I was on the phone to my mum earlier. “How are the Spurs getting on?”, she asked. “It’s funny you should ask that,” I said. “They’ve just announced a co-innovation partnership with Ticketmaster.”
There was a moment’s silence. “A co in what?” she said. Mum doesn’t really do football. I said: “It’s a ticketing solution with a focus on innovation and resilience to bring the best possible experience to fans.”
“Right,” said mum, uncertainly.
“It’s simple really,” I said. “They are combining collective experience to ensure the future is a forward-thinking, fan-focussed and pioneering one. They’ve got a suite of tools.”
“You’re having me on,” said mum.
That conversation didn’t really happen. It’s a device. You may have twigged. Because people don’t really talk like that. Unless they’re in a Peter Cook sketch. Football clubs do talk like that, though. Tottenham Hotspur did, when publishing a classic of the genre on its website to announce whatever it was announcing. As marketing word salad goes, it’s outstanding. It does provide food, sorry, for thought too. Could a new partnership be anything but co- innovative? Can the future be anything but forward-thinking? And how can resilience make my experience better – unless it rubs off on our back four?
Now, it’s easy to mock. Really, it is. I know the commercial deal will have meant the Club had to make some announcement on its website to get maximum exposure. But if the idea was just to meet regulatory requirements, a website where fans go for news about yer actual football wasn’t the best place to post. Unless you made some effort to tell real people what the deal meant it real terms. Which might have added value all round.
It’s just another example of where clubs and their audiences talk past each other, a process almost inevitably followed by frustration on both sides that the other doesn’t understand them. And yet, with a little more nous, clubs could demonstrate the benefits of the commercial deals to their fans, and avoid some of the backlash about commercialisation.
In the last couple of editions of the newsletter I write about the business of football from a fan perspective (it’s called The Football Fan since you ask and you can subscribe here) I’ve looked at the quality of the conversation between clubs and their customers. Even using the c word raises hackles among many fans, but the irony is that if we were treated a bit more like the customers of almost any other business, things might be better.
The poor standard of much of the conversation between the business and the people who make it what it is shows that football, for all its pretension to be a slick, modern business, is way off the pace. The Great Customer Debate is one of many false divides. But the truth is, the vast majority of fans would like to be treated a bit more like customers are in most other businesses. And they’d also like it recognised that their relationship with their club goes deeper than most customers have with the businesses they use. It’s really not that hard to understand. Or shouldn’t be.
The fact that football is a business isn’t a product of modern times. In the early days of the game, it became apparent that if playing was not to become a preserve of the elite, players would need to be payed. That fuelled the fierce arguments about amateurism and professionalism that marked the early development of the sport in Britain. So the money to pay players had to be generated. At the same time, the increase in the number of spectators watching games meant the spaces from which the game was watched needed to be enclosed so that they could be managed for reasons of safety and for raising the funds needed to maintain the playing and watching space.
As Alan Fisher and I observed in our book A People’s History of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club, “Enclosure changed the game forever, turning it into a business and formalising the relationship between watchers and watched while also laying the seeds of alienation between the two.” Football has been a business for longer than most credit, and so the whole argument about whether is a game or a business is yet another false divide. What many fans have an issue with is when the game is seen as just a business, with emotion and identity reduced to commodities. Really engaging with fans involves a recognition of the special relationship that makes the business what it is.
As Harry Nilsson once observed, when everybody’s talking at you, you can’t hear a word they’re saying. Engagement isn’t the thing – it’s the quality and depth of that engagement that matters. Martin Cloake is the writer of The Football Fan newsletter and many football books, as well as the Co-Chair of Tottenham Hotspur Supporters' Trust.