Pay-per-view football in lockdown may have taught us that entertainment now trumps three points
Fans are now forced to turn their living rooms into terraces, but no match-going fan could claim they enjoy it more sitting at home.
As a child, my matchday pilgrimage began on Davies Road in West Bridgford. My mum would park the car more than a mile from Nottingham Forest’s City Ground to allow the post-match hordes to dissipate before we made our getaway. I was enraptured by the walk, a trickle of supporters becoming a chanting, bubbling throng with each road crossed and programme seller passed. The walk to the ground gave me time to chew my mum’s ear off about what might follow. The walk from it gave me time to chatter at double-speed and with triple-excitement about what we had just witnessed.
Until March, that process had been accelerated by geography. What was once a walk is now a 10-mile bus journey, picking up red-and-white passengers who somehow continue to startle shoppers and day-trippers who experience football only as a public transport inconvenience. They moan, chide, debate, disagree, occasionally express hope and belief and even more infrequently bask in the communal glory of that great weekend-maker, the glorious home win.
On Wednesday evening I walked upstairs at 7.42pm, clicked a few buttons on the computer, signed into an online system and watched a stream that occasionally buffered but just about allowed me to watch my team scrape three points. At half-time I left the room. At full-time I went back downstairs, told my partner we had won and went back to desperately crunching vague numbers and odds to persuade myself the future of democracy would be upheld.
Being at the match provokes an entirely different experience. That isn’t intended to treat those supporters – dotted across the globe – with disdain, but the fact remains undeniable. The live experience offers a sensory overload that cannot be replicated by pixels. I’ve tried to make the house smell of frying onions, cigarette smoke and stale urine, and asked the neighbour to shout “c__t” every time the referee makes a decision; it’s just not the same.
This is not a football-specific issue. Our social acclimatisation to lockdown has not shifted our behaviour, bar a few extra jigsaws and banana loafs here and there. Instead we have attempted to replicate our previous norms through more clinical, less affecting methods. We spoke to our families on Zoom calls. We watched comedy gigs via a tablet screen with an audience that simultaneously contained very many and very few. We watched our team play football via streams and on television. All formed part of a knowingly futile attempt to replicate an unreplicable sense of normality.
Football management is, very vaguely, the supervision of an inexact balance between results and entertainment. If the results are above reasonable expectation, the aesthetics matter less. But if results are more or less in line with expectation, entertainment can move the needle. Lose 4-3, win 4-2 and lose 4-3, and repeat that cycle, and you’ll probably be sacked eventually. Draw every miserable game 0-0 (producing the same end result in terms of points and goal difference) and supporters will lose patience quicker. The inevitable result of a large manager pool is that supporters will lean towards the “what if?” principle: might another manager not achieve the same results or better but with added entertainment?
Logically, that should be more important to match-going supporters. There’s a sensation of pointlessness that is sharpened after a 200-mile round trip to watch your team purely try not to lose rather than try to win. The rise in ticket prices has shifted the demand for the means (entertainment) to accompany the end (the result) because we have effectively increased the cost for roughly the same product. There’s a theory here about football’s rise as a live product from working-class to middle-class pursuit, and why the middle class might prioritise entertainment.
The move to football as a remote experience, with every Premier League match screened, has made life harder for the stubbornly pragmatic football manager. Suddenly match-going supporters see statistics flash up about their lack of possession and territorial subservience. Co-commentators and studio analysts pour scorn on their approach when it fails to work.
Newcastle’s recent away trip to Wolves is a handy example, although there are others. Those that travelled south on coaches and trains would have delighted in the ill-gotten gains of their 1-1 draw. The heady haze of post-match cheer and beery half-memories gives everything a positive glow. In the cold light of TV coverage, there was no escaping the robbery. From “we got away with it!” to “we got away with it”; it’s all in the exclamation.
That presents a temporary shift in football fandom, away from the live emotion of matchday that obsesses over the end and towards more means-driven assessment. By stripping away the sensory overload of the matchday experience and the atmosphere of crowded masses, football has been reduced to its perfunctory components. Football as a purely televised spectacle is football sold as an entertainment product rather than a projection of a live experience onto television. There’s a crucial difference.
© The Fan Experience Company 2020