Slaves to the algorithm: Football should be anxious about its next audience

THERE ARE worrying signs about the direction football content seems to be heading. Everyone keeps talking about “snackable” material in the belief that younger generations cannot concentrate enough to absorb a 90-minute game or even the idea of extensive highlights. Nobody wants to admit that this could actually be a big problem, but the fact is obsession with technology is the cause and that it is not really a sign of healthy evolution.

At the World Football Summit (#WFS) in Seville, market professionals have been discussing the challenge of engaging Gen Z and millennials. This is a generation that, supposedly, has a shorter attention span. This may be true, but to a certain extent, the way football has grown and become inaccessible to people who want to actually attend games, they have no alternative but to watch football in other ways.

According to experts, Gen Z doesn’t watch TV and cannot be bothered to view entertainment on a passive basis. It will not sit and watch what’s offered by TV channels, it will select their visual and audio entertainment via media providers like Netflix, Amazon and Disney. And if they select something they don’t like, they move on. This choice is a progression from where we were 30 years ago, but if a football match on one of these channels is not pressing the right buttons for the Gen Z observer, do they do the same? – a rubbish match isn’t worth sticking with in the hope that “something might just happen”.

Too many companies are so fascinated by technology, they seem to forget you need to place decent and meaningful content on their platforms. There is an opinion that compelling means “behind the scenes” content which is largely anodyne and doesn’t truly inform the fan as its often heavily scripted. For example, the “All or nothing” series has become clichéd and formulaic. Post-match interviews are largely dire and pundits have become worse and worse. To quote Bruce Springstein, there’s “57 channels and nothing on”.

A football match is 90+ minutes, so “snackable” content will merely make the problem worse. It will portray the game as a series of highlights, but is all about nuance and split-second action. It is not a series of set-plays. The drama unfolds over 90 minutes.

Buying a ticket at a match is a painful experience these days. Clubs charge people membership fees to stand in a virtual queue, which doesn’t guarantee you will ever get a ticket for a major game. Crowds are healthy, but you are getting 40,000 Chelsea fans watching games in the flesh and the rest relying on TV, social media and Youtube. The vast majority of Chelsea fans never see them in person. Their relationship with the club is no more intimate than their relationship with an actor, a singer or a celebrity. They have the tools to access everything they need to know about the club, but there’s so much out there they cannot possibly focus too long on any one aspect. So, we return to the idea of snackable content that everyone feels they need to create in order to snare the young generations.

But what does this mean for the future of the game? When Gen Z becomes the mature generation and subsequent generations become even less focused, will football see a tail-off of stadium interest? It’s surely a possibility.

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