Tribal Debate

It is often said that sport and politics should never mix. One only has to look at the recent furore over NFL players ‘taking a knee,’ with some backing the players, others backing their right to protest but asking that they keep it out of their sport, and others telling the athletes: “stay in your lane”.

In truth though sport and politics have always been inextricably linked, and indeed it seems the latter may be taking a lead from the former in recent years. Observers have bemoaned the growing divisions in public discourse — Trump or anti-Trump, EU or anti-EU — which divide people into ‘team’ and leave very little room for nuanced debate. In football, unfortunately, blind tribalism is something we’ve been used to for many years.

One of the joys of the sport is the passion with which people follow their teams, the emotion they invest into every result. When all objectivity and reason goes out the window, however, that loyalty can become insidious.

It doesn’t take too deep a dive down the social media rabbit hole to encounter the fire and fury which accompanies modern football. Simply read the replies to any large media organisation, which will invariably accuse said organisation of being biased against their club, their Coach, their players. This isn’t simple trolling. A large proportion seem genuinely to believe that journalists deliberately set agendas against their club. The rise of Infowars and Prison Planet shocked many in the political sphere, but in football, tinfoil hats are de rigueur.

Mistrusting much of the media, many fans prefer to get their news solely from official club channels. Those outside of the club, they reason, will only twist words and facts to suit their agenda. The issue with that, of course, is that any information disseminated by your club will be spun, slanted and calculated to paint that club in its best possible light. It’s not fake news, more Pravda for the digital age.

Had Milan fans been a bit less trustful of Yonghong Li, or Rangers fans less willing to believe Craig Whyte, both clubs would be in a better position now. With both men, there were numerous reports and investigations questing their takeovers. In both cases, many dismissed them as being written ‘with an agenda.’

At times this tribalism resembles nothing more than a person punching himself in the face. In the Premier League, the Football Supporters’ Federation has been doing great work with their ‘Twenty’s Plenty’ campaign, which looks to cap prices for travelling fans at £20. English clubs have the world’s biggest television deal, and categorically do not need to charge extortionate ticket prices to survive.

For many though, criticism of their club’s ticket prices is taken as a criticism of them, their tribe. “They’re not as expensive as [insert club]!” these people will often reply. I don’t mind being ripped off, as long as that lot are being ripped off more.

Football clubs are businesses with brand loyalty that others can only dream of. In terms of pure capitalism tickets aren’t overpriced — most Premier League games are played in front of sold-out crowds, making clear that consumers are prepared to pay the prices being charged. Perhaps if fans could put aside their differences and engage in joint action, those prices may begin to fall. If Manchester United and Manchester City fans jointly refused to pay the ticket prices for November’s derby, they’d have a real chance at bringing down costs.

A similar dynamic comes into play regarding television deals. Fans across Europe hope fervently that their league will be given a new, improved contract which will allow their clubs to spend more. The money, of course, is coming out of their own pockets in the form of subscriptions. When did the price of your sports package last fall?

It is often said that fans are the lifeblood of football, but club owners and those governing the game don’t care about match going fans. Just look at recent proposals to play a Spanish League game in Florida. Sadly they don’t have to care, as those fans are too busy screaming at each other to notice.

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