To AFTV Or Not To AFTV, That Is The Question
It says something for the low quality of football on offer at Goodison Park yesterday lunchtime that the one of the biggest talking points in its wake has turned out to be singing anti-AFTV songs by travelling Arsenal supporters during the match. AFTV is, of course, the channel formerly known as Arsenal Fan TV, the fan-run YouTube channel that has been herding together hot takes from supporters outside Premier League grounds for the last seven years, and which has in turn become something of a cottage industry in itself over this period of time.
Originally set up in order to “hear from the real fans, with real opinions” (more on that later), AFTV has been much-copied and much-parodied, but it has become increasingly clear in recent months that it has become increasingly unpopular amongst a proportion of the club’s fan base. This seems to be on account of the inherent contradiction at the heart of AFTV itself, which is that the YouTube channel itself gets considerably greater engagement levels when Arsenal lose than it does when they win. This particular group of “real fans”, therefore, benefiting financially when the team is struggling than when it is being successful.
It’s understandable that it would stick in the craw of some to be giving up the amount of time and money required to support a football club home and away, only to see another small section of that same support making money off the back of that self-same failure. But it’s complex. On the one hand, it might be considered that AFTV still gives a crucially amplified voice to supporters in a period during which a new generation of unaccountable emperors have come to take control of the biggest clubs in this country. The Glazers have never been in any serious danger of leaving Manchester United, for example, because they don’t have to do so any anybody’s terms but those that best suit them.
Democracy has always been anathema to the running of the vast majority of football clubs in this country, and in recent years accountability also seems to have been thrown out the window as well. At Arsenal, it has long felt as though the owners of the club are happy enough for it to chunter along in the Premier League without any apparent ambition towards reclaiming the top spots that the club used to hold, so long as those sweet, sweet directors dividends keep rolling in. Arsenal supporters, it should be remembered, spend a lot of money on season tickets alone, and with the factoring in of lucrative television contracts, the club has remained profitable despite its declining performance on the pitch.
If there was ever to be any push-back against this, then online media was the obvious place to start campaigning. But the question of who AFTV is actually for remains valid. It is already known that AFTV viewing figures swell considerably when the team is not winning, but why should this be? Are Arsenal supporters willingly masochistic, watching their team fail to win and then heading straight to YouTube afterwards to watch supporters completely losing their minds over it afterwards? Or is AFTV’s true audience really the fans of other clubs, who are tuning in to feed their own schadenfreude when Arsenal have failed to perform yet again by gawping at bug-eyed fans losing their minds over another sub par performance?
It’s likely that AFTV was originally a symptom rather than a cause of the club’s recent misfortunes on the pitch. We live in an era when the most hysterical reactions are those that will get the most attention. Considered opinion and nuanced argument have, as we’ve seen repeatedly across various different matters (up to and including politics), been repeatedly drowned out by the shrill and the “controversial.” There is a considerable amount of thoughtful comment to be had on the subject of Arsenal’s lengthy malaise on websites such as Arseblog (amongst innumerable others), but when we think of the online presence of the Arsenal fan base, then AFTV is what now springs to mind first for most non-Arsenal fans.
This reputation may or may not matter to Arsenal supporters, but critics would argue that AFTV has broader questions to answer than merely lowering the tone of the discourse surrounding the club. It might be argued, for example, that the reputational legacy of Arsene Wenger, the most successful manager in the history of the club by some distance and a man who changed the club’s fortunes as much as now legendary figures from its history such as Herbert Chapman or George Allison, was trashed by the weekly shouting matches for the cameras that have taken place outside Arsenal matches for the last few years.
Some might extend this further. It is notable that it took the club itself six years to express its concerns over the channel breaching Arsenal’s copyright by using the term “Arsenal” without authorisation, and those who wonder “why so long?” might well wonder whether the club considered AFTV to be a useful shield, deflecting criticisms of the structural deficiencies within the club by focusing attention on soundbites aimed at players and managers instead. Guests on AFTV have certainly been critical of the club’s senior management in the past, but that’s hardly what the channel is famous for, and it might be argued that the club likely only stepped in to complain about AFTV when this usefulness was outstripped by the level of anger that was seeping inside the stadium on match days.
To a great extent, AFTV is a victim of its own success. Had it not gained the traction that it did online in the first place, this conversation wouldn’t even be taking place. But the coarsening of discourse within the football media is important, and AFTV certainly has questions to answer over feeding into the perception of football supporters as hysterical idiots who can’t even react to their losing a football match like adults. When pressure groups are trying to persuade the game’s governing bodies that football supporters have, in a broad sense, a voice that should be listened to, it can hardly be argued that AFTV is a case in our favour. And even if you don’t care about that, AFTV’s growth means that even if it was once merely a symptom of the toxic atmosphere that hangs so readily over The Emirates Stadium, it’s likely just as much a cause now.
Much of this effect is incalculable. It’s impossible to say for certain, the extent to which the atmosphere during matches impacts upon Arsenal’s players or energises their opponents, or whether the elite level professionals that the supporters themselves crave so much may be dissuaded from moving to Arsenal on account of what they may have heard about the atmosphere there. What is clear, however, is that a proportion of those who make those home and away trips every single week are running out of patience with a small group of supporters who are increasingly being perceived as lining their own pockets at the expense of the well-being of the club in a broader sense.
Free speech and unencumbered criticism are important, but there remains a responsibility on the whole of the media to treat the extent to which it can shape public debate with care and maturity. These are, however, all thin lines. Nobody seems to know where the dividing lines are between being little more than a mouthpiece for the club’s ownership, providing honest, constructive criticism, allowing the club’s supporters – whether on screen or vicariously at home – to vent over the team’s glaring shortcomings, and merely being a screeching cesspit of attention-seekers, all trying to out-controversial other in a cynical race to the bottom of the discourse barrel. Until these arguments are resolved – and they may never be – AFTV will continue to have to live in parallel realities in which the right to express stupid opinions is the price that has to be paid for the right to express opinions at all.
There is little doubt that the Arsenal fan base is divided, and that it has been for some considerable time. The arrival of Mikel Arteta as the club’s new manager is an opportunity for a fresh start and for that support to unite. The most intriguing question now is that of how AFTV will react to this changing of the guard. If things don’t improve quickly – and there was little to suggest that they would at Goodison Park yesterday lunchtime – will AFTV select and edit their videos to support Arteta and the players, or will the tone quickly descend back into spittle-inflected rants that sail straight past the real causes of the club’s ills in favour of easier, more visible targets? You can’t collect the substantial amounts of money that come with the viewing figures that AFTV has built up and simultaneously claim no responsibility for what happens as a result of this. Those who run the channel obviously proclaim themselves as supporters of the club. But would they make the ultimate sacrifice or risking their online engagement levels in order to fully support the team? We may be about to find out.