Super League shows why the deliberate stupidising of sport must be resisted
Florentino Pérez painted an inaccurate picture of young fans as restless YouTube addicts demanding their context-free fix.
How are you enjoying the Super League so far? Credit to those involved, it has been an excellent piece of entertainment, with many vivid details and finely crafted comedy set pieces. My own favourites have included Florentino Pérez’s round of defiant TV interviews, in which he appears to have become that wild-eyed bloke who insists on “getting right back on it” the morning after even though everyone else has gone home to lie on the sofa.
Plus of course John Henry’s haunting video message, in which Liverpool’s owner addresses the cameras in a weirdly mannered tone of “human-style” contrition, like a very calm and soothing robot replicant apologising for the fact that it will have to strangle you now.
Among these many subplots one particular theme has resonated, a process that keeps cropping up in this type of scheme. This is the “stupidising” of sport.
“Young people are no longer interested in football,” Pérez announced this week, going on to suggest that football is simply too long and complex, too confusingly un-shiny for those aged 16-24. It is a common mantra. Young people are the driver here, not us, the ownership class. We are simply servicing the needs of these captive halfwits, with their insect-level attention spans, their depraved Snapchat discourse, dishing up with a helpless shrug what they crave.
The stupidising of sport is quite a broad idea, one that speaks to a specific view of humans. Because of this complexity – and because, if you’re reading this you probably like sport – we will have to talk about sweets first. Perhaps you’ve already tried Drumstick Squashies. These are small white and pink sweets that come in large bags. They look entirely innocent, but they will act on you like a confectionary crack cocaine.
Older readers may remember Drumsticks, grizzled survivors of the 1980s. The full Drumstick – the longer format – is a jaw-cracking piece of solid goo staked on a fuzzy white stick that makes your teeth itch if you accidentally chew it. Nobody ever got addicted to Drumsticks. But they’re still out there, still hanging on.
Except now some vicious mastermind has turned them into Squashies, a kind of Drumstick freebase. Soft, mouthful-sized, and impossibly more-ish, these things have no real content, no texture. But you will crave them, pointlessly, as they melt and ooze and emit their lab-trained zap of chemical flavour-rush, locating the want button in your head with their horrible little knowing foam hands and holding it down until your eyes roll.
They are a brilliant success on these terms. This is the goal of every producer. It’s what every administrator of a certain type dreams of doing with sport – turning this awkward, ageing thing into a short hit of irresistible product. The aim is to give you what you already want – as judged on the most instant, saliva-spurting level.
The same kind of talk has floated around the Hundred in cricket, a competition founded in the reasonable desire to find a short, easily packaged way of showing a complicated sport, which has become tied up in marketing speak and marketing methods.
Again this is justified by the falsehood that young people demand this, that they are only interested in simple things and YouTube clips. Young people demand sweets. Hopefully these will act as a gateway to broccoli. In the meantime, what we have here is a shiny new saleable piece of IP, legitimised and underpinned by The Stupidising.
There are more nuanced ways down this path. For the last few years the NBA has been offering the chance to subscribe only to the final quarter of games for a reduced price, a way of attracting casual viewers without ripping up your own sport, and well suited to the more fluid medium of streaming.
Before the upcoming ESL Mk2 – ESL With Apologies – gets any ideas, it is hard to see this working in football, where buying just the end of a game is likely to raise a generation of casual fans thrilling to the sight of players very slowly falling over by the corner flag and goalkeepers taking simple catches then throwing themselves to the ground in feigned exhaustion.
The real point here is this is all based in a deeply pessimistic view of human nature. The stupidising is imposed. It is not innate or even a real, irreversible thing. It is instead a marketing theory. It comes from a place where constant growth is the only goal and humans are simply consumer units, where because sugar and palm oil is popular, because hitting a six is exciting, because all the clásicos are good and all the clásicos are the same, we must be sold that same commodity endlessly.
The truth is young people are not some weird piranha-brained species. People do still like slow things and have a tolerance for boredom (you have, after all, read this far). Young people do love football, because football is good, but have perhaps lost the habit of watching because it’s extremely expensive and hidden behind a paywall.
In reality it is football’s owners who don’t like football, who hate the fact a match is 90 minutes long, and that its staging is dominated by fans, with their rituals, their stick-in-the-mud ways, that awkward shared culture that can be squeezed and monetised but only to a point.
The stupidising will be back, just as those who would stupidise us remain. But this week has at least provided a spark of resistance.
© The Fan Experience Company 2020