Why are we still talking about football?

The enforced separation between spectators and the game reinforces the connection

The latest estimates of coronavirus infection in the UK are that one person in 50 has the virus. More than 80,000 people have died in the UK since the pandemic began. Not only does what we used to regard as normality seem very far off, the prospect of ever returning to the way we were seems increasingly distant. In the midst of all that, the progress of the football season seems incongruous at best. Opinion on why it is continuing is varied, and not immune to the swirling brew of snap judgement and half-grasped truth that seems to characterise debate about most issues these days. And I have a feeling that, in the coming weeks, calls for football to pause will grow.

It’s arguably a sign of football’s deep presence in the collective consciousness that the game, especially at elite level, is so often used to play out wider discontents. And no doubt a government eager to deflect gaze from its own failings will stoke the fires. But none of that should stop us trying to talk rationally about whether, why and how football continues. 

It might help to be completely honest from the beginning. The main reason the elite leagues especially are desperate – and I use the word advisedly – to complete the season is because they would have to give lots of money back to the TV companies if the season is not completed. That’s the bottom line. There are other, arguably very good, reasons for football to continue. But the main thing driving the determination to get the season done in time to get the next one done is the TV money. And that indicates how broken the relationship between football and TV is. That football has to check with TV before it can confirm rearranged games even while a contagious virus takes players out of the game and forces the rearrangements necessary to get the season away indicates it even more starkly. 

Football is hugely valuable content, and that’s why TV companies – and it’s rumoured soon the internet giants –  are willing to pay huge amounts of money for it. But once those huge amounts have been handed over the value resides not in the content itself, but in the distribution of the content. The modern game at top level is fuelled by money it is paid to be distributed. So dominant is that source of income that the game could forsake all others and still be very wealthy. But conversely, if that one source of income goes, the game is in trouble.

When people first began to discuss whether the football bubble would burst, fears were answered by saying that the appeal of the product would never wane, so the willingness of the distributors to pay ever-increasing amounts would continue to grow. The distributors needed the content, and so the source of income was guaranteed. A few asked what would happen if the TVcos found a source of content that was more in demand, but even the sceptics had to concede that the prospects of such a thing happening were distant. 

The coronavirus pandemic has turned the discussion around. The issue now is not whether the distributors will find other content, it’s whether the content providers can produce anything to distribute. With the very real possibility that they won’t, panic has set in. 

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So the question that arises is, if there were no TV contracts to fulfil, would football still debate whether or not to continue in the current circumstances? With no TV money, gate receipts would be more important, and with fans not being allowed in to grounds, clubs would be facing financial hardship just like any other business denied customers. With no income, and no one watching, would football continue, reported on by a selected and health-tested cadre of reporters? Would that lift morale, keep supporters connected to their teams, preserve an important cultural treasure? 

Those latter considerations are important to factor in. Because football is not just a business transaction. It’s an emotional relationship too. The fact that it is being talked about as a morale-lifter, even a distraction, indicates the strength of the grip it has on so many of us.  And that in turn underlines its value. In the midst of a pandemic that strikes at the very thing that holds us together – human connection – it can provide a sense of togetherness, a commonality that we yearn for more with every day of enforced isolation.

But for all that the case about morale and mental health was not entirely baseless, it’s hard to escape the conclusions that these aspects were talked up by the industry in order to increase the chances of fulfilling the TV contracts. It’s important to be clear that there are very many good people within the football and broadcasting industries who are genuinely concerned about those issues and who understand the cultural importance of the game. It’s just that the industries themselves don’t give a damn. The industries are driven by the financial transaction alone. 

It’s also important to avoid setting up pantomime villains – despite the dedicated efforts of the football and broadcasting industries to provide them. If, as many are beginning to argue, football just stopped until we’re through this crisis, that would mean clubs going to the wall and many jobs in broadcasting and beyond being lost. Anyone thinking that would somehow cleanse the game back to an imagined halcyon period when commerce didn’t rule needs a reality check. 

If you accept, as I’m arguing you must, that the show must go on, you need to get to grips with how, and you need to be prepared to make compromises that are sometimes messy. Easy answers – suspend all football, either all fans return or no fans return – are really no answers at all. What’s happening too often across a whole range of issues at the moment is that too much energy is being put into dismantling genuine attempts to resolve real problems, and not enough into tackling the issues and creating solutions. 

I should emphasise at this point that I’m not arguing for the approach so memorably demonstrated in Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened, when the boss – having had it pointed out to him that more people had been sold tickets than could physically fit onto the island where the event was taking place and that there was no infrastructure to support them – replied: “We are not a problems-focused business, we are a solutions-focused business”. There’s far too much of that nonsense around. But too much of the debate about the right course for football has focused on what it’s got wrong, rather than what it could do right.

A good start would be for football clubs and broadcasters to reset their relationship. At the moment they realise they need each other, but they don’t leverage their mutual dependence to create something of even greater value. The clubs prioritise getting the most money they can, because they need that money to keep paying the wages they need to pay to attract the talent. To get the money they need, they cede control of key aspects of the game such as when and – with the introduction of VAR – how the game is played. This has a negative affect on the game’s relationship with its customer base. The TV companies, instead of helping to nurture the content they pay so much for, take a mainly transactional approach, threatening to cut the funds if the product is not delivered. But cutting the funds would, ultimately, destroy the product. So where’s the business sense?

The current crisis has already extracted such a toll on human life that talk of any positives arising risks sounding crass. However, the extent of the crisis for football could provide the opportunity to reset the relationship between the game and the broadcasters for the better. To do this there needs to be a deeper recognition of why, in the midst of the most serious global health crisis for generations, we are still talking about football.

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Last week I wrote about the Marine v Spurs FA Cup third round game – a tie that summoned much of the romance associated with the famous old competition. That romance is focused on the possibility of the underdog killing the giant. So I found myself, like most Spurs fans, in a difficult position. 

I get how such games resonate. It’s part of what The Football Fan is all about, recognising the deeper meanings that bind us to the sport. But as a supporter of the giant in this case I wanted the romance to finish as soon as the game started. I was on the other side to almost every other non-partisan observer – wanting my team to crush the dreams of the non-leaguers quickly and thoroughly. Get it done, get it done in the first half, move on. 

Spurs did, providing a touch of romance themselves as 16-year-old debutant Alfie Devine scored with a smartly taken strike in a 5-0 win to become the club’s youngest ever goalscorer. 

Such is the lot of the fan, hooked by the stories and the romance but driven by partisan loyalty. It’s the same for every fan of every side drawn against lower league opposition, a story less often considered but which perhaps deserves greater thought. Perhaps Wolves fans could be mined for their thoughts before the fourth round tie against Chorley. 

Post header photo by Ambitious Creative Co. - Rick Barrett on Unsplash