Football in Scotland has remained a purist’s pursuit, our hallowed grounds are filled with hardened fans. The weather isn’t attractive and neither is the football. So what keeps people going? Pure and simple – it’s the love and passion of the game. The average attendances are high and getting higher, but the quality of football just isn’t improving, if anything, it’s in a decline and the light at the end of the tunnel is farther away than ever, so what’s the problem?
The Scottish Premier League exports very few players to foreign leagues. Whilst this would seem that, in theory, our national side would prosper from grassroots talent growing up in the country, it hasn’t been the case. It’s made the national side less competitive and has severely stunted the growth and influence of the league outside of Scotland. This hurts the game and it sends home a harsh truth. We aren’t seen as a footballing nation, our players have limits to what they can offer and limited appeal to foreign teams.
On a recent trip to Morocco, I found myself in the company of some Raja Casablanca fans and conversation naturally turned to football and a desperate attempt to find some middle-ground through the language barrier. It didn’t take long at all to remind them of the former Moroccan contingency found at Easter Road, with fan favourites Merouane Zemmama and Abdessalam Benjelloun having come from the country and both returned and eventually signed to Raja. The thing is, with very few exceptions, I can’t imagine that story being the other way around. Scottish players very rarely leave Scotland.
Having said that, we do import a lot of players. Just over 50% of the SPL come from elsewhere. It’s a cosmopolitan league with many cultures, but that isn’t communicated, it really doesn’t feel that way at all – it feels distinctly Scottish. For an investor, that isn’t particularly sexy. Yes, the fans are there, but the quality, domestically and internationally just isn’t. It’s time for Scottish football, if it wants to be taken seriously and create a real impact on the global stage, to move beyond just playing for the purists. The other major leagues in Europe think like global brands, not traditional football clubs and the Scottish Football Association and SPL need to do the same – they need to sell Scottish football to the world and fix its image problem.
Football is all about money. For a club and a league to make money, they need customers that are willing to buy into them and for people to buy into them, they need to have something more to sell than just football. From stadiums and kits to players and beyond, everything is part of the brand – and some are managed better than others. The English Premier League revenues totalled a cool £3.4 billion by the end of season 14/15, with a projection of £4.3 billion by this year, with Germany’s Bundesliga and Spain’s La Liga not too far behind.
The lofty highs of Scottish football in the period between the late ’90s and early ’00s hasn’t since been replicated, and the downward trajectory ever since has played a large part in Scottish football’s image problem. Clubs spending above their means exasperated the initial decline in talent and very quickly the SPL slipped unnoticed into world footballing obscurity.
We aren’t in the age of technology anymore, technology is now a pillar of contemporary life and has been for some time – we are in the age of identity. The way brands, people and politicians interact with the world via social media and their respective discourses are all centred around belonging, or not, to a particular identity and with that, a particular lifestyle. It’s this need to create a coherent and aspirational identity that could solve Scotland’s footballing woes.
Darts and cricket are two sports that mightn’t jump off the page to every footballing fan, yet they are the perfect examples of how to be brash and create identities that fans of the sports can get behind. With darts, the players are given nicknames, signature darts and theme songs. The Professional Darts Corporation make sure to build personas for each player that unifies the rowdy nature of the game with likeable ‘characters’.
For cricket, they’ve taken it to a whole new level. The sport is huge in Australia and in 2011 it embarked on a journey to make 20/20, a simplified and shorter, more exciting version of the standard cricket, appeal to the masses through the Big Bash League. In a country of cricketing traditionalists, the obvious problem of 20/20 being a bastardised version became an opportunity to create something fresh.
To populate the league, they needed teams. In a big city like Melbourne they split it down the middle, on one hand was Melbourne Star, a glossy team filled with big names and on the other hand was Melbourne Renegade. Renegades were more of a ‘rebellious’ choice, and Star offered the aspirational alternative. The two teams were successful and both very similar in terms of popularity. The Australian 20/20’s experiment of creating a persona and hype around two teams built from scratch, in a city that could only have had one was a stroke of genius in marketing and branding. Considering the wealth of history that football teams boast, the same treatment could be applied to them.
Enough about cricket and darts though, where has this worked in football? The Major League Soccer in America is just shy of 25 years old. Initially, the league was hard to take seriously; their games have as many sponsors as the other kind of ‘football’ (from replays to commentary) and David Beckham was their idea of a messianic talent. But all this has started to change – in the world of football, the MLS has arguably one of the most interesting emerging cultures.
The league has managed to cultivate a uniquely passionate atmosphere despite the relative youth of the teams. There’s no familial heritage and pride, no stories passed down from generations, it’s all new, it’s all exciting. For us in Europe, it is easy to mock the bizarre efforts of fans to replicate the Ultra culture that defines most of Europe’s largest leagues, but cultural differences aside, it’s actually very impressive.
This culture didn’t just develop immediately thought. The MLS, through clever branding and design, managed to create strong foundations based on idiosyncratic identities for their teams on which the fans pride and loyalty for their club would begin to blossom over time, almost naturally. Just like the teams in cricket, the clubs boast strong imagery borrowed heavily from the socioeconomic and cultural aspects of the clubs geographical history to make fans and viewers feel something that they can relate to. It didn’t take long before the small crowds began to swell and the club cultures got too large to remain in the hands of the league’s governing body.
