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20 June 2013updated 22 Oct 2020 3:55pm

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

How business is throttling sport.

By Martin Cloake

“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.”

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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.