Tom Peck: Swindon’s media ban might seem comic but the Fanzai app is serious about selling

 

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The Independent Online

Michael Smith is a promising young striker. Sixteen goals in 44 matches isn’t a bad return, not least as two of them drove Swindon Town all the way to Wembley and the League One play-off final. But he cannot, it is official, “get me nut around” Channel 4’s matrimonial sociology experiment reality show Married At First Sight.

This is just one of the manifold insights coming exclusively at you, with added emojis, via Swindon Town’s Fanzai feed, the new(ish) app which, from now on, will be the only source of information coming out of the County Ground.

The club’s decision to ban all local and national media, to do away with press conferences and replace them with interviews conducted by the club’s own staff, and disseminated to the masses via a smartphone app, has been met with exactly the kind of derision you would imagine.

There are the minor matters, not least the fact that, as I sit here writing this, Fanzai informs me “Swindon Town has posted a new comment,” which turns out to be a picture of Aston Villa one-club man Gabriel Agbonlahor posing with his kids on the pitch at Villa Park.

Then there are the more serious ones. Like the obvious fact that this method of self-censored interviewing has long been the medium of choice for cowards, liars, obfuscators and criminals. Whichever of those toppings you choose to sprinkle over such long-standing devotees of the technique as Sepp Blatter, Michel Platini and Robert Mugabe is entirely up to you. That the entirely innocent Swindon Town FC should want to shine suspicion by association on themselves in this fashion is a puzzler.

You also have to wonder whether there might be one or two among their average gate of 7,940 who may not be completely set up to make the switch to Fanzai. There could just be a handful whose memories stretch back even to before the heady days of Jan Aage Fjortoft’s aeroplane goal celebration, who were doing just fine with the now outlawed Swindon Advertiser. But who cares about them?

Football journalists were always liable to make a fuss about the horrors of being banned from a manager’s press conference, a trend that seems to be rising. (See Newcastle United, its exclusive partnership with the Mirror, and how horrified owner Mike Ashley continues to be about the truth consistently written about him elsewhere.) There is something rather comic about a middling League One club going down this avenue. You’d think they would be more inclined to lock the journalists in, rather than out. Being barred from Swindon is rather like being barred from the tea run, or struck off the filing rota.

Nevertheless, the moral arguments have all been made with predictable speed and virtue – that this is an affront to free speech and that the powerful men of Swindon Town FC must be held to account. In truth, sports journalism only does that very occasionally: it is only a game after all.

But it is yet another clear and present assault on the dignity and devotion of the humble fan, and in this case, very humble indeed. Swindon Town freely admit that, via Fanzai, “commercial benefits may be possible in the future”. Of course they do.

John Terry, who is absent from the rather more mainstream Twitter, is among a handful of top footballers who have signed up to Fanzai, he – or rather his representatives – having cottoned on to the fact that new technology means every last detail of his daily life is there to be monetised. Recent posts include the chance to watch him playing snooker with Jimmy White. Ker-ching.

The Swindon Advertiser, like the rest of us, has much to lose. Sport shifts newspapers like almost nothing else. But in a new era, that is already close, where every team, however small, is its own media company and every thought, word and picture emerges to meet the needs and desires of Adidas, Chevrolet, Wonga and the Yokohama Rubber Company, it is the fan that is exploited above all else, and who pays the biggest price.

And what choice do we have?  For almost all of us, football was a marriage at first sight. And one that will last. Fanzai and its like is something we will just have to get our  nut around.

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