Can clubs use data marketing techniques to break the anonymity of the crowd and help combat racism?

This weekend players in Holland’s top two football leagues will ignore the referee’s whistle and sit/stand out the first two minutes of their games

This isn’t industrial action but the players’ way of protesting against racist behaviour among crowds and was spurred by racial abuse of Excelsior’s Ahmad Mendes Moreira by Den Bosch fans last week.

It comes towards the end of a year in which racism has once again become a major issue in the game and the Dutch players’ decision to spell out the message that they won’t play against a backdrop of racism is to be welcomed as sending out a positive message and reminding the crowd of its responsibility.

Racist abuse from the crowd has been experienced in many parts of Europe of late. Uefa qualifying games have been played behind closed doors in some venues because of sanctions for racist behaviour, some fairly paltry fines have been issued against clubs and federations and even a game in the early rounds of the (English) FA Cup was abandoned when players walked off because of abuse.

Despite the efforts of those behind a myriad of anti-racism campaigns, it appears that a problem which we hoped had been largely eliminated is refusing to go away.

Perhaps part of the reasons at least lies in the relative anonymity afforded by being part of a crowd. There’s a romanticised view of football as being the place you go to forget about day-to-day concerns by getting behind your team. The suggestion is that identity is left at the gate and individuality gives way to being a single voice in a roaring crowd.

The question is whether that anonymity also encourages ‘fans’ to behave in ways they wouldn’t in any other set of circumstances.

Football has an interesting relationship with its crowds. On one hand they are the great collective voice which provides the emotional backdrop and backing track for whatever drama is playing out on the field. Anybody who has ever watched a televised game from a sparsely attended Middle East league knows only too well how important the crowd is to the visual impact of the product.

At the same time football’s marketers are obsessed with the idea of breaking down the anonymity within crowds. They understand that beneath the apparent unity, the crowd is a collection of diverse individuals and their major mission is to access increasingly granular data that identifies and profiles individuals so that they can be sold to more effectively.

In much of the world football holds a unique position in a competitive sports and entertainment marketplace but it would be wrong to imagine it is untouchable. Association with racism – and other forms of intolerance and abuse – has the potential to ultimately make it a toxic product, making brands which are increasingly aware of their social responsibilities less likely to be seen to be supporting the game. And that hits the brand, bottom line and future prospects.

That may not happen any time soon but if the new tide of racism is allowed to rise unchecked it may be become a reality.

So if the problem starts with a crowd mentality maybe the solution lies there as well. New levels of data and advanced use of social media provide clubs and associations with new ways of communicating with fans. It gives them the ability to talk more directly and personally to fans to persuade them that they don’t leave their identities and responsibilities at the turnstile and that they have a responsibility to their crowd and to their club to ensure that racism and other forms of abuse cannot and will not be tolerated.

The Dutch players are taking a positive step but what’s needed is a sophisticated campaign using all the tools at our disposal to persuade individual fans not to tolerate racism and to refuse to be part of a crowd which tolerates racism.

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