The transition from league-managed to fan-initiated growth was largely thanks to YouTube and Google. The American audience has their own interpretation of footballing culture, and it’s beginning to look less like their take on European ultraism, and due to the isolation of the country, starting to morph into something distinctive. It’s a fertile breeding ground for ideas, something that Scottish football could learn a lot from.
It might seem like quite a leap to suggest an established league learn from such a young one, but the same thing happens here in Europe too. St. Pauli, for example, are an average side in the Bundesliga 2 with a stadium that holds 32,000. Their average attendance in the 16/17 season was 29,500, the third highest in the league, topped only by the promoted VfB Stuttgart and Hannover 96. The thing is, St. Pauli finished several positions below those two and they aren’t even the biggest team playing out of Hamburg.
It’s not news to anyone that St. Pauli is a ‘kult’ club, known as much for the punk culture surrounding the club as for their on-field achievements. The club successfully turned their hardcore following into a global brand with a genuine message. The club are centered around Hamburg’s Reeperbahn, the city’s red light district, that was filled with punks and prostitutes and paved the way for the clubs left-leaning politics. The ‘Jolly Rodger’ flag become symbolic of the club’s stance as a working-class team and their move to become the first club in the world to officially ban right-wing nationalist activities in the stadium endeared them to a more global audience, a bold move in Germany when neo-nazi culture was widespread in football terraces.
There are several punk bands that reference the club, like-minded people wear their t-shirts and they even have their own fan favourite beer, ‘Astra’ that’s been adopted by fans and has become synonymous with the club. Even though the club’s onfield achievements are nothing to write home about, their attendance as a small club and their presence as a huge cultural hub in Hamburg has allowed the team to transcend football’s appeal being limited to the pitch. True to their own roots, alongside the fans, they built a brand that has built on the working-class and punk history of the club.
One brand that has applied this kind of ‘punk’ thinking, something well suited to the Scottish mentality, actually doesn’t come from football, but from Scotland’s other pastime, alcohol. Scotland has an innate rebellious side. We lift our kilts up, we get too drunk, our nationalistic politics is the most inclusive in the world and our version of the Olympic games involve throwing huge logs in the relentless landscape of the Highlands. Even though these stereotypes aren’t regularly lived experiences, they’re not far off. Our political system has always leant to the left and we’re known to speak our mind and do so with a proud conviction (see MP Mhairi Black). There’s no coincidence that the punks wore tartan – Scotland is the most punk country in the world.
How else could you reason with the success of our real national drink, Irn-Bru and their off-kilter and irreverent humour? Or what about Brewdog? It’s hard to believe now, but craft beers weren’t always ‘a thing’. They were snobby drinks made for connoisseurs until BrewDog came along. Two young Scots had an idea, not of what beer is, but what it could be and their mission was to disrupt and challenge norms in the brewing industry. Upon setting about creating a consolidated and consistent brand image that hasn’t waivered to this day, they created an icon. They found early success through a mixture of audacious names (Trashy Blonde) and packaging that takes as much from Dadaism as it does from the history of beer. Although their methods of gaining attention, while no doubt successful, have divided opinion, they’ve always made it clear that it’s about the beer and they’re willing to take it anywhere to make you pay attention.
Their message clicked with people all over the world, with the brand now having pubs in Edinburgh, London, Barcelona, Rome amongst many other cultural hubs and is one of the most widely exported and recognised beers in the world. The magical thing about the BrewDog is that people rarely talk about it without mentioning where it’s from. It’s a truly Scottish product – just like our football league can be.
A fundamental facet of advertising and branding is establishing an emotional connection with your audience or customer and nothing does that better than football, where it happens early and it lasts a lifetime. As football’s preeminent philosopher Eric Cantona stated, “You can change your wife, your politics, your religion, but never, never can you change your favourite football team.” This is any brand’s dream – a lifelong customer.
Like the fans of a band, football fans cover all your bases of marketing on and offline. They share images, talk about the club, creating events based around it and buy merchandise. The thing is, fans are more than customers, a growing sentiment in contemporary football, something that a few large teams still need to learn. Swathes of devoted fans are giving up their season ticket or even worse, defecting to lower league football to get their fix of action at the weekend.
Teams that treat their fans right, like Borussia Dortmund, have seen over a 99% renewal of season tickets. Through a consistent philosophy in playing and managing style, their approach to media and the sheer avidity of their fans makes them contemporary football’s complete package. They make the business approach work with the fans, not in parallel, but tightly integrated. This great natural resource available to clubs and federations is something that has to be cultivated with the people’s desires in mind.
Football is more than just a sport and the team you support is more than just your geography or your family. Football in the 21st century has gained a symbolic level of significance. In rap videos the Paris Saint-Germain top has become ubiquitous. Like Paris, it’s associated with wealth, style and aspirations of greatness. They are the uncrowned kings of French football and the people that wear their kit associate with this image.
