – the hubris or the sprinkling of stardust that accompanies the Premier League. We understand that dressing up a Tuesday night trip to Walsall, Charlton or Newport in new clothing is unlikely to make to make it any more exciting. The excitement comes from it being a football match. A football match that we’re at. A football match that our team might win, but probably – om a statistical sense, if nothing else – won’t. It might be expensive – too expensive for what is on offer, in a majority of cases – and we might be prone to the occasional moment of existential crisis should we think about it all too hard, but we keep going, and in remarkable numbers. The Football League Championship is the fourth most watched domestic football league in Europe – behind only the Premier League, the Bundesliga and La Liga, and ahead of Serie A, amongst others. This is an extraordinary achievement, considering the long shadow that the Premier League casts over the rest of English football, and begs the question of what the Football League could possibly believe it can earn from taking off one mask and putting on another yet again.
Still, though, we’re not merely snarktastic cynics here at Twohundredpercent. We have suggestions and, in a move that we’d like to think might nudge Harvey in the direction of the futility of hiring companies that charge thousands of pounds for this sort of thing in the first place, we’re willing to offer them free of charge. So bear with me on this. All over the globe, there are companies which turn a pretty penny skating as close as they can to copyright laws without overstepping them. Perhaps the Football League could rebrand itself as “The Premiére League” and persuade Assem Allam to rename Hull City as Tottenham Notspur, Aston Villain’t or The Bootleg Arsenals, in the manner of a tribute band. Alternatively – and both the pervasiveness of the loan system as well as the desire to allow Premier League clubs into the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy might not even make this too distant an idea – the Football League could pool every last penny it has and request to take a couple of established Premier League clubs on a season-long loan. Perhaps taking on Manchester United and Liverpool for a season would apply the sprinkling of glitter that the Football League apparently believes it needs, though it didn’t seem to make much difference when a similar experiment was carried out involving Newcastle United in 2009.
There are, of course sensible answers that could be given on this subject. The Football League could force clubs’ hands over ticket prices and push towards filling every ground every week. It could position itself as the affordable league, which offers access to all. It could even put a clause in its television contracts which allows for those contracts to be recalled if the winning broadcaster makes a dog’s breakfast of its coverage, or make its live coverage available free to air. The likelihood of any of this happening is remote, though, especially when for just a few thousand pounds they can slap a new sticker on a product that has been perfectly viable for more than a century and claim, for the third time in less than two and a half decades, to have reinvented the wheel. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, as marketing pricks are probably already aware.
We’ll be discussing this matter further in this evening’s Twohundredpercent Podcast, which will be recorded early this evening and will be available to download or stream later tonight.
You can follow Twohundredpercent on Twitter by clicking here.
You can rebrand yourself with Twohundredpercent on Facebook by clicking here.