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Thursday, February 03, 2011

Could football clubs ever pay fans to turn up?

There's been a lot of talk in the last couple of weeks about football losing its soul, as there is any time one club signs a player for a record amount, another one professes undying loyalty to a team before leaving and a club threatens to change its location to somewhere it can accommodate more paying customers. I'm not getting into any of those debates. Most mysteries about football can be simply unravelled with reference to Bill Clinton's dictum "It's the economy, stupid".

The reason that the English Premier League is the most widely-televised and, as a consequence, most profitable league in the world isn't because of its quality. It's because of its excitement. Most of that excitement comes less from the happenings on the pitch than from the reaction of the people watching. I'd go so far as to say that 50% of the value of the experience for the TV viewer, and hence the advertisers and hence the TV companies and hence the owners of the clubs, who with each passing week have less in common with the world of sport and more in common with other "rights-holders" such as Disney, comes from the thunderous soundtrack provided by the crowd. When a crowd opens its throat at Anfield or St James's Park or White Hart Lane it produces a note that no other entertainment experience can come anywhere near. All the years of enmity, disappointment and bruised pride come rushing to the surface. It's the Wagner of prime time television. It can make even the dullest game a quite acceptable way to sell beer, cars and gym pumps, which is after all what it's about.

So why should those people pay so much for providing that 50%? We've seen a lot of changing business models recently, many of them forged more in hope than expectation. Newspapers give their news away. Bands who used to tour to sell records now release records in order to tour. Cinemas are out-of-town retailers of carbonated beverages. Nothing remains the same. Is it possible that in the future some Premier League sides will stop charging spectators exorbitant admission prices and will instead start wooing them with discounted tickets in the hope of the "atmos" they might provide? And might they then decide what kind of spectators they would prefer to have making noise on their behalf? In 1968 the average age of a Manchester United fan standing at the Stretford End was 17. These days it's over forty. In ten years it will presumably be over fifty. That's not going to make it any livelier. As crowds get older they grow less demonstrative, as Bono is reminded every time he looks across the orchestra pit.

Of course, no business is stupid enough to give away what it has previously been successfully charging for. (Newspapers excepted, of course.) But I reckon that at some point in the next five years somebody will start talking about "inverting the model".