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Professional football without fans is like a birthday cake without candles

18th May 2020

Champagne orders would have been coming thick and fast to the boardrooms of betting companies around the world last week as live sport- in the form of The German Bundesliga, resumed on Saturday 16th May;  with a special ‘Nebuchadnezzar’ reserved for BT Towers on the Olympic Park as their sports rights gamble final paid dividends. Thousands, starved of live football, signed up for packages which allowed football fans to get a much needed ‘fix’ of live sport. And the betting revenues flowed. However- It was football - but not as we know it (Scotty!).

What was missing?

Why - the fans of course. For which, read ‘the atmosphere’

It has annoyed me immensely hearing these over-indulged prima donnas saying that “football is nothing without the fans”. That is a massive insult to the hundreds of thousands of ‘footballers’ who turn out on a Saturday afternoon, or Sunday morning to play non-league football. Believe me - for I was one of them for 30 years - football is something very substantial without fans (with all deference to the ubiquitous one man and his dog).

And perhaps, if there is one good thing (amongst a few others I could name), that will come out of this storm it is that more people will be out playing sport in the summer of 2020 than will be watching it. That has to be a step- or even a jog - in the right direction. But I digress…

Back to the prima donnas: I do accept the principle that the atmosphere of professional sport- and therefore the motivation of the players, will change massively without the fans; albeit with a sharp stick to prod the clumsiness of the deliver of the sentiment. Professional football will be very different for the players, without stadium packed full of fans. But more importantly, it will be almost unrecognisable for the millions of TV viewers. As anyone who has watched the stilted, audience-less Graham Norton Show or the now-seemingly-witless Have I got News for You. will know. Or indeed has been forced by their partner to ‘turn off the sound’. Ring any bells anyone?

Audience or fans. They bring the cast to life.

Kudos to Borussia Monchengladbach’s brilliantly creative attempt to recreate a fan base in the stadium by allowing their fans (and those of their opponents) to pay Euro19 to buy cardboard cut outs of themselves to place in the stadium - a trick Mesut Ozil has been deploying for months on the field! But atmosphere is not created visually, it is created orally.

MEI Member Beyond 90, who are responsible for most of Manchester City’s fan engagement experiences, may have come up with an answer. Their solution is to create a microcosm of fan experience in a hybrid bar/ broadcast studio. The premise being that 100 fans, with beer in hand in a small space, can create as much atmosphere as 50,000 fans in a large space. That ‘atmosphere’ can then be piped over the stadium’s PA system to ensure the game will be played (and even more importantly, broadcast) with an appropriate sound track. It may sound a little far-fetched, but once the social distancing issues have been resolved, why not? And, I am told the pitch to the Premier League clubs went well. So, whilst German football is back in a sterile environment (in more ways than one), we can be hopeful that Project Restart will conclude with the type of broadcast experience we have all come to expect. 

Manchester is credited with being the location of the concept of the ‘home’ and ‘away’ fixtures (in 1888 at the Royal Manchester Hotel, courtesy of William McGregor for the historians amongst you). Now it may well be the home of the idea that has helped get the professional game back on its feet.


Andy Rice is COO of Major Events International (MEI), a business development consultancy that helps suppliers connect with major sporting events. MEI are running a Mash Media sponsored virtual summit in July - click here to register