DARE TO BE DIFFERENT: HOW FOOTBALL COULD BENEFIT FROM NET GAINS

DARE TO BE DIFFERENT: HOW FOOTBALL COULD BENEFIT FROM NET GAINS

Few would be surprised at recent reports that TV viewing figures for the Champions League have declined dramatically. Fewer still would be surprised that one of the Super Clubs’ proposed solutions to the problem is to make the tournament less predictable and “sexy up” the group games by excluding clubs of smaller nations which cannot deliver a mass TV viewing audience, and its associated revenue. However, have the Super Clubs misunderstood what the Champions League TV audience considers “sexy”, and do they risk making the tournament even more predictable as a result?

World football has undergone a process of standardization the last thirty years or so. It could even be said to be ahead of this particular curve. The formal defining of such standardization as McDonaldization by sociologist George Ritzer in 1993 - the year after the European Cup was rebranded as the Champions League and some eight years after FIFA manufactured the award of the World Cup to Mexico for the second time in only sixteen years and drew up the blueprint for what the world game would look like to the TV audience at the end of the 20th century, and beyond.

The theory of McDonaldization sits on four pillars, which fans that attend Champions League games at the stadia will be all too familiar with: Efficiency - with matches played at upgraded or relocated stadia, to maximize attendance and revenue; Calculability - where diversified sales such as merchandise and food are easily realized and quantified; Predictability - fans can rely on all matches to be preceded by the Champions League anthem before the games kick off at 1945 BST; Control - which can be easily seen in the increased CCTV, stewarding and security at matches.

With the exception of Predictability, which we will revisit in detail below, the process of McDonaldization has been less obvious to those watching Champions League games on TV. However McDonalds’ standardized model has helped the Champions League clubs attract TV fans from all over the world. As McDonalds standardized products and service to appeal to the widest possible audience and reduced differentiation to render the McDonalds experience placeless – it’s always the same, anywhere in the world – so the Super Clubs have done their best to eliminate ties to actual places or communities so to be accessible to the widest possible global TV audience. Manchester United, in dropping “Football Club” from their club badge have even gone so far as to distance themselves from the sport they play. In this way, we can see that that the Super Clubs of Europe are now the Big Macs of world sport.

The small differences that do exist for the spectators at the different Champions League games across Europe are reduced further for those watching on TV. In his book, “A Game of Two Halves,” author Cornel Sandvoss uses the example of Glasgow Rangers to demonstrate that for all that club’s geographical, social and political significance to its fans, those signifiers were stripped away in European TV coverage that largely focused on the field of play. Possible differentiators were reduced to the colours of the shirt and the club’s style of play so, on TV, Rangers too became placeless, and became accessible to fans across the world.

The Champions League embraced McDonaldization wholeheartedly and this process of standardization has clearly been successful in maximizing engagement with the brand to date. Yet after a quarter of a century of reducing the game to easily digestible, standardized bricks, the tournament has hit a brick wall of predictability and viewing figures are falling. To paraphrase the legendary Bill Shankly, if the games were being played at the bottom of the garden, a growing number of viewers would shut the curtains.

To staunch the decline, the Super Clubs propose that clubs from smaller leagues that cannot deliver a mass TV audience should be excluded from the Champions League, so those thinking of watching on TV should never again be offered Bate of Belorussia as opponents to the mighty Real Madrid. As offensive as this is to Bate and Belorussia and to fans of fair play everywhere, it also illustrates the Alice in Wonderland mindset of the Super Clubs if they believe that more games playing each other will be more “sexy” rather than more predictable to the TV viewers.

The Super Clubs would be better advised viewing the games through the other side of the looking glass, the same way the fans at home do – through the TV. There, with the game deliberately reduced to a placeless spectacle, they will see the viewers starved of any visual differentiators bar the trackside advertising (which may well have been the aim all along). If the aim is to “sexy up” the game – make it more titillating to the senses – it seems obvious that on-field differentiators which reverse the process of McDonaldization, which catch the televisual eye and insert place back into the matches must be added. Or re-added, since such on-field differentiators were once commonplace when watching the old European Cup. 

