Football: 'Fans have memories, customers buy brands'

Fan's eye view: Manchester United by Cliff Hague
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The Independent Online
ON TUESDAY night I ceased to be a Manchester United fan. The decision was not mine. I was not singled out. All of us whose lives have been tethered to Old Trafford were offloaded in that same instant.

BSkyB does not have fans; it has customers and shareholders. Of course, the football side of the business won't change. In fact, we've been assured it will get better. Murdoch has no time for losers. Big-name players will be wheeled in, on contract to deliver. Rejoice. We did. As the goals went in against Charlton, the chants against the deal faded. The crowd of more than 55,000 revelled in a pounds 12m calypso from Dwight Yorke and Jaap Stam's pounds 10m flailings from a Friesland farmyard.

Brand loyalty will be nurtured, though some re-branding of the product may be necessary to increase penetration in under-exploited markets. Look out for a couple of Chinese trialists arriving when the time is right and products of Manchester United's famous football academy in Peking. The marketing will be superb, and the business will go from strength to strength. It's just that there are no fans anymore.

Cantona's "farewell" game a month ago was the end of an era in a more profound way than any of us realised at the time. It allowed the fans to celebrate the continuity of United. The testimonial beneficiaries were there, the survivors and families of that audacious young team of the 1950s. Their ghosts strutted the turf as Eric wove his own magic one last time. Then, suddenly, flitting under the lights in those same red shirts, were new skinny teenagers showing the skill and character that Busby had defined as the essence of a United player. For all the stars, without the fans this would have been a soulless, empty occasion. The crowd were the alchemy that made it a spectacle. Emotion, adulation, the booming of "Ooh, aah, Cantona", the banter of "City, City sign him on" as an eccentric goalie wandered once too often - Murdoch's man probably construed this as a plea to the banking community.

Customers couldn't recreate an evening like that. They pick and choose; they are sensitive to price and quality, but, otherwise, they are passive. Companies like it that way. Mark Booth, BSkyB's man on the deal, is puzzled why it matters that Rupert Murdoch has never been to Old Trafford. Questions on such topics are irrational and irrelevant. The only way that global corporations can engage with the profundity of memory is as an ersatz ingredient used to flavour a blend. Fans have memories, customers buy the blend. For those of us whose roots grew in its terraces, Old Trafford feels like our rightful place on this earth. To News International it is a dot in corporate space, while Martin Edwards pockets a cool pounds 87m.

On Wednesday night, with United 4-1 up, the Charlton game petered out. The opposition could no longer compete. Silent in glass booths above me, the well-dressed men and women fiddled with mobile phones. There were few children at the match, no groups of adolescent lads. Still, not being a fan is such a wrench that I'll inevitably buy a ticket again. Exiled in Edinburgh, I'll sign up for pay-per-view: but if the product is not up to scratch I'll take my custom elsewhere. I hear that at Maine Road you can get a good laugh at discounted rates.