Football. Packaged, branded, commercialised, bought and sold. Deep down though, there has to be a soul, a badge to identify with. Does this still apply? Looking at a strong bond for Celtic, IBWM welcomes Robin Cowan.
FC St Pauli, the punk rockers of European football have made an encouraging early start to life back in the Bundesliga 1. It almost feels like an act of rebellion and defiance for the club’s fan-adopted emblem of the skull & crossbones to be flying amidst the highly sponsored and carefully marketed glamour of one of world’s top leagues.
For the uninitiated, St Pauli are one of football’s most wonderful peculiarities. During the 1980’s the club went through a cultural transformation, which saw them regenerate from an ordinary lower division side, going about their business, toiling in obscurity, into that of countercultural icon. The club seemingly benefiting from its location within one of Hamburg’s more infamous neighbourhoods. The Reeperbahn, known as die sündige Meile or “the sinful mile” due to its proximity to the docks and red-light district. The area was seeing a growing alternative music and clubbing scene. Attendances at the Millerntor-Stadion grew rapidly throughout the decade. The club benefiting from a growing audience of Hamburg’s punks, anarchists and students.
What the club did over this period was a marketing and PR masterstroke, one in which the world’s largest corporate brands continually pay countless millions to advertising agencies to achieve; To successfully tap into, cultivate the rebellious, zeitgeist, and attach it to their product. In an era of polarizing movements, which saw the spread of right-wing inspired hooliganism throughout European football, St Pauli became the first team in Germany to outright ban any fascist or nationalistic expression within it’s ground. The club also set in place a charter characterising themselves in it’s opposition to racism, homophobia and sexism. During the next decade, St Pauli’s attendances would increase from an average gate of around 1,500 to regularly filling the 20,000 capacity Millerntor with a noisy, buzzing and colourful support.
Where most teams tacitly and sometimes begrudgingly tolerate their supporter’s expression, often with one careful eye on the reaction of their sponsors and of those in the corporate seats, St Pauli openly celebrates it. On the club’s official website, referring to themselves as “the red-light district team” they proudly acknowledge their fan’s bohemian and left-wing political heritage. Last season, despite enduring a long tenure in Germany’s second tier, they could still boast a season ticket uptake that rivalled most in the top flight. The acknowledgment being that its this celebration with their supporters of their team’s cult status, which is the most viable business model avenue open to them.
The Buccaneers of the League have some natural allies amongst some of Europe’s more left-leaning teams, but no bond is tighter than with Glasgow’s Celtic. The slogan of the St Pauli Celtic Supporters Club in Hamburg reads “St Pauli & Celtic: The Rebel’s Choice”. It is easy to see why St Pauli identifies with The Bhoys, a club that also views its self as perennial outsiders. Supporters that characterize themselves as a perceived interloper to the Scottish and British establishment. This identity has helped generate one of the largest and most dedicated fan-bases in the world outside of the big three leagues, of those who feel a cultural connection with Celtic.
Celtic profit hugely from being a representation their supporter’s culture. A bad turnout at the 60,000 capacity Celtic Park would still be the envy of a majority of teams in Europe. Indeed figures show that the percentage of the club’s revenue generated by match day income reported at 58%, by far outstrips any of Europe’s top 20 highest earning teams. Taking Juventus as an example who only accumulate 8% of their revenue from actually playing football matches at the Stadio Olimpico di Torino
The flip side to these figures is that 65% of Juventus’ earnings come via the TV money bubble. Compare that to the mere 17% that Celtic receive from television revenue and it is obvious the powers that be at Celtic, whatever their views or opinions, know exactly, which side their bread is buttered. (Figures from the Deloittes Money League via The Swiss Ramble.
Those powers at Celtic for their part have on occasions played the hand of being the outsider themselves. In 1965 The club was the first in the UK to publish it’s own newspaper; The Celtic View was born out of what the club felt were continued biased and unfavourable reports made by the establishment media about the team. Last season chairman Dr John Reid, no stranger to spin during his time as home secretary in Tony Blair’s government, caused a few ripples when he seemed to imply refereeing decisions as evidence of institutional favouring of title rivals Rangers.
What all this helps to do is to create a siege mentality among supporters and to re-affirm Celtic F.C as a symbol of defiance and rebellion. A sentiment that was at the heart of the formation of FC United of Manchester. Nicknamed The Red Rebels, the club defined by it’s protest to the Glazier takeover of Manchester United, has achieved three promotions since it’s formation in 2005 and despite playing in the semi-professional Northern Premier League Division One North (catch my breath), England’s 7th tier, is reported to have the second highest average attendances in non-league football.
This re-affirms what any ad man will tell you, which is that every brand is desperate for it’s product to have “meaning”. A meaning or cause inspires a greater loyalty and participation in the consumer than any other emotional pull. When you have lead singers in famous punk bands promoting the club by wearing the St Pauli skull & crossbones on stage, or acclaimed directors such as Ken Loach using FC United as a major theme in a film, then your brand is reaching markets your competitors cannot. It appears the clubs making the most of being in leagues not favoured by Rupert Murdoch, Sky, Jeff Stelling and the boys are themselves rebelling against the idea that Sky, the Surrey and Abu-Dhabi United supporters clubs and the armchair viewer hold the key to football’s future.
You can follow Robin on Twitter @RobinCowan