“Premier League football clubs don’t want to engage with fans. They want to sell them stuff.”

How business is throttling sport.

“Sport saturates everyday life.” That observation, made by Professor Stefan Szymanski in a video link address to Northampton University Business School’s Future of Sport conference recently, seems so obvious as to be bland. Yet it is worth thinking about the implications of that statement – what it means for people, and for sport itself.

Szymanski is a Professor at the University of Michigan Centre for Sports Management, and recognised as one of the world’s leading sports economists. Yes. A sports economist. Also at the conference were specialist sports marketing types, sports communication consultants, cultural policy and information studies academics, media technology wonks – and a smattering of sports journalists. There is, clearly, more to sport than a bit of fun.

That last line probably seems trite, but it’s there to make a point. Any critique of the modern sports industry risks being dismissed as the hankering for an imagined Corinthian past in which playing the game for its own sake outweighed vulgar commerce. It’s a dismissal that is too simplistic, although as the debate rages about the commercialisation of sport it is perhaps ironic to reflect that it was professionalism’s sweeping aside of the amateur ethos that helped football – the sport that dominates any discussion of sport or the sporting business in Britain – become a mass sport open to all.

But as the lines between sport and business become ever more blurred, sport risks losing the qualities that make it attractive to business. What appeals to many fans about sport is that it is not business. It does not, at its best, have the certainties that must make up a successful business plan, and it’s that element of the unexpected, of genuine competition, that draws an audience. I’m reminded at this point of the great footballer and journalist Danny Blanchflower irritating his producers in the early days of televised football coverage in typically contrary style by answering the question “Who do you think will win?” with the answer “I don’t know, that’s why they’re playing this game.”

The reason sports have become successful businesses, and the reason business wants to associate itself with sport, is because of what is perceived as the essential honesty of sporting competition. When that goes, so does the attraction. That’s why Lance Armstrong is such a hugely damaging figure, why many found it hard to watch athletics with the same enthusiasm after Ben Johnson’s astonishing sprint at the 1988 Olympics was revealed to be drug-fuelled. Sport is important to people. As conference organiser Alan Seymour said in his introduction, “The attention within the UK given to sport, its place in our lives and its contribution to language and culture makes it a major influence on attitudes, behaviour and community. The marketer who ignores sport as an influence on the consumer makes a major mistake.”

The buzzword of the day was “engagement”. Seymour spoke of “a growing necessity for sports properties and organisations to develop new platforms of association with their publics, audiences and loyal fan bases” and of a need to “understand the motivations that bring individuals to consume sporting events”. And exploring this ground threw up the tension that sits at its centre, a tension which boiled over into some lively exchanges throughout the day. Because for many sports fans, being treated as consumers who can be squeezed and sold to and exploited is not what draws them in. And seeing the sporting business appropriate the passion and culture fans have created in order to sell the "product" back to them really gets their goat.

After a slick opening presentation by US sports marketing expert Bill Sutton, full of talk of brands and positioning and opportunities, John Williams – the leading academic authority on fan culture in Britain and a Liverpool FC season ticket holder for 30 years – ventured the opinion that “a lot of what is wrong with sport is down to people like you”. When I spoke to Williams later he said that there was “too much technological determinism” on show. Engaging with fans surely had to mean more than seeing them simply as units to be sold at. Times football editor Tony Evans, who I was on a panel with, was typically blunt in his assessment. “Premier League football clubs don’t want to engage with fans,” he said. “They want to sell them stuff.”

The suspicion of many is that for all the high-falutin talk of achievement and passion and prowess, the bottom line is just about getting us to part with our money. And that makes sport just like everything else. That tension ran through the conference, through the demonstration by an unprecedented alliance of football fans at Premier League HQ this week, and through the huge demonstrations in Brazil, where a population sold by the marketers as football crazy is questioning the whole ball game.

Is engagement just another sales pitch, or could it, should it, be something truer to the word’s dictionary definition as something which involves? Would genuinely engaged fans help preserve the qualities that make sport attractive? In English Premiership football, as in America’s NFL, the crowd are “extras in a show put on at a stadium” said Szymanski. The product’s consumers have become part of the product, yet seem powerless to shape it. Over half of the Premiership’s revenues are generated globally.

And as Szymanski observed in his summing up, “Advances in new media over the last 20 years are completely changing the way we consume sport.” Perhaps most worrying of all, those changes can shape the sport itself. Szymanski used the example of cricket’s Indian Premier League and its huge reach. “Kids growing up wanting to play cricket will want to play 20/20,” he said. “That means the skill that will be rewarded is hitting sixes.”

Business and media sought to link with sport because of the power of its essential qualities. As they tighten their grip on sport, they risk destroying those qualities, and therefore its usefulness to them.

Photograph: Getty Images

Martin Cloake is a writer and editor based in London. You can follow him on Twitter at @MartinCloake.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.