Fans and Football; Best and worst of times
Dickens, in 'The Tale of Two Cities', describes the paradox of 'the best of times', 'seasons of hope, wisdom, belief and light' and 'the worst of times', 'winters of foolishness, incredulity, darkness, and despair.' How prescient it all sounds as we welcome the new football season.
With the suspected 'arrivistes', Abramovitch at Chelsea and the Glazer dynasty at Manchester United, today's paradox is between the global business and the loyal fan.
- "My great grandfather and great, great uncle were at the first game they ever played."
- "They could burn down the ground, the money men could disappear overnight and we would still support our club."
Both the material payback for the investors and identification for the fan is not contained in just the current team, while the idea of the football team as a brand goes beyond its members to a wider sense of 'the club' with its history and mythology. Paradoxically, the club is both an increasingly important independent profit centre and a counterpoint to the money-dominated team.
Dickens would have observed that it is 'a time of two Manchesters': City, a caring club in touch with its roots, United sad for having lost connection with 'real' fans.
The United brand identity, shaped by its post-Munich resilience, once reflected the core British value of bravery in adversity. The club, as a cash cow, feeds off team success but loyalty demands deeper commitment. Football brands have unique advantages in the current era of corporate social responsibility. Club activities that support local community initiatives - for children, schools, charities and disadvantaged groups - are all vital to the brand and should not be undervalued.
The fan experience involves both private and public expression. Privately, it is important to legitimise loyalty by acquiring specialist knowledge. Information about the club in the form of digests of facts and performance statistics are hungrily assimilated.
Publicly, being a fan is part of your identity, the subject of much banter with work colleagues and friends and, in this role, branded merchandise is valuable, to adults as much as to children. It is important that the quality of your own club's merchandise is up to the competitive mark, but, as you want to display with pride your mouse-mats, mugs, coasters and key-rings, they also need to symbolise values beyond success.
This article was first published in InBrief magazine, September 2005
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2005