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THE FOOTBALL LEAGUE COULD LEARN A LOT FROM MLS
I’ve been a fan since the beginning. Long time reader, first time writer, as the saying goes. I’ve come close to mailing a few times, but always held back. No longer. I’m writing you from Denver as a a former Middlesbrough season ticket holder for some five years. I was moved to respond because of your excellent and intelligent Piece of Hate regarding the Football League. The MLS in the USA is starting to gain some traction among Americans, and I believe there are several reasons for this. Most crucially, I think that the MLS has taken a long hard look at itself and the competition, and decided that if I can’t get supporters away from (Am)Football, Baseball, Hockey, and Basketball through quality, it might be able to do it by value.
I can’t pretend to speak for the rest of the MLS from experience, but the Rapids in Colorado have at least 4 other Major League sports to contend with, not to mention the plethora of college teams who sell tickets for a high price. Broncos games can be upwards of $100 easy, before you factor in playoffs, rivalries, and big games. By contrast, the Rapids regularly do Groupon purchase deals or partnerships with sponsors to get family packs at $52.80 for four tickets and beers (for the adults) or sodas/meals (for the children, or adults who’d just rather not). There are an army of ticket reps who regularly call to set up and negotiate deals for you. Season tickets have flexibility and the club will purchase any seats back from you if you can’t go. There are fancy-pants seats for $45, and cheap options starting at $15. They certainly have the value angle well covered.
Then there’s the community outreach and involvement. Not that other Major League sports don’t do this, but the Rapids here have a partnership with local schools. They offer skills courses at schools and academy’s throughout the Denver area. I work in a school, and there are always fliers up, and if we really wanted to we could certainly call up and the Rapids would send someone down to pitch fitness and skills. After games, players will almost always sign anything thrown at them after games – last week I met three players for no extra cost, including Sean St. Ledger, (who then confessed to me he was shit during his time at Middlesbrough – he’s not wrong, but it would have been nice for him to have pretended otherwise). I only ever met Premier League players at ‘Boro by accident, in the community far away from football. Not a huge problem, but it would certainly have left an impression on me as a youngster (and if I met Juninho even now I would explode, and I am considerably out of the ‘youngster’ category). This might tap into the Messi-Worship vibe you mention, even if no-one is going to confuse Messi and Kevin Doyle.
The stadium itself is shiny and new, with excellent facilities. It is also noticeably free of the hostility that was present at (some) games I went to in my Middlesbrough times. There’s a standing section, bleacher-style seating, and your usual comfy chairs. A band plays – although this is sometimes a blessing and a curse – and there are always children led drills and games at half-time. The focus on a pleasant experience is high. Sometimes this is underlined as an issue in England – the middle-class gentrification of football – but there’s no denying that it brings out families who grow up to be Rapids fans, Soccer fans, and Patriotic Americans. The tailgating phenomena of US sports exists with soccer too. I’ve joined a group of Rapids fans for several, and the community and camaraderie of the fans is exceptional. I understand that many British football fans are not sold on the MLS, and the OAP influx certainly doesn’t help. But as a live match experience, there are few places I’d rather be on a Saturday afternoon, especially with the Denver sunshine and Craft Beers involved.
Perhaps clubs in the Football Leagues can’t afford to get behind big programs and pushes such as these, or they don’t see the value. That would suggest to me that the might EPL needs to cough up more than it currently does. Perhaps having one group that spoke for all instead of an FA, EPL, and FL that only exist to secure their own interests is the next step? Regardless, something has to give. I’m looking forward to renaming the leagues and then, in five more years, doing that again. It’s certainly working for Scottish Football, right?
HERE’S HOW TO IMPROVE THE FOOTBALL LEAGUE
How CAN the Football League become more attractive? That’s simple.
– Ticket prices: I know it’s boring, you hear it over and over again. Money, greed, outpriced fans bla bla bla. Well, keep the tickets expensive for the main stands if you want, but there must be something done for the areas behind the goals.
– Fan blocks/ singing areas: Wherever you go in Europe (or pretty much worldwide) you will mostly find an area dedicated for the most vocal and energetic supporters behind the goals, mostly in form of terraces. It’s a great selling point in comparison to England’s top flight that many league clubs actually do have terraces. If a club has no standing areas in place it will be helpful to lower prices behind the goal, make them available for non-allocated seating only and respect standing. A fan block is what many fans want and it can be a breeding ground to develop an active fan base. Oh and btw the atmosphere will be so much better! Really!