Like the aforementioned St. Pauli, the reason people wear their kit is also social and political, only it lies on the other end of the spectrum from PSG. There’s no denying the religiosity of football and nowhere can that still be felt more than in Glasgow.
With Celtic, there’s no denying their Catholic heritage, they display it proudly with the Roman Catholic cross on their kits. Rangers likewise were smart to play into their image of a Loyalist club by releasing an orange kit in 2002/03, despite the thinly veiled rationalisation of it being a nod to their Dutch members, it went deeper than that. These two clubs, in this sense, take care of themselves in Scottish football. Fans on both sides hold deeply held convictions of what the clubs and colours mean. Many people aren’t simply proud to support the clubs for their achievements, but proud to wear the merchandise for what it says about them.
Where does that leave the rest of Scotland though? The answer is, in a great position. Hibs and Hearts have their own stories they can build upon. The genesis of Hibs being an Irish club, whilst fundamental to the club’s history, is well on the way to being forgotten about. The club is now more about their place in Edinburgh, namely Leith than their heritage from Ireland. That Leith is going through a renaissance, both culturally and socially, has changed the significance of Hibernian in Edinburgh too.
The dynamics of Edinburgh’s port area changes year-on-year. There’s plenty of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting left, but there’s also a lot of sparkling creativity present in the area’s gastronomy and bar scene. There’s Michellin starred restaurants, and high-end bars propping up their drunken neighbours of the past. It’s a beautiful mixture and this is where Hibs need to build upon their image, just as the similarly placed Rayo Vallecano has in Madrid.
The two teams share many similarities, only Rayo has been brave enough to wear this on their sleeves, literally. The areas are diverse and Rayo have boldly adorned their kit with pink stripes and rainbow stripes to raise money for breast cancer and LGBT charities, they’re sending out a message about what kind of team they are. I’m not suggesting Hibs do exactly that, but hailing from one of Scotland’s most successfully and excitingly multicultural areas is something that will endear the club to new young fans and to fans from outside of the UK, they can build on that. Considering Edinburgh is the second most visited city by tourists in the UK after London, stadium tours, kit sales and matches could offer a unique experience for the visitors as well as a way to help spread the message of Hibs and Hearts to farther shores.
We are very fortunate that many clubs have stories that are equally as engaging and could very easily be built upon by the clubs, it would make for not only a more intense and exciting league, when clubs with bigger ‘personalities’ clash, but it would be more exciting for investors too if viewers felt that they had an emotional investment in the clubs or their cultural significance.
It all comes back to money. With the money that new TV deals and sponsorships could bring, Scotland would be able to improve their game, something that up until now has severely been impacted by the unwillingness of the sport’s governing bodies to make smart investments.
All the potential for the growth of something uniquely Scottish is there. But without the right vision and team creating it, there seems to be very little hope that Scottish football will get out of this rut. Although it goes well beyond how the league is perceived, all the way to funding, academies and television deals, the sense of pride and passion are still arguably the two most pertinent driving forces in pushing football forward.
Aside from the exportation of players watering down the quality of the league and national side, the other main problem is that the Scottish government are looking to send their funds elsewhere, to the sports that are garnering more international success like swimming, cycling and tennis. Football isn’t paying off, so it doesn’t deserve the attention. However, if you consider the value of the English Premier League and status of football as the global sport, the potential value of Scottish football, for domestic fans and tourists, as well as for the country’s GDP and national identity, is unimaginable.
It’s reasonable to suggest that by solely focussing on long-term investments like academies and footballing infrastructure at grassroots level, the SFA have eschewed the potentially lucrative returns and game-changing realities made possible by looking at more immediate and short-term changes. The pace of modern football is moving faster than ever before, so these long-term investments can often start to become part of a dated vision by the time they bloom, but stubbornness, risk-averse mindsets and habitual faith in a more romanticised old school style of football management means that these plans are the safer option, despite seeming ineffective for the large part.
Short term, investing more time and money into the image of the league is what might be needed to draw in fans, creating an idiosyncratic and immersive experience that potential investors couldn’t ignore. With the punk approach of BrewDog and St Pauli and the business-minded methods of the MLS, this option not only seems viable, but like a real opportunity to reinvigorate the sleeping dog of Scottish football.
As the old maxim dictates, ‘’you have to spend money to make money’’, which is true to a point, but not as much as you need a great idea. While this might not be it, it’s one option. The Scottish Government and SFA need to come to terms with the footballing landscape of the present. It’s becoming increasingly about image and the way image creates identity.
Looking at leagues around Europe, PR campaigns are launched for new kits, new players, new additions to stadiums and just about anything else. Engagement is key, people want this content, so why isn’t it there? Just as players wear suits on the way to important games, clubs should take the same pride in fostering a unique fan culture and putting football back into the hands of those most faithful – the hands of whom the sport belongs.
Business shouldn’t be seen as a nasty b-word, but as something that can work faithfully hand-in-hand, as with the German league or the MLS, or a club like St. Pauli – it has the power to restore pride in your club, your league and your country. Everyone else seems to see that, except us. That’s why when Scotland finally make this move, it’s important to put our own spin on it – to be defiantly punk in our approach.