The Evolution of English Football Supporters And What It Means For Your Club
Prawn Sandwiches, floppy jester hats, a brand new replica kit and a camera memory card being used to the point of melting. These are all increasingly common sights at Premiership grounds, particularly for the ‘Champions League clubs’.
Depending who you speak to, this ‘new generation’ of fan can be considered to be ruining the game or providing the funds essential for clubs to continue competing at the highest level. Which came first – the chicken or the egg? Did a club’s success bring about more fans or did more fans and increased revenue bring about success? It’s increasingly obvious that the two co-exist.
With the Premier League having lucrative deals for TV rights all over the world, football truly has become a global commodity, something clubs understand the importance of milking. By opening their doors to the global market, clubs can vastly increase their net profit, often with little direct effort. The right placed advert, prize competitions, access to live games, club TV channels with exclusive access and copious amounts of memorabilia and merchandise all provide easy money for big clubs. Couple this with the odd pre-season tour, giving thousands of fans the chance to see their heroes in the flesh and a club can really hit the jackpot.
The concept is not exclusive to foreign shores. Times have changed, and football culture has evolved over the years – at pace. Whilst the financial benefits are abundantly clear, there’s a fine line to be tread. It has become extremely easy for a club to lose its identity. In the past, youngsters would not pick and choose who they supported, they were told. Children would grow up supporting the team their family had done for generations, learning the clubs history and traditions as a ‘right of passage’ on the terraces.
These days geography has less and less bearing. It matters not where you are from, or what long-standing connection you have to a club. These aspects have been replaced, when picking a team youngsters will be more likely to question how likely it is they will be successful, how often will they be able to watch them on TV, what does their kit look like and who makes it, and will they beat other friends teams so they can gloat away on the latest most popular social networking site. These days Darren from Dover is as likely to support Manchester City as Steve from Salford (they’ve recently even produced a bluffers guide to supporting the club).
Although everyone has an equal right to support whoever they want regardless of geographical location, and there are undoubtedly keen and knowledgeable fans amongst these – there is a blurred area between a club reaping the new found commercial rewards and opening its doors to the world, and a club being able to maintain it’s traditions. The further removed a fan is from a club the stronger the ‘Soccer AM’ influence can become. Age old songs unique to each club and historic terrace rituals can easily become lost in chants of “easy, easy, easy” and “who are ya”. Clubs employ people to gauge their new perceived popularity, increasing ticket prices accordingly, running the risk of becoming soulless money making machines all too happy to abandon their roots in exchange for a few extra pounds.
Football fans are not stupid. They know the game has changed and the only way to remain competitive is with large amounts of money. As a result, in recent years fans have developed a ‘thirst for Sheiks’, and are now happy for their club to be taken over by the latest billionaire looking for a new toy to play with – A dangerous philosophy that can backfire badly, as any Portsmouth fan can testify. Thankfully steps are being taken to minimize the risk with tests being required before a takeover can occur (whilst still not being stringent enough, it is at least a step in the right direction).
But who are the real losers in this modern craving to support one of the ‘big boys’, a club deemed popular enough for a fan to be seen walking around their nearest town centre sporting the latest seasons 6th away strip?
Attendances in the lower leagues have been steadily falling in recent years and the smaller clubs are alarmingly flirting with administration on an ever increasing basis. With the exception of Brighton & Hove Albion, no club in the bottom two divisions of the English league (nPower League 1 and 2) achieved more than 68% attendances per capacity on average over the course of last season. For clubs at this level of the footballing ladder the bulk of income comes on matchday, so dwindling attendance figures present a real danger.
A quick look at the league tables will show you that there are some big names currently presiding in the depths of the lower leagues. Unfortunately for these clubs it becomes increasingly likely they may become trapped in a vicious circle – needing fans to turn up to increase gate receipts allowing money to be available to investment in the squad, but fans only willing to pay to see the top players. The choice is available now and for a little extra money fans have the choice of going further down the road to see some of the best players around.
Unfortunately as a result clubs are therefore often limited in their options. Gamble, take out loans, invest in playing staff and hope for promotion and the fan base and money that inevitably follows. Or tread water, give up hope of returning to ‘the glory days’ and be thankful they aren’t one of the unlucky ones to be hit with administration.
Nobody begrudges the new breed of fan. It’s their choice. They spend their money and can argue they have as much right to support their chosen club as any other. Football is completely globalised and geography bears little relevance these days (although you shouldn’t need a map to find your own club’s ground). There are however 92 clubs that make up our league system, so spare a thought for your local club – you might just miss them when they’re gone.
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