Football: It’s a sentimental word
Liverpudlians are often said to be an overly-sentimental lot, and no more so than when it comes to football. If you want to find someone to plead on your behalf the beauty of football, a Liverpool fan will do just a good a job as any football-mad Italian or Brazilian.
Recently, the sentimentality surrounding Liverpool FC has gone into overdrive as a result of the club recently going through a protracted sale process that supposedly saved the club from carpet-bagging owners and delivered it to a new team of ‘tradition respecting’ investors.
In this mad process that saw the ownership of one of the most famous football clubs in the world being battled out in the English High Courts, emotions were high as the club faced the threat of being placed into administration.
Being a Liverpool fan, it was near impossible not to get caught-up in the sentiment of what this great club means to so many people.
However, the turbulent days surrounding the sale of the club led me to consider the actual nature of sentimentality surrounding football clubs.
Usually we think of football clubs as dripping with sentimentality: the way supporters worship players and talk in hyperbole about the glory years; it’s probably the main ingredient that either turns people into loyal fans or sends them running away as fast as they can in disgust.
Though a key ingredient of the sporting landscape, the way clubs appeal to our sense of sentimentality has changed throughout the years. Much of this is to do with the commercialisation of sport. The English Premier League especially, has progressed into a massively profitable enterprise that commands massive broadcast rights deals right around the world.
The vast amounts of money that flow from being a successful Premier League club, coupled with the massive sums it takes to get there in the first place, means that football in England has increasingly become a business. As a result, the room for sentiment in the game is being ever reduced. Players who are not performing get quickly moved on and those that can be sold at profit are often cashed in on.
Quite simply, the sport itself has become somewhat of a paradox: clubs regularly appeal to people’s sense of sentimentality to drum up support and increase their following but deny any room for sentiment the minute it hinders the bottom line.
On the face of it, it seems an extraordinarily tough job for club marketers to sell this line to their support base but much evidence shows that supporters were willing to accept this arrangement as long as their team is successful.
At Liverpool during the 1990s and 2000s, when supporters began to realise that past triumphs no longer pointed towards future success, they were very willing to enter into this quid pro quo.
In 2007, supporters embraced the selling of the club to two American millionaires, Tom Hicks and George Gillett, and welcomed the injection of millions of pounds into the club (an estimated £140 million was spent on players during Hick’s and Gillett’s ownership of the club between 2007-2010) but when the money failed to bring in the success the club’s supporters demanded the mood of supporters quickly changed. While other factors were at play, including the amount of debt the two had placed directly onto the club, the two were pilloried and accused of being little more than profit-seeking cowboys, though if the flow of pounds was not restricted by tough global credit markets, it is likely the two’s reputation would still be worth something in the eyes of Liverpool supports.
This sad example showed the dangerous mix of big sums of money and debt and even bigger amounts of sentimentality. The two simply do not make for good bed fellows.
A half an hour drive up the M62 to Manchester and a similar situation is to be found. Only, as is everything with Manchester United, the scale is much bigger. United, under the ownership of the American Glazer family, currently has debts of £1.1 billion. Just like Hicks and Gillett at Liverpool, the Glazer family acquired the club with borrowed money in the first place and subsequently the Glazer regime is now despised by the vast majority of Manchester United supporters who, despite the clubs strong performances on the pitch, loath the financial situation the club has been placed into.
In a post-GFC world things have changed and debt is now very much a dirty word in the football world. For the club’s marketers and communications officials, dealing with this reality takes a deft touch and solid understanding of the sensitiveness of the issues involved. Clubs can ill afford to alienate the supporters but when supporters are at direct logger-heads with the club’s owners it is a fine balancing act indeed. And guess what? Amongst all the anger, the answer is often to appeal to the fans sense of sentimentality.