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15 January 2020updated 25 Jul 2021 3:26pm

We are fast approaching a time when supporting a top football club will become a paid-for privilege

Last month, Liverpool announced it would be the first sports team in the world to launch its own YouTube membership subscription. 

By Jonathan Liew

James Milner and Andy Robertson can barely get their words out for chuckling. As the Liverpool teammates and close friends stare intently into the autocue explaining the benefits of subscribing to Liverpool’s new premium YouTube channel, they take it in turns to try to put each other off. “I think we’ve sold that, James,” Robertson says in mock-solemnity at the end, before both collapse into fits of giggles.

The pitch may be jovial, but for a club enjoying unprecedented Premier-League era success, the stakes are deadly serious. On the field, Liverpool’s 1-0 win against Tottenham on 11 January left them an outlandish 16 points clear at the top of the league. Their 20 wins and one draw from 21 games this season is the best start in the history of elite European club football. If, as expected, they end their 30-year wait for a league title in May, they will simultaneously be champions of England, Europe and the world.

For all the jaw-dropping dominance of Jürgen Klopp’s side, however, off the field Liverpool remain a little way short of Europe’s financial elite. The latest Deloitte table of football club revenue puts them seventh, behind their two biggest domestic rivals, Manchester City and Manchester United, and more than £200m behind market leaders Real Madrid. Commercially speaking, Liverpool have been playing catch-up for some years, hamstrung by a historic failure to move with changing times (as late as 1998 they did not have an official website) and an indifferent playing record.

Right now, though, they are not only the best football team on the planet, but its most admired and resonant brand: this is why the club was so keen to enlist two of its star players to promote its new YouTube offering, despite a hectic winter schedule. Last month, Liverpool announced that it would be the first sports team in the world to launch its own YouTube membership subscription, which has two tiers. For 99p or £2.99 a month, fans can access “an enhanced video package” and other features including youth team highlights, behind-the-scenes footage and bespoke emojis.

In many ways, Liverpool’s foray into the world of paywalled digital media encapsulates a dilemma facing top clubs. The runaway success of European club football over the past couple of decades has created global audiences of unprecedented size and scope. Years of toil and lavish resources have been ploughed into accumulating huge online followings who hang on these clubs’ every move. Now, how do they get these people to start paying for stuff?

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Under football’s current financial model, the relationship between clubs and their global fan bases is largely indirect. Apart from lucrative pre-season tours and the occasional wide-eyed, selfie-hunting foreign visitor, their main sources of overseas revenue have been through television rights deals for competitions such as the Premier League and Champions League. But broadcast deals depend largely on the state of the media landscape in any given region, as well as the ability of a competition’s governing body to extract maximum value from it. And so clubs seeking greater control over their commercial destiny are, increasingly, going straight to the market themselves.

Liverpool are not the only club panning for subscription gold. Earlier this season, both Barcelona and Real Madrid – the undisputed heavyweights of digital media, each with 200 million followers across all channels – introduced Facebook membership packages. Barcelona’s, launched in September, costs £2.29 a month, while Madrid’s slightly cheaper offering was unveiled before Christmas. They provide a sprinkling of exclusive content and access to member-only discussion groups. The main selling point, however, is that fans can display the club’s crest on their account and alongside any comments they make, marking them out as – in the words of Real’s publicity blurb – “true Real Madrid CF fans”. 

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It’s easy to see how all this might work financially. In embracing the micropayment phenomenon, elite clubs are reaching out to a younger audience who may not be able to travel to the Nou Camp or Anfield or be willing to pay for a costly television subscription, but may just be persuaded to part with a few quid a month (and, equally valuably, their data) to use a Virgil van Dijk or Mohamed Salah emoji.

Read between the lines, though, and it doesn’t take an outrageous leap of the imagination to discern what the broader strategy might be. In recasting its iconic players as products and fandom as subscription, it’s not hard to see a future in which, buttressed by technological advances and an army of copyright lawyers, the very act of supporting a football club becomes a paid-for privilege.

If this sounds a touch dystopian, then consider that it is only a few months since Liverpool tried to register the word “Liverpool” as a trademark with the Intellectual Property Office. The club claimed it was an attempt to protect its own fans from fake merchandise, but the implications further down the line – not least for cartographers – were dangerously unknowable. After a torrent of protest, much of it from the club’s own fans, the case was thrown out in September.

All of this hints at some of the potential pitfalls ahead. There’s no guarantee that any of it will work. According to the club’s vice president Drew Crisp, Liverpool’s YouTube membership pulled in a “four-figure number” of subscribers in its first fortnight: a start, but still some way short of the 3.98 million who subscribe to its free channel, suggesting it will be some time before YouTube revenues start swelling Klopp’s transfer budget. Building an audience for a football club, it seems, is one thing. Monetising it is quite another

Jonathan Liew is a sports writer at the Guardian

This article appears in the 15 Jan 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Why the left keeps losing