BARELY a month goes by these days without someone – usually John Hughes – complaining that Scottish football has become too middle class. After a year in which declining attendances again became a matter for serious concern, it should be clear that such commentators are mistaken, and that if anything the national sport is not nearly middle class enough.
Don’t worry. I’m not about to suggest that we exclude all players called Jordan and Wayne and replace them with Hugos and Hectors. This argument is not about snobbery, including inverted snobbery, or even the social origins of anyone associated with the game, because these are – or should be – irrelevant.
In fact, it’s not about anything that happens on the pitch at all – we’ll leave that debate for another day. Instead, it’s about football’s failure to recognise that society has moved on from where it was, say, 30 or 40 years ago. And until it addresses that failure, attendances are likely to remain worryingly low for most clubs.
Clearly, poverty remains a major problem in this country – one which, if anything, has worsened since the financial crisis of 2008.
Nonetheless, while it would be a simplistic mistake to argue that we are all middle class now, there is no denying the general increase in affluence over the past few decades.
Society has moved on, and many aspects of everyday life have become easier, more comfortable, more attractive. Compare, for example, the public transport you might have taken to a match in 1970 or 1980 with the present day, and it is obvious – even allowing for existing deficiencies – that progress has been made.
Or think about some of the alternatives to football: the things you could do on a Saturday afternoon instead of going to the game, or at another time of the week from the money you saved by not attending a match.
Cinemas, for example, are far more luxurious places now than they were back then, offering hours of entertainment in a warm and welcoming environment.
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At the cinema, you don’t feel cramped, you don’t get numb any more after sitting on their seats for ten minutes, the toilets are well maintained and there is a decent range of food in many big complexes. If you go home feeling dissatisfied, it’s invariably because the film was no good, not because the actual cinema-going experience was bad.
Scottish football, by contrast, simply has not moved on in the same way. Some clubs have built new grounds, others have rebuilt their existing stadiums, but in general facilities remain poor. If you go home from the football feeling satisfied, it’s invariably because your team did well enough to counteract the inadequacies of the whole experience.
The toilets at many grounds are little better than fetid swamps, with a lack of hot water and hand-drying equipment. There is a poor choice of food on offer, much of it concocted from cardboard and grease. The dietary habits of much of Scottish society have changed out of all recognition in the past 40 years, but most football clubs persist in purveying the same stale stuff.
All this would be forgivable if the price of admission had also remained frozen in time, but it hasn’t. Even at a time when thousands of seats regularly remain unsold, senior Scottish clubs continue to charge above the odds.
It is fair enough to offer expensive tickets for the best seats at the best matches, but too often potential customers do not have enough choice. This is particularly true for some showpiece occasions such as cup semi-finals, where it would be easy to have seven or eight different ticket prices yet supporters are often only offered two or three.
Then there is marketing. Think of the ways in which different companies in other industries try to grab your attention and your money: flyers through doors, for example, or door-to-door visits, or advertising in the local media and online.
Does your football club do anything similar? If the answer is yes, you are likely to be a supporter of a team from a relatively small community, one that has a small customer base and tends to be run by volunteers.
On the other hand, if you support one of the big senior clubs, the answer is almost certainly no. They have a press conference a day or two before each match. If the match in question is being televised live, photographers might be asked to take snaps of a player or coach brandishing a large piece of cardboard with the number of the ticketing hotline on it. And that’s usually your unimaginative lot.
Part of the reason for this habitual neglect of the wider community lies in the kind of people who tend to run our clubs: business people who have made their money elsewhere, or simply real football enthusiasts.
We need the money, all right, and we need the enthusiasm, too, but these people tend to have no background in marketing.
It’s hard to say whether laziness or ignorance is the cause of the neglect, and it makes little odds. The fact is that for too long football clubs have presumed they could rely on a captive audience, when in reality much of that audience broke free of its chains some time ago and wandered off to its local Vue or Cineworld, or just went home and played computer games.One solution to this problem, one way to begin to address the issue of the empty seats, is supporter involvement.
The closer fans feel to their club, the more likely they are to attend regularly; and the better their experience of every aspect of their visit, the more likely they are to feel that their attendance is valued.
Uefa’s licensing requirements include the need for clubs in European competitions to have supporter liaison officers – something that has been practised in Germany for around 20 years. But appointing an SLO, which some Scottish clubs have done, is only the first step: ensuring they actually pay attention to supporters is the key.
By supporters I mean those fans who no longer attend, as well as those who still do. And once they have talked to those groups, the liaison officers could maybe move on to meet some of the people who have never been to a match, and find out what is keeping them away.
Because until that happens, the likelihood is that the traditional audience for football in this country will continue to shrink, and will not be replaced by others from outside.
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