Having just witnessed the demise of the England Football team and the accompanying howls of derision from the British media, I’m trying to collect various thoughts I have been having on the rise of football (and sport generally) and whether or not we are approaching some kind of tipping point where (in the UK at least) we are going to see a diminishing interest in professional sports.
My initial thinking was stimulated by this article in Intelligent Life which highlights the incredible rate at which sport has increased in importance in the public eye. The most fascinating observation was that ” [in2006]The cup-winning captain from 1966, Bobby Moore, was on every KitKat wrapper, despite having died 13 years earlier; his team-mate Geoff Hurst, now Sir Geoff, was appointed director of football for McDonald’s and had columns in two newspapers. The boys of 1966 were bigger in 2006 than they were in 1966.”
I was also prompted to write this by the vast number of brands that have tried in one way or another to leverage the World Cup to their benefit, whether it is Curry’s/Comet/Best Buy trying to sell me an HD TV, Nationwide selling football bonds or Carlsberg invoking the spirit of Bobby Robson, there doesn’t seem to be a single category that hasn’t tried to force a link with the biggest competition in the world. I’ve even sat in meetings where people have said “Maybe we shouldn’t be on TV in June because everyone will be focused on the world cup and we don’t have anything WC related to say”
The Press are even worse. Each of them has tried to outdo the other in the quantity of their World Cup coverage in order to catch as much as possible of the world cup advertising budgets that brands seemed to be hemorrhaging. Making news out of nothing, shouting from their front pages about the littlest detail on team selections, disagreements, injuries etc. When they aren’t scrutinising the body language of David Beckham on the bench or the depth of wrinkles on Capello’s chin, they are handing out assorted nationalistic paraphernalia for you to attach to any available surface of your house, car or workplace.
With all this going on, you might think that everyone in the country would be going absolutely crazy with excitement, foaming at the mouth with the anticipation of every match, but I have yet to see any personal evidence of that. Yes people have got lots of flags on their cars, and people have been discussing all the matches but it almost feels like they are doing it because they think it is expected of them rather than they actually want to. I certainly have not seen a real life passion to match up to the media expectation. A number of times now I have heard the phrase “I was bored of the World Cup before it even started”, and getting to work today (post a 4-1 loss) I haven’t seen the downhearted faces that I might have expected. Most people are fairly unbothered. A Quote from the Glastonbury coverage (randomly switched on last night) “I can’t muster the energy to even be dissappointed”
Now part of this apathy is clearly down to the lacklustre performances of so many big teams, with England one of a number who have failed to impress, but that doesn’t explain the lack of enthusiasm that we saw before the tournament even began. Admittedly this is only from my perspective as all the media have been keeping their “enthusiasm” and so I can’t tell if it is a true nationwide malaise, but certainly I’ve yet to speak to anyone who can express an emotion stronger than “I’m annoyed” with regards to England’s failures.
So I have to ask a question. Have we reached a point where the corporate, media and brand demand for enthusiasm for all things World Cup has finally exceeded the supply? Have we assumed that it was an infinite supply when in fact it inevitably was subject to limitations. I would suggest that we have. It will be really interesting to see the results of the numerous WC related advertising campaigns, but I would not be at all surprised to see dimishing returns compared to previous years.
Not only has demand for passion exceeded supply, I would possibly go further and suggest that it is the demand itself that has had a detrimental effect on the amount of passion that people feel. The whole event has become about money with everyone trying to squeeze as much out of it as possible, whether it is the media owners, the sponsors or the bandwagon brands, everyone has been asking “what can the world cup do for me?” and no-one has considered that they could be killing their cash cow.
Now I could be wrong, maybe I am just observing the wrong people, but if I’m right it could be a real problem. Passion and enthusiasm such as that seen around football is a rare natural resource and if we continue to squeeze every last drop of profit out of it then we could be responsible for it’s demise.
So what could brands do to prevent this decline?
Firstly they need to stop trying to take take take and instead try to work out how to give something back to sports, how can they facilitate and enhance the enjoyment of a sport rather than cynically trying to sell me something with football wrapping paper.
Secondly I believe we need to stop focusing on the highest pinnacle of achievement at the expense of all else. It’s all very well for brands to take out an ad congratulating the national team when they win – but all they are really trying to do is share in the reflected glory of that success. Surely if a brand was a friend of the sport they would commiserate our losses just as much as celebrating the wins, surely a true friend would be there when teams are struggling at the bottom of a conference division as well as when they get promoted. I’m pretty sure that a number of brands will be pulling some of their July advertising budgets in the wake of the pitiful English performance, but maybe if a brand had the balls (no pun intended) to keep talking to consumers even at the depths of their misery, then we may be more willing to share the excitement the next time it comes around.
Thirdly, if the passion for international football declines, I believe that it will find a more natural home in football or other sports that they have a closer more direct relationship with. As people becomes disenfranchised with multi millionaire footballers who bear no resemblance to anyone they know, they might just turn to the team next door where they know the cousin of one of the strikers. So brands should look to support this grass roots level sport, the sport where real people have a real connection and where the brand has an opportunity to really make a difference and give something back.