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.

Frankfurt win, Rangers lose, but they both played their part in the rebirth of Europa

RANGERS, almost inevitably, lost to Eintracht Frankfurt on penalties, reinforcing the widely-held belief that Germans are good at spot kicks. But they went so close to achieving the startlingly fine achievement of winning a major European prize, something no Scottish side has managed since 1983 when Aberdeen won the now defunct European Cup-Winners’ Cup.

There was a time when Scottish teams were highly respected in Europe, largely thanks to the exploits of Celtic and Rangers in the 1960s and early 1970s. Celtic’s 1967 European Cup victory now looks like an astonishing feat, but in that era, Jock Stein’s team was every bit as good – if not better – than anything coming out of England. In truth, Celtic should have won the competition in 1970, but they didn’t realise Feyenoord were Ajax’s bastard cousins in Rotterdam.

Rangers have been through some rough times and Celtic fans will waste no time in reminding them of their financial mismanagement in the aftermath of the Europa League final. But penalties is no way to win – or lose – a final, especially after such a protracted journey to Seville. Rangers played eight teams on route to Spain, including another pair of German sides (Dortmund and Leipzig). To have this journey decided by penalties seems unfair on any team.

Rangers missed just one penalty and it happened to be from the boot of former Arsenal player Aaron Ramsey. Now, of course, everyone is passing opinion on his disappointing spell with Rangers, but let’s face it, anyone can miss a penalty.

Rangers may have lost the Scottish Premier to their Glasgow rivals, but 2021-22 has still been another memorable year. They were only four points behind Celtic and lost three games in the league, two to the green and white side of the city. Now they face Hearts in the Scottish Cup final, so they have to raise their spirits quickly.

The final in Seville ends a really fascinating Europa League campaign, one that has certainly improved public perception of the competition. The creation of the Conference League has actually strengthened the Europa and has revived memories of the UEFA Cup in its heyday, with big names like Barcelona, Sevilla, Porto, Napoli, West Ham United and Rangers. The excitement created by some of the teams has underlined the importance of the Europa, the next step would be to make Thursday nights an appropriate night, perhaps by shifting league games scheduled for the Sundays that follow matchdays in Europe.

Certainly, the atmosphere at some games has been outstanding, even if Frankfurt’s fans at the final – equipped with white outfits and caps – looked like hordes of pharma or dairy workers on an evening out.

Frankfurt clearly enjoyed their victory, from their joyous supporters to their hysterical players, who even invaded their manager’s press conference. It may even liven up the normally sedate finanzplatz that is the city on the Main. Rangers, understandably, were devastated, and rightly so, because they gave everything. They should go home with a smile on their face, for they played their part in the resurrection of the Europa League. 

We need to get away from the mantra that it’s “Champions League or nothing” that has helped to devalue so many competitions across Europe. In the past, qualifying for Europe provided a little bit of gilding on a season for clubs near the top part of the league table. The over-expansion of the Champions League did a lot of damage, but it was a self-inflicted problem. OK, give more European football to the people, but go for quality over quantity. It has still got to be properly addressed in the Champions League, but UEFA started this process with the inauguration of the Conference League and they may just have got it right. The latter stages of this season’s Europa League suggested there was a slightly different attitude emerging.