22 Nov 2018

Will football always be the #1 global sport?

By BRAD REES

Is football breakable? That’s the question writer Janan Ganesh eloquently answered in a recent thinkpiece for the Financial Times.

On the surface football is in rude health. Mr Ganesh gives the example of how obtainable a European ‘soccer’ game now is in the USA, ‘even Atlanta, down in gridiron country, has become round-ball barmy’.

Mediacells first saw the USA superfan phenomenon back in 2014, when the USA rocked the World Cup in Brazil. By the time they were kicked out in the Round of 16 by Belgium, they had earned immense respect for their contribution which was rewarded by 42 million USA engaged fans over the tournament.

USA Superfan phenomenon: FIFA World Cup 2014

Der Spiegel recently revealed the European super-clubs’ aspiration to form their very own competition, which would free them from domesticity altogether. Mr Ganesh frames this vision for the hard of foreseeing as follows:

‘In other words, Real Madrid would no longer play Valencia or Seville, just its fellow colossi (Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Manchester United and Arsenal).’

It’s an unsettling dystopia to think of a football life without ‘real fans’. In David Goldblatt’s best-selling book The Game of Our Lives, there is a chapter dedicated to the matchday experience where he suggests ‘until the broadcaster can perfect a digitally enhanced crowd, there is no spectacle without them (the real crowd)’

The real crowd was absent from the October UEFA Nations League group stage match between Croatia and England, where the game was played behind closed doors – no physical crowd, only an unimpressed ‘digitally-enhanced’ one.

Evocative reporting from BBC Radio 5 live’s Gary Flintoff summed the atmosphere up as follows: “England manager Gareth Southgate has just applauded his players and you could hear the sound of his hands clapping together echo right throughout the stadium.”

But is football invincible and if so, who would take O Jogo Bonito’s place? Mr Ganesh surmises cricket, which is an intuitive punt but 2018 data from Nielsen doesn’t place cricket in the top five of Major Sports but that’s maybe because ‘urban’ is the only India sample.

top sports nielsen 400x420

Source: Nielsen Sports DNA 2018

The emerging contender to football’s gilded crown is basketball, which commands 35% of major sports interest in 18 markets. Further research from Mediacells reveals that NBA player and team accounts exceed 1 billion likes and followers. That’s a whole lot of hoops.

On balance, I think Mr Ganesh and I agree that football will not break. The commercial sports landscape has never been so competitive with live and on-demand streaming services, often referred to as the ‘Netflix of Sport’ moving football closer to media and entertainment audiences.

However, the welcome complacency that the real fan is somehow indispensable is dangerous. If we’re watching footie that kicks off in a physical location then the crowd is surely crucial. But, if the audience is never at the physical game, because the game is not in a physical arena – what happens then?

The global eSports audience will reach 380 million this year with a 50% growth in sponsorship revenue streams – perhaps the question is not if football is breakable but if football is physical.

@BradCRees