Football programmes are the latest sacred institution to come under threat from The EFL, the English Football League. Perhaps the only organization so spectacularly clueless that they could give the Home Office lessons.
By Dave Bowler
Labouring forever in the shadow of the glitzy, glamourous and ultimately soulless Premier League – it sold that a long time ago – you might think that they would understand that their unique selling point, to borrow a ghastly marketing term, lies in tradition. After all, they are the umbrella organisation for the competition in which many of the great old cubs of this country participate.
For instance, Preston North End, Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, Notts County with Stoke and West Bromwich Albion joining them at least one of Derby Cunty and Aston Villa remaining alongside. What do they have in common? Founder members of the Football League in 1888, eight of the 12, all set to be in the Football League again next term. On that basis, you’d think the EFL would have some big 130th anniversary celebrations in mind wouldn’t you? Nope.
The latest idea that’s come from their brains trust – and I use the word loosely, both words actually, brains and trust for who would trust this lot to sit the right way on a toilet? – is that football clubs can ditch producing matchday programmes if they like, on the basis that they cost too much.
Before we continue, I will make the age old point – if any football club wants to do anything meaningful about costs, it does it in the dressing room, because that’s where the money gets spent. But that involves taking actual strong and unpopular decisions and we all know how leaders love doing that don’t we. So they pick a soft target instead. Only this time, they’ve missed.
Football Programmes In The Digital Age
The implication is that digital is the way to go, though if this is a cost argument, it’s a pretty peculiar one given that Twitter, Instagram, Facebook et al bring in the sum total of two-thirds of four-fifths of SFA – no, not the Scottish Football Association, the other SFA. And see if your kids can stick a tweet on the bedroom wall rather than a player poster from inside the programme.
EFL clubs in general are losing a lot more money on digital services than on programmes but they are dazzled by the numbers of followers and likes that can be generated. That’s even if those numbers bear no relationship to the number of people who are interested in your football club and – the key thing to chief execs – will be turned into spenders, be it on tickets, at the club shop or whatever.
Not that digital should be squeezed either. Both exist for a reason, because different people like to consume their football fix in different ways. The 280 character version is the news bulletin, the headline, the quick buzz. Handy, important, useful, but newsy and ultimately superficial. That’s fine when you’re grabbing a quick moment to update yourself. But there are times when you want to read an in depth piece – the way you do when you pick up a Sunday newspaper with its assorted supplements, or pick up a magazine. Why would anybody with any of their brain cells want to lose the option of having that?
On a more mercenary footing, I doubt that local sponsors, advertisers and, indeed, national advertisers such as SkyBet are going to be thrilled with this idea either given that a reliable platform for pushing their existence is being whipped from beneath their feet.
Real Football, Real Fans
On its website, the EFL, desperate to distinguish itself from the Premier League, hides behind the slogan “Real football, real fans”. What a shame that while that’s true on the terraces at Bury or Walsall or Exeter, the governing body has absolutely no understanding of what their own slogan means. For a start off, it allowed the theft of Wimbledon FC and the birth of MK Dons, a decision that should have seen it die of shame. Not that anybody does that any longer – I refer you to the Home Office point already made.
Those “real fans”, very distinct from the plastics and the tourists that make up an increasing percentage of the Premier League audience, replacing jaded fans who’ve had enough, contain plenty of traditionalists. They support clubs which in a cold, hard business world, shouldn’t exist anyway. If you are a Rochdale fan, what’s wrong with you, why aren’t you going to Manchester City? You idiot, stop going to Barnet when you could be at Spurs. That’s the business logic.
But football doesn’t work on logic. It works on the gut, the heart. And a lot of us are tired of people in sharp suits trying to rip the heart out of it. Of people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing trying to modernise things that don’t need modernising, just because they were told they should in business school.
Educate, Inform, Entertain
Football clubs beyond the golden circle work best when they are at the very heart of the community. That includes providing a focal point and a service. First, It includes educating, informing, entertaining. Secondly, It includes having a dialogue. Third, It includes telling people why your club in your little town, in the shadow of that megaclub, is better than them.
Football programmes in the 1980s were poor fare it’s true, bland, flabby and shown up by fanzine culture. But they’ve been reinvented in the last 20 years and there is some very sharp content, great historical coverage, fantastic articles and brilliant photography. These things are club treasures.
Done right, the club programme is where a football club keeps its soul. No wonder the EFL, desperate to be the Premier League, wants to get shot of them.