Such an on-field differentiator is the stadium goal nets. Not the nets themselves, rather the hardware employed to suspend the nets. The on-field architecture. Until recently, each region of the European football world employed different methods of suspending the goal nets. Though there were always local differentiators, full support stanchions or “A-frames,” were generally favoured in England and the Low Countries. In Central Europe triangular “elbows” or Continental D supports were preferred. Italy deployed English-style stanchions but didn’t pin the nets back, while free-hanging box nets could be seen across Germany.

At club level too, each ground could be individually identified by the method of suspending the nets. Chelsea had a crook in the base of their stanchions, as did Barcelona whose hardware was easily differentiated from the curvy stanchions at Real Madrid. Returning to the example of the placeless, Champions League-era Glasgow Rangers, they deployed A-frames at Ibrox Stadium while arch rivals Celtic preferred Continental D’s since the early 1970’s. If you were to show a supporter of either side a goal from an Old Firm game in the 1970’s or 80’s they’d be able to instantly identify at which ground the goal was scored by looking at the goal nets.

In this period, right up to the mid 1990’s in England, clubs and even some stadia such as Wembley, were brands and they celebrated their individuality and highlighted their differences from other clubs and stadia, as brands do. However, clubs and stadia in the Champions League are not the brand; the Champions League is the brand, a collective product with a predictable anthem, a predictable kick-off time and a predictable, homogenous design of on-field architecture – the free-hanging box net.

Though the box net has been around for over 100 years, it came to global prominence at the 1974 World Cup finals, the first tournament where a uniform method of suspending the nets was employed across all stadia. In England, Euro 96 and UEFA’s insistence on uniform box nets spelt the end for the old Wembley stanchions and individual goals at the domestic club level.

From Madrid to Bate, box nets are now everywhere. Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid play the Champions League final in Milan on 28 May. Spectators at the game do not suffer from the McDonaldization sense of placelessness as they know they are at San Siro. However fans watching via TV coverage focused on the field of play and the generic box nets will have no visual signifier to differentiate this all-Madrid Champions League final from the 2014 all-Madrid Champions League final in Lisbon. Likely the game itself will be exciting and no one could safely predict the winner. However, with the same homogeneous box nets at San Siro and nothing on-field to visually differentiate this final from the one two years ago – or indeed, any final over the last twenty years – the TV viewing experience will be utterly predictable.

This unsatisfactory experience can be contrasted with watching the European Cup finals of 1971-73. In each, the peerless Ajax side of Johan Cruyff could be safely predicted to win, however the experience of watching the game on TV – or at a distance of over 40 years on Youtube – is enhanced and made unpredictable by the different methods each of the three stadia employs to suspend the goal nets. Not only are the majestic curved stanchions of old Wembley, the intense A-frames at Rotterdam’s De Kuip and the outsized, Subbuteo-style Continental D’s at Red Star Stadium instant identifiers of each respective stadium for fans watching on TV, the differing hardware suffuses each game with a distinct signifier. As importantly, each stadium’s nets reacts differently when hit with the ball and a goal is scored, so injecting a dose of unpredictability into the viewing experience.

Football has long been recognized as an important source of collective identification and expression of local identity, and place is one of the main ties that bind fans to their club. It is this same place that the super clubs and the Champions League have stripped way in their McDonaldization of the game. That armchairs fans have had enough of watching placeless football on TV is now obvious in falling TV audiences.

To combat this decline in interest this writer would recommend UEFA slacken their McDonaldization regime and permit each club and stadium to install their own individual methods for suspending the goal nets. This would differentiate and enhance the local experience for those attending Champions League games at the stadium, and would supply the missing on-field differentiation and geo-cognizance for those watching at home.

It won’t be easy - though goal nets are not compulsory, and merit only 26 words in the 142 pages of FIFA’s ‘The Laws of the Game,’ free-hanging box nets are made mandatory elsewhere in FIFA’s ‘Stadium Book,’ which details the technical criteria required for a competition stadium. Different methods for suspending the nets, such as “metal frames” (stanchions) or “elbows” (Continental D’s) are outlawed as constituting “a danger to players.” But FIFA and UEFA have demonstrated amply in the past that football regulations can be changed if the audience at home threatens to switch off. The offside and backpass rules were both changed when the TV audience perceived there to be limited opportunities in any match for the ball to hit the back of the net.

The Champions League audience is switching off and the solution to the problem lies not only in the back of the net, but above and beside the net also.

David is the author of The History of Goal Nets.

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