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Football, Commercialisation and Cross Words
The RamsTrust Column
Written by RamsTrust overseas board member Bob Donald   
Tuesday, December 22 2009

The global financial crisis is giving us plenty of pain to work through – and the world of football will have to face up to the new realities that are now confronting everyone.

Top level football has grown rich on its TV money in recent years, but not everything is as rosy as it once was when we all actually attended games to see them in their entirety. Back then, Match of the Day and other programmes featured only edited highlights; only major European games and internationals were screened from start to finish. But in this multi-channel, subscription sport era, are we now beginning to realise that watching football on TV is difficult?

Something always seems to be missing from the armchair football experience - it could be the noise and atmosphere of the crowd or perhaps the comradeship of friends, all enjoying the match together. But unless you follow one of the top Premier League teams you won’t often see your chosen team on screen – it’s even less often if you don’t wish to sign up for pay TV!

So nowadays, football on TV may become just a bland background feature to other activities, as the “viewer” completes a crossword or Sudoku puzzle, pausing from such concentration just to watch the replay of a goal. Only
followers of the top 4-6 teams in the Premier League will watch a successful season for their club, unless any of the others have a good run in the domestic Cup competitions.

Despite football’s over-exposure and the media’s bias for the top teams, fans generally hold on to their chosen team. Most clubs still depend on supporter loyalty, but this can become strained if fans believe (or find out) that there is obviously something wrong with the club’s governance. Derby fans have all too recent experience of this situation.

Over the years in fact, the Rams have sailed close to the wind several times. The sudden end of the Clough/Taylor reign at Derby saw fans massed on the town’s streets, demanding the duo’s reinstatement, although their efforts were unsuccessful.

In Maxwell’s era, fans again spoke out and became even more militant. A protest campaign, nurtured by the local media, succeeded in hastening Captain Bob’s departure in disgrace, before his high-profile watery demise.

Remarkably, that episode was only a foretaste of more recent events at DCFC. The Rams arguably came closer to going under than ever before. By this time, Derby fans were more organised and protests were mobilised when they had good reason to believe that the club was in a serious situation – and that something should and could be done about it.

Even so, there were fans that refused to acknowledge that something was wrong. It seems that some supporters – and clubs themselves - still deny that fans have the right to speak out with an independent voice. Fortunately for their faithful supporters, the Rams faltered awhile but have survived. We know that many other clubs, such as Leeds United, are still struggling with the result of several years of excess.

In Scotland, Gretna reached the heights of the Scottish Premier League before imploding and all but disappearing. The club still exists, albeit at well below the level of even the Scottish 3rd Division.

Gresley Rovers haven’t had a good time of it either. Likewise, Bangor in Northern Ireland, who had to surrender their place in the Irish Premier League, and Derry City of the League of Ireland, who had to drop down a league to continue.

None of these teams might mean much outside their own support groups, but the threat of financial instability remains at all levels. The game is under serious threat and it may not be long before even Premier League clubs find themselves in grave difficulty; debt levels at the some of the top clubs in the UK are close to crisis point.

Once upon a time, some said it couldn’t happen, but it did at Leeds United, and other clubs. Leeds didn’t go out of business but will take a few more years to be restored to the power in the land they once were. Who can
really say that the bubble won’t burst at a major club in the near future?

Watford is the latest team to come close to administration, with an uncertain future. Premiership Hull has to sell players to reduce the budget; one wonders who will be next to announce difficulties. Even since their relegation, Derby County have spent beyond their means and are still trying to reduce a bloated wage bill.

All this gives good reason for fans to be vigilant. In a bygone era, supporters would turn up each Saturday to pack the ground and watch their team, without much concern or debate about the club in general. The club’s
management and well being was left to those in charge, but the experience of many fans nowadays causes them to ask questions and to demand answers. They want a team to support, but also want to help safeguard their club’s long term future.

The sport is more of a business these days, and seeks ever more media exposure and revenue from corporate partners. Many feel that football’s clients and customers should be more involved in running the business. Perhaps elements of how the German football authorities direct their clubs’ governance, with legislation for considerable supporter influence, should be considered here. We don’t all want a bland TV game as a background to working on a crossword or Sudoku puzzle.

This column is for individual members of RamsTrust to put their point of view across in the media. Although the views will not contravene the principles of the trust, the views expressed are entirely personal to the author and do not necessarily represent RamsTrust policy.

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