At a badly run football club, you tend to be left with a core of diehard fans. They’re furious, in disagreement with the club and each other about how things should be done. But still they endure. My club, Leeds United (sorry everyone) is a current example. Our managers last only days before the sack, and our owner is being forced to sell the club because he has failed the Football League’s fit and proper persons test after not paying tax on a yacht. Still, it’s only entertainment, right? We love the soap opera.
Yes, it’s good for a laugh, but sport has other social functions. It should be used to build bridges, to reach as many people as possible. If a sports club successfully builds communities, they can create social and cultural cohesion, increase participation, and raise their profile. And when they get this alchemy right, they also make more money. By bringing more people together, sports clubs and organisations can only benefit. Football provides a fantastic example of how sports clubs can foster a community, as long as the club is being run the right way.
Football has grown from a working man’s game. Today it is loved, more than any other game, by a cross-section of society. Other sports like cricket and tennis seem to have to work harder to get an audience. This could be because their origins are more associated with the upper classes, or that they typically cost more to play. It’s no accident that the older professional football grounds usually sit surrounded by housing, typically in old industrial centres. As Karl Marx said of religion, football is an opiate of the masses.
To get a view from inside the game, I called Colin Tattum, Head of Media and Communications at Birmingham City FC. He was keen to stress that football naturally fosters communities because it is permeated with a sense of place and belonging. He said ‘We carry the city’s name. That’s something we’re proud of… We want to portray the city in the right way’. It was clear from talking to Colin how he saw the role of a football club - he said ‘it’s important to have a focal point’ for local pride, something that’s made more prominent in football because of how it is tied to a locality, and the fact that there are so many teams.
There are many obvious examples that show how important roots are to football fans. When Wimbledon FC was moved to Milton Keynes for commercial reasons, the clubs fans formed AFC Wimbledon. Cardiff City owner Vincent Tan was met with fury when he changed the team’s colours from blue to red to make them more synonymous with Wales. And at Newcastle owner Mike Ashley angered fans by renaming St James’s Park the Sports Direct Arena. As is often the case, in football there is a tension between authenticity and commerce, and Colin recognises this, saying ‘You do look for new markets and fans… but you cannot forget your core group’.
As a Head of Media and Communications, I asked Colin whether he thought content could be used to increase participation in sport, whether that be playing or watching. He pointed to the potential of younger age groups using content and social media as a springboard into sport, and said he hoped visitors to Birmingham City’s website or YouTube channel would be ‘inspired by the stories and the highlights.’ Using media does make community building a whole lot easier. Top professional football clubs like our local Birmingham City and Aston Villa use their websites and social media to maintain a dialogue with their fans and react quickly to their needs. A football club’s website isn’t just somewhere to buy tickets, it’s a communication hub full of related news and rich media. Crucially, they connect the punters to their heroes.
In terms of video content, standards have moved beyond providing basic match highlights online. Birmingham City have their own Football Focus style production called Blues Focus, which gives the fans a neatly packaged, regular update on club events. The gap in quality between online content and the satellite TV channels looks to be closing. The bigger clubs like Manchester United and Liverpool led the way with their own satellite TV channels, and it wouldn’t surprise me if we see more clubs try and recreate the same quality of product online and on-demand.
Clubs should continue to use media to build enthusiasm and provide fans with added value that they can consume away from the stadium. One of my favourite things about sport is the way it simultaneously promotes togetherness alongside a tribalism, which, because it’s not rooted in anything sinister, is there to be enjoyed. Some might say that seeing a sports club as the heart of a modern community is a romantic notion, but to me it’s very real.