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 meaning of fan engagement

CAPITALISM demands that when you’ve made money, you have to generate more to keep the spiral going in the right direction. That’s what it is all about, continual growth and accumulation of wealth. Some aspects of capitalism are clearly unsavoury, heartless and inhumane, others try to combine the pursuit of money with some philanthropic good.

Rarely, in today’s world, do we say what we mean when it comes to the creation of money. We coat it with layers of deliberate vagueness, imply the reason we work is to fulfil a personal challenge or the desire to “make a difference”. There was a time when blatant capitalists, when making a list of ambitions, would simply say, “to become very rich, very quickly”. In the 21st century, they still want to be rich, but they won’t tell you that. 

In the football industry, marketing departments talk of “increasing fan engagement”, “making stakeholders out of fans” and “embracing the community”. In many cases, this fan engagement can be roughly translated into “developing products and selling them to the fans”.

In some ways, football clubs have the most gullible of all client bases for even though the fans know their clubs pay ridiculously huge wages to players, ticket prices continue to be high and merchandise such as replica shirts is churned out on a conveyor belt (often made by exploited workers), they still climb over each other to buy season tickets. While some complain about modern football, the majority still buy into the business model, week-in, week-out.

Even though some clubs follow worthy causes and get their fans to be involved in community projects, the real essence of fan engagement should not be determined by how many charities or social projects they are involved in. True fan engagement needs to allow them to be instrumental in the running of the club – and not just in many operating tea bars, cleaning the stadium or donning a high-vis jacket and guiding traffic. 

Without fans, lower level football simply would not exist and by that we don’t just mean League One and Two in the UK, but the entire non-league structure.

At the highest levels, fan engagement can be achieved by allowing supporters to be consulted on corporate level decisions that affect them – stadium development, club identity and culture, catering, ownership issues, club image and sustainability.

You sense that some clubs are actually terrified of letting fans near the boardroom for fear of losing control. Making clubs more transparent could unearth some problems with governance and financial integrity. Yet the fans deserve to know what goes on and how money is spent, especially at clubs claiming to represent the community.

The covid-19 pandemic has seen some smaller clubs appeal to their fan bases for financial support. Fans will, when the chips are down, invariably come to the rescue of their club, but rarely are they rewarded with a genuine stake in the organisation. Now is the time if there is a will to save the collapse of England’s football eco-system, surely?

Engagement should not merely be a commercial “in” with a vast body of fans, it should be about cementing and leveraging relationships and fostering a collective mission to drive a club forward, whether it is Sunderland or Sutton United or clubs even further down the pyramid.

Some clubs have succeeded in building such an environment, but until the bubble truly bursts, football’s traditional hierarchy will prevail. We may not have to wait too long.


Photo: PA