The Last Word: Beware football as a brand
Banning fans from using club crests but pandering to dodgy Burmese whisky firms risks contempt
Sunday 14 October 2012
In a parallel universe, inhabited by a certain type of sports marketer, attending a football match is a brand experience. A stadium is a football servicescape, and the half-time pie is a touchstone. A game is a sequence of moments of truth.
Supporters are dream-seekers. If they are lucky they will reach the sweet spot, where the four realms of experience – entertainment, education, escapism and aesthetic immersion – collide. Clubs must avoid negative cues, such as surly stewarding, warm beer or, horror of horrors, a colour scheme that lacks corporate identity.
Before you scoff – feel free, by the way – there are research projects at respected universities which legitimise such psychobabble. The reality, that fans are treated like second-class citizens by increasingly emboldened functionaries, is carefully avoided.
Future generations of students might care to ponder the wisdom of Sunderland's legal department, which has given landlord Alan Wallace a fortnight to remove six club flags from the windows of his pub, the Fort, on Roker Terrace.
"The use of SAFC products in your establishment implies a misleading affiliation between your establishment and SAFC" read the so-called cease and desist letter. "SAFC reserves its rights to take further action, without further notice, in order to protect our intellectual property."
Wallace purchased the flags from the club shop. He's a diehard fan, who displays a range of Mackem memorabilia and expresses his loyalty by refusing to show live foreign TV feeds of games at the Stadium of Light. "Are they going to stop people getting Sunderland tattoos, because I'm covered in them?" he asks with understandable bemusement.
The madness is starting to spread, largely through social media. Watford, or Udinese Reserves as they are known in the trade because of their parent club, have told fans not to use the club crest as a Twitter ava-tar, or on any online forums, because it compromises their copyright.
Liverpool's director of communications has been accused of threatening a season-ticket holder who confessed to being the author of a parody Twitter account. He was allegedly tracked down by private investigators and blamed for costing the club an additional £300,000 in the Fabio Borini transfer.
I appreciate everyone is bored to distraction during the international break, but contempt is a dangerous customer-relationship strategy, even in the surreal expansionist world of the Premier League.
Chelsea have been busy between crises, signing an agreement with a Burmese whisky supplier whose owner retains close links to the military junta, which once considered making a £1 billion bid for Manchester United.
Never knowingly oversold, United's uniquely rapacious commercial department are promoting an official noodles partner for Asia, Oceania and Middle East, with the slogan "Slurp up and cheer".
In that context it is unsurprising that the democracy of Germany's Bundesliga, where season tickets start from around £160 and match tickets double as free rail passes, shames England's implanted culture of tourist-trap football.
Premier League attendances are remarkably durable, but the people's game is becoming an occasional diversion. Traditional fan bases have been abandoned in favour of affluent window shoppers willing to pay a premium for high-profile matches.
Alienation at the excesses excused by football's gentrification is beginning to be expressed by such protest groups as Arsenal's Black Scarf movement, who complain of "extortionate" costs and "repressive" stewarding. Instead of addressing such concerns, Ivan Gazidis, Arsenal's chief executive, uses the easy excuse of blaming disaffection on players' wages.
Smaller clubs are feeling the pinch, but will not discount tickets consistently because of the risk of offending season-ticket holders. Few show an inclination to match Derby's implementation of an airline-style flexible pricing policy.
The FA deserve immense credit for ensuring Wembley was almost full for the parody international against San Marino. Tickets were sensibly priced for families and, as school outings go, the brand experience of seeing Wayne Rooney in the flesh was preferable to feeding goats at an urban farm. Just.
Terry set to play England games?
John Terry has let it be known, through the strange emotional osmosis of a word in the right ear, that he has come to a decision over whether he will appeal against the FA punishment for racially abusing Anton Ferdinand.
He has until Thursday to confirm his intentions, and is understood to want to wait until after England's match in Poland on Tuesday before making his plans public.
This delay, apparently, is a mark of the Chelsea captain's respect for Roy Hodgson, who retains a puzzling belief in the man whose defence to the racism charge was deemed "improbable, implausible, and contrived" by an independent panel.
In more innocent times such deference to a transparently decent individual like the England manager would have been taken at face value. But, given current circumstances, this privilege can no longer be granted.
The suspicion persists that Terry will take advantage of a natural lull in the news cycle to restate his case. Chelsea, thought to be unhappy at criticism by the FA of their role, will doubtlessly defend their secretary, David Barnard.
That is their right, and it would be churlish to pretend they will lack support. Some of us, however, will exercise our right to ignore Terry, and his persecution complex.
Rangers will be involved in any European super league, says their chief executive, Charles Green. He suggests "completely useless" clubs like Aston Villa do not deserve a place, but is more guarded about the merits of Stirling Albion. Wonder why?
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