Commentary Box: New fans for old?

Photo: Ana.m via Flickr. CC BY-NC 2.0

TIME after time, tickets are sold-out at matches but there are still empty seats in the stand at Arsenal, Chelsea and other clubs. Somebody, somewhere, is sitting on tickets that have not been sold. Similarly, they may belong to fans that have failed to turn up. What bemused me at the recent Chelsea v Atletico Madrid game there were plenty of empties but the gate was declared as 40,875 – the same situation that is witnessed at the Emirates Stadium.

All around us were what some might call “tourists”, American, Chinese and Portuguese fans who were busy taking “selfies” or donning expensive cameras. Many had the half-and-half scarves which irritate many supporters as it suggests attendees are more interested in the “event” than the actual football – possibly the narrative of our times.

These fans, whose enthusiasm is a marked contrast to the mood of aged cynics who have been through thick, thin and very thin, have immersed themselves in the “experience”, having spent copious amounts of cash in the megastore before the game. This is, of course, globalisation at work, but it is also bringing a different type of supporter to the game. They don’t make a sound during the 90 minutes, but they’ve got their iPhone ready at all times, waiting to take dozens of photos of the ground, the scoreboard and themselves – much of which ends up on social media.

Anyone who has grown up in the days of the terraces, of songs and noisy backing, finds this new environment quite hostile. At Old Trafford recently, a fan in his 50s was chanting along with other United supporters. He was approached by a steward who informed the middle-aged loyal red that his singing was offending the people around him. The song was not obscene or aggressive in any way, but he was told that in that particular section, people don’t like to sing. All around him, the fans were quiet, rarely uttering a word but were avid iPhone photographers. This, at a ground that was once full of passion and very partisan.

There is a school of thought that football clubs are more than happy to sell tickets to overseas visitors rather than locals or old-time fans who have long resisted the temptation to fill their houses with merchandise which, ultimately, has limited appeal or use. On the other hand, “new”, recently enthused young fans will gladly part company with hundreds of pounds in pursuit of supporting their team.

It cannot be proved, and it might just be a conspiracy theory along the lines of much of the nonsense that’s spoken about Brexit and the European Union, but there’s some logic in it.

In some ways, you can understand why a club might be keen on nurturing that new audience. The die-hard from the 1970s or 80s does not represent the fan of tomorrow. In England, for example, the average age of a Premier League crowd is dangerously high. One reason for this is the prohibitive ticket prices, but English clubs have to look after the people who will form their base crowd in the years ahead, and that goes beyond Britain and includes the rest of the world. The old terrace lag from the black and white TV days might not like it, but he’s no longer the customer of priority. Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea no longer belong to the fans in Salford, Toxteth and Hammersmith, they belong to a vast virtual crowd.

So it’s a case of “live with it” as Britain’s leading clubs cater for a new, growing and, dare we say, vulnerable worldwide clientele. The football we all knew in the 70s and 80s has gone, replaced by a commoditised industry that has cash sloshing around everywhere. The big clubs have become “global”, moving further away from the communities that created them in much the same way that society has changed. It’s still the game of the people, but really, it is the game for all people.

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