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.

The heat is on – and football has to take note

ALTHOUGH some might be in the denial camp, the world is over-heating and a combination of influences – covid, war, Brexit, politics, corporate behaviour – are also making our lives just a little more difficult. While the current season faces disruption because of the Qatar World Cup, football in Europe is being subjected to unprecedented weather conditions. The 2022-23 season has kicked-off early, although why non-league games are being played at the end of July and first week of August is a mystery. It would seem unlikely that any Southern League players will be making the trip to Qatar.

Some sceptics believe that the weather, like so many aspects of life that offer some inconvenience, is being over-played, that our ancestors coped when they had to deal with scorching summers (don’t forget that our distorted memories tells us that summers were hotter, winters had snow and milk and newspaper deliveries made for a better world) and there was no such thing as a water break for footballers. True, but we also sweltered in our formal clothing, froze in our coal-fired homes and everyone walked around with a cigarette screwed between their lips. We now know smoking is bad for us, too much salt damages your health and the sun can give us skin cancer. Science has allowed us to progress and take precautions where they are needed.

Therefore, we are aware that playing football in 35 degrees is a potential killer. Not just for people, but certainly for the quality of football on offer. We don’t have to do it because we know what dehydration can do to people, but we clearly do not take it seriously enough to follow a pragmatic and precautionary path. Too much sun makes for bone-hard pitches. When it is bone-hard because of sub-zero temperatures, games are postponed, but nobody seems to consider that a bone-hard pitch in high temperatures can also cause problems. Furthermore, if among the reasons for cancelling games in cold weather are spectator concerns, then why isn’t a heat wave also deemed to be a hazard?

In the UK, we are short of reservoirs and that’s appalling for a country renowned for rain and grey skies. Perhaps we could use some of the golf courses that proliferate the south east for reservoirs because they may not be much use for golf if the current trends continue. Golf courses, for some peculiar reason, are exempt from hose pipe bans, which given the size of a course, seems an extravagant use of water reserves.

On the evidence of the Hitchin Town versus Rushall Olympic game at sun-baked Top Field, even young and fit players are affected by the tropical conditions. If this is something we are going to have to live with (and all the science and math seems to point in that direction), then football needs to adjust its model. Earlier or later kick-offs, hydration points in the ground (and I am not referring to junk food drinks) and more shaded areas need to be considered. Also, is it really necessary to start the season in the height of summer? If there are too many fixtures to accommodate then make the leagues smaller and maybe more localised. Shift the start to September and the difference may be startling.

Sadly, water is only part of the story. Energy prices are on a spiral and even when the drama subsides – in 2024 perhaps – fuel prices will undoubtedly be higher than they were two years ago. It may be time to restrict the use of floodlights because some smaller clubs may get absolutely clobbered by energy bills. All of this is in the hands of football administrators, it is not a Harvard-level discussion.