The fabled words of legendary Celtic and Scotland manager, Jock Stein, have been echoed by many current managers and players in recent weeks, as football has returned in a behind-closed-doors environment.
Stein uttered the mythical phrase long before the Premier League was formed in 1992. In the years since, it has more often been adopted by fan groups seeking to remind owners, clubs, leagues and governing bodies that they are being taken for granted.
That is until the coronavirus pandemic swept across the globe and ground the sport to a halt. Now, suddenly, and unexpectedly, the statement rings truer than it ever has in the decades since it was first spoken.
Make no mistake, the relationship between football and its most loyal supporters has been strained in recent years.
As with any long-term relationship, there has been a sense at times that both sides have taken each other for granted. Did we as fans see the players as mere assets that could be moved between clubs and discarded if not playing well? Had the players forgotten the importance of those providing the atmosphere, passion and emotion on a weekly basis? Were clubs in danger of seeing fans merely as global consumers?
The pandemic has given each partner in the relationship pause to remember why they loved and needed each other so much in the first place.
No stakeholder can be truly satisfied with behind-closed-doors football – the games are simply a means to an end to fulfil broadcast obligations and finish the competitions. The absence of fans from stadiums has been the single-biggest talking point. The very fact that a Broadcast Enhancement Advisory Group was set up to specifically look at how to compensate for the lack of atmosphere, tells you everything you need to know.
Chris Wilder, manager of Premier League team Sheffield United, has been among the most outspoken on the subject: “We should never underestimate the effect of playing in front of supporters. The administrators, players, managers and officials are part and parcel of the game, but the biggest players are the supporters. The excitement, desire, enthusiasm and the commitment that they bring to the game is the biggest thing”, he has said.
Players too have spoken at length about the impact of playing without fans. Burnley striker Jay Rodriguez put it best: “I’d be lying if I said it was normal and everything was fine because football is all about playing in front of fans and being driven on by the atmosphere. They do have an effect on the games.”
Covid-19 has forced a radical rethink in the relationship between clubs, leagues, broadcasters, players and fans. For the first time we are seeing the reality of live sport without its most important stakeholders, and it is a frightening prospect. But, long-term, this could prove to be the moment when the romance between football and its fans is rekindled, with both sides having had time to reflect and appreciate the symbiotic relationship.
Perhaps post-coronavirus we’ll see more affordable ticket pricing strategies, away supporters considered and consulted before kick-off times are confirmed and talks of competitions that require further investment from fans to follow – a European Super League, for example – should not be rushed into.
On the side of owners and organisers, there may well prove to be a financial imperative to do so. Deloitte’s annual review of football finance suggests Premier League clubs face a £1bn (€1.1bn/$1.3bn) reduction in their revenues in 2019-20, primarily in rebates to broadcasters and a loss of matchday income.
When it is safe for fans to return to football, the importance of a sold-out stadium will never be greater. And not solely for the immediate revenues, but to ensure the sport remains an attractive proposition for broadcasters and sponsors, who continue to contribute to the biggest proportion of revenues.
On top of this, and regardless of the pandemic, there have never been more competing interests for a fans time. Will the next generation feel the need, or be financially able, to pay to go and watch their team week-in, week-out, when they can watch almost every fixture on TV or online by fair means or foul?
It was Sky Sports TV pundit Gary Neville who said: “Football needs to check itself. It is more than just a game. It is about community and we need to ensure we are doing all we can not to price fans out of the game.” He is right of course.
The lockdown period has forced clubs, leagues and governing bodies to engage more effectively with fans and they are increasingly looking for innovative ways to interact on and off the pitch. There has been more attention on player-focused content during the absence of live games, some of the innovations introduced look set to stay and, now matches have returned, we are seeing potential investments in artificial intelligence systems to expediate the return of fans to grounds.
There is no question that, as the game has flourished commercially, players have increasingly felt distant from the average fan.
There are of course many reasons as to why that is the case – time, security and motivation, to name a few. But, with players now experiencing just what football is like without the match-going supporter, will we see more effort being made to reward their devotion?
Fans will return re-energised and craving the shared life-affirming experiences that football provides in the most evocative and emotive way. The pandemic has provided a moment of pause to remind football that the game is nothing without its most passionate fans and it needs to protect that relationship, by all means necessary.
The primary reason for tension between supporters and clubs is the feeling fans are now defined customers. The irony is that the best global consumer brands have attained that status by putting core customers at the centre of every decision they make. The best clubs understand this.
So, football without fans is indeed nothing. Until it becomes everything.
Simon Oliveira is the managing director of KIN Partners. He has worked with sports stars including David Beckham, Usain Bolt, Neymar Jr, Lewis Hamilton and Andy Murray, was a founding partner of the content studio OTRO, and has co-produced documentaries, such as I am Bolt and Class of ’92.