Back in 1991 the British businessman Gerald Ratner brilliantly demonstrated how just how quickly a brand built over generations could be destroyed.
He told a meeting of the Institute of Directors that some of the products sold by his family’s jewellery chain were “total crap” and included earrings which were “cheaper than a prawn sandwich and probably wouldn’t last as long.”
Unsurprisingly, customers decided they would look elsewhere, wiping £500m off the value of the company and forcing Ratner to bring in a new CEO, who promptly fired him. It’s a moment that has gone down in business folklore and Ratner has become a byword for gaffes, although the man himself used his humiliation to his advantage and became a successful author and motivational speaker.
What Ratner proved beyond doubt – other than the obvious necessity of ensuring that brain and mouth are in sync – was that customers won’t remain customers for very long if they think they are being used and mocked.
Ratner came to mind during last month’s football transfer window as reports of massive-money contracts with Chinese Super League clubs triggered a spate of discussions about loyalty and the commitment of players to their European clubs in a global transfer market. Old pros were called in to lament the passing of the concept of the ‘one-club player’ and make it crystal clear that modern football is all about the money and that players would inevitably pursue the best offer available pretty much irrespective of their contractual status.
What came through loud and clear was the notion that the overseas players who account for such a big proportion of all English Premier League squads really couldn’t be expected to show any degree of loyalty to their English clubs because, to them, playing football is just a job. They are guns for hire and those weapons will always find their way into the hands of the highest bidder, whether that bid comes from Italy, Spain or China.
PICTURE: Chelsea's Diego Costa was strongly linked with a move to China at the start of January
In many ways this was a case of the biter being bitten. For years the Premier League has had the money to hoover up talent from around the world, with even its mid-ranked teams having more spending power than all but a handful of their rivals elsewhere. The upshot of the transfer window discussion was that it was naïve to expect professional players to be loyal to anything except their own interests and those of their families. If there’s big money on the table, they have every right to take it. And maybe that was football’s Ratner moment.
There are certain things that people in many businesses know but have the good sense not to say in public. Gerald Ratner didn’t fall from grace for selling the public cheap jewellery – he was just giving them what they wanted. He fell because he ultimately made the public feel bad about themselves for buying his cheap products. They didn’t want to be told what they were buying was crap. They felt cheated and it shattered the relationship between the brand and its customers.
The question is whether the same can apply to football, a multi-billion-euro business that has, until now, been built largely on the hard-wired loyalty of fans to their chosen clubs. That’s what really drives the game. So what happens if the bond is broken because fans realise that their commitment and loyalty isn’t even remotely reciprocated?
To date, a sort of pretence has been maintained behind a fig-leaf of badge-kissing. But now the conversation is out in the open and there’s a growing understanding of the disconnect between fans, for whom a club is everything, and players who see each club as a stepping stone.
PICTURE: Daniel Ramos will switch from Borussia Dortmund in the German Bundesliga to Chongqing Lifan in China at the end of the season
While nothing is likely to change immediately, it doesn’t take a great leap of the imagination to picture a future in which a new generation of fans is lost to football because they are unable to comfortably connect their utter devotion to a club with the passing commitment of the players who come and go at the rustle of a bank note. Football is not ‘sit back’ entertainment. It is about the involvement, commitment and passion of the fans, and if that’s not being echoed by players, then the relationship, like that of Ratner and his customers, may well come under pressure.
Realistically, this is probably just the way of the world and we will all have to learn to think differently. For years the Premier League has held financial sway and it has built its global reputation and bank balance on the basis of historic club brands featuring many of the world’s best players. If that talent is ultimately sucked into China (or anywhere else), it creates a potentially significant issue. Without the top talent, the TV rights become less valuable – particularly overseas – reducing the income distributed to the clubs that are then even less able to match the size of contracts being offered elsewhere.
As players can only be considered a temporal asset, it would seem that the established leagues most vulnerable to the impact of Chinese affluence have to look to their other attributes to maintain their standing in the world order. And that may mean a shift of branding emphasis away from players to the clubs, their heritage and what they mean to their fans. There’s a saying in football that no individual is bigger than a club and now may be just the time to underscore that.