– Community: If fans only go with their family and friends and don’t ever get involved with a larger number of fellow fans they are unlikely to be retained when the friends/ family members drop out. If you know 100 and regularly speak to 50 people you’ll keep going even if you dislike half of these people. You might open the clubhouse on a day during the week for socialising (with fair – that means cheap prices for drinks if you wish to attract younger people), you could top up away coaches to” customer loyalty.”. If you are lucky enough to send more than one coach you can split the buses by age groups etc (the same way you split the stands into relaxed seating and fan block, got it?) You setup events with ex-players, you can offer banner creation days.
– Tolerance: We must admit, as a club you can’t create such a lively fans base all by yourself, you need the supporters to get organised themselves. So if you are lucky enough to have a big organised group such as Crystal Palace then be supportive. Get in touch with them, allow them a table within the ground from where they can sell their stuff, fanzines etc. Of course the Holmesdales Fanatic’s vocal support might be annoying to some. But they are a great value to the club.
– Allow drinking: Those who want to get hammered will do so before the game anyway and then top up with 2 pints in 6 minutes at half time. And of course the revenue you lose in cheaper tickets behind the goal will come in that way.
– Patience: Wait at least 3 years. Don’t expect anything to significantly change within a couple of months. It takes time and even if all the above was in place there wouldn’t be a positive progress everywhere. Certainly at a number of clubs but come on, the MK Dons for example… you know what I mean.
HERE’S WHY THE FOOTBALL LEAGUE *SHOULD* BE REBRANDED
In the recent Pieces of Hate on the proposed Football League ‘rebranding’ Iain Macintosh makes the astute point of the authenticity of Football League clubs- the ‘bullshit free’ nature, as he puts it- that is, in essence, the Unique Selling Point (USP) that brings us in, and keeps us coming back for more. Rebranding then, is deemed an unauthentic measure that is merely a cosmetic touch-up that does nothing to address the fundamental issues of rising inequality between the Football League and their much, much bigger brother: the Premier League. It is tangible benefits that are needed. Not just a pissy new name.
However, in pursuing tangible benefits that seemingly seek to narrow the gap between the Football League and the Premier League I think we may be missing the point. In being ‘spiritually marooned’ between the quaintness of beer-on-the-terraces Burgess Hill Town Football Club of this world and the corporate overlords of the Premier League giants the Football League finds itself in an ever-difficult position. This is where a rebrand (as part of a wider restructure) might actually be of use. Especially if it is part of a remit to attract a younger, more hip audience. Like Macintosh I agree that previous rebrands have been largely unsuccessful. The ‘automatic promotion’ of renaming the old Division 3 to League 2 and Division 2 to League One are an example of the wish to alter perceptions of the gap between the Football League and the Premier League. A perception that has been undone by the reality of the star-attraction that is the Premier League with it’s Pedro’s, Rooney’s and Ramsey’s Vis-à-vis watching Wycombe Wanderers attempt to play attractive football on a pitch that until recently was cut up weekly by their far more successful Rugby Union tenants.
A truism it may be but it’s worth pointing out nonetheless is that League One and Two have far more in common with non-League football than with the bright lights of the Premier League. Yet the Football League continues to pitch itself as comparable to the Premier League (as seen by the example of fourth tier ticket prices of 20 (twenty!) quid). If it begins to acknowledge that it is not, and will never be, the Premier League it can then attempt to regain its USP of authenticity. It seems only natural that this road back to redemption should see a rebrand as part of its plans. The Football League should ditch all perceived ties to the Premier League aside of that of promotion and relegation between the Championship and Premier League. It has an exciting, raw product that whilst not matching quality can match, or even outmatch, the Premier League on excitement and atmosphere. Rather than the perception of it being the poor relation of the Premier League the Football League should market itself as something apart. A completely different game, if you will. There is perhaps no other world market where 92 professional League clubs can co-exit apart from England but this can only be sustained by the Football League not seeking to merely impersonate the Premier League. A renaming of the Football League may appear cosmetic but it can act as a catalyst to differentiate the product.
In short, the Football League should seek to be more like Dulwich than Arsenal and if that involves renaming the leagues then lets go for it!
A SHORT PLAN FOR HOW TO REBRAND THE FOOTBALL LEAGUE
Please bring back areas of standing at grounds sitting kills any atmosphere in grounds and make prices cheaper.
CHAMPIONSHIP MANAGER 2001/02 STOLE MY LIFE
Great work, Iain! I’ve managed to quit smoking but after 14 years I’ve never managed to quit this game. During my current happy relapse I am tearing up Serie A with a Hellas Verona team starting Julius Aghahowa, Sergei Nikiforenko and, of course, Mike Duff.
PS – Google ‘www2 formation’ and you’ll never look back
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