Light at the end of the tunnel: The fans should return to the Keepmoat Stadium in the coming season. Photo by George Wood / Getty Images
Some things just don’t mix that easily.
To understand why football and capitalism are an uncomfortable mix, it is important to understand how a football club serves both its fans and its owners.
For the fan, a football club serves as a place to meet others, to be part of something bigger than ourselves and as a welcome distraction from the myriad thoughts and fears we struggle with for the rest of the week. Togetherness. Socialism.
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For the owner, a soccer club serves as a place where you can generate a return on investment and make objective decisions to expand your audience and grow your brand. Objectivity. Capitalism.
It is remarkable that football clubs survive on this tightrope walk in the service of both the fans and the owners.
The introduction of the ESL (or a re-heated, less embarrassingly disorganized future version) could well prove to be the moment the tightrope breaks.
Clubs that serve themselves with no regard for fans.
I will define the clubs that were in the ESL (and the ones that were unlucky not to be invited, we can all guess who) as elite.
The elite have decided that football fans can become commodities just like supermarket buyers.
We were divided into different categories that differ only in how we consume.
The Legacy fan is the old man in the flat cap who talks about the miners’ strike and how easily footballers go down these days.
He consumes soccer for 90 minutes straight through a playing card, a cake and a program.
Outside of football, he consumes 5-day test cricket, hard-boiled candy in case the grandchildren are visiting, and cod liver oil to keep the doctor away.
The legacy fan is of little value to the elite, assuming that they don’t want to consume it.
The Future Fan is the 18-year-old sticking to his phone screen in search of the next distraction to hold the goldfish’s attention span for the next 30 seconds.
You couldn’t possibly hold out 90 minutes of football, but you could potentially hit a deal to see the last 15 minutes of a game to get right to the point.
They don’t care if Real Madrid plays Liverpool every week because honestly they can’t remember last week.
Outside of football, they subconsciously consume advertising via apps, free-range avocados on free-range toast and the last chapter of a book lying around.
The future fan is also everyone on the Asian market.
The future fan is very important to the elite because it is assumed that they want to consume every drop.
Ironically aside, where is this potential future of football Doncaster Rovers and clubs of similar and smaller stature, where do we fit together?
The truth is we don’t. It’s not that the elite don’t care about us, that kind of respect is reserved for Everton, Sevilla and Ajax. The fact is, clubs like Doncaster Rovers will serve no purpose without the ability to brand the elite and connect with the Future Fan.
When the elite clubs regroup and come back with their next elite idea, they are effectively throwing the house keys on the poker table. The rest of us still have our chips to play.
So can’t we learn from their mistakes instead of following in the footsteps of the elite?
If the elite’s ultimate mistake turns out to be alienating their fans, then how do we ensure that this is not our fate?
An important part of the solution could be to ensure that we don’t make such blanket assumptions about the football fan.
Owners of these clubs, which are not considered by the elite, now have the foresight that the moment Real Madrid, Juventus and Co divide us into consumer groups could be exactly the moment when everything goes wrong.
Consumer categorization may work in retail, but how often do Sainsbury’s buyers get together to sing about their love for the new fishmonger? Football is community, not consumption.
So, can owners and fans working together to understand each other’s needs help prevent the owner-fan gap from widening?
Communication is key here. In any case, I have gained a great deal of solidarity from the letters that the rovers sent in the course of the pandemic, in which they explained the financial difficulties.
Good news or bad news, people generally value honesty.
The rovers’ community work and the way this is published online also makes me very proud to be part of something that gives back.
Despite the strengths of the Rovers board of directors, I feel compelled to turn a blind eye to numerous irritations on a game day.
From the pre-game music that drowns out the harmony of the fans, to the inexpensive mid-range menu.
But how do the club owners know my opinion, yours and that of all other football fans?
Forums, polls, fanzines, anything that solicits the various individual opinions of fans of any club should be considered essential by the owners to understand the collective voice of the football fan.
Don’t assume you know the collective voice of your community, ask them.
But if the owners could do more, what about the fans?
The only gem in the ESL shipwreck was the obvious and previously underestimated power of the fans.
We were sure we had lost it; we had turned the house upside down. But then it turned out. Fans have a voice.
But there’s a hint of “you’re late buddy” to the protests from Manchester United fans.
Before either of us feels as alienated as he does, we now have the opportunity to choose what to say and how to say it.
What should our clubs be? Do we want our clubs to interact with us more so that we really feel part of it?
And what more should we all ask ourselves as fans? How do we play our individual and collective roles to ensure we maintain a sense of belonging to our clubs?
These are hard questions to answer, but if the alternative is to ignore the possibility of fan alienation and assume that the future will be fruitful, then we may have more in common with the elite than we initially thought.