The new beautiful game

Image: The FA

Image: The FA

We used to spend our entire lives in the real world; now the average Briton spends over a fifth of their waking life – 24 hours a week – online. The effects of this are rippling across society: from retail, where people are increasingly buying digital products that exist only on their screens, to nightclubs which, as teens are increasingly choosing to spend their free time in the virtual world, have - in the UK at least - almost halved in number in the last decade.

Sport is no different. Younger generations are now spending more time playing and watching virtual sports than ‘real’ ones; a seismic shift that might worry traditional sports teams. The role that football clubs were once guaranteed at the centre of fans’ lives is being challenged; supporters’ loyalty, time and money are all under threat as the digital world’s tentacles tighten their grip.

In Europe, only a few generations ago, the idea that fans interest in football could wane was laughable as, in the absence of today’s modern distractions, it was an all-consuming obsession that sat firmly at the centre of millions of lives. Today however, while still a passion for many, the dilemma of hanging up either their boots or their Xbox controller would be far less clear cut for the average fan.

Perhaps more alarmingly for clubs, the direct relationship that social media allows players and influencers to have with their fans has raised questions over where their loyalties lie: with the team or with the individuals they follow on Instagram?

To some extent, football clubs appear to have recognised the threat of digital and are evolving in response. Many Premier League clubs have now begun to sign rising eSports stars, developing them as assets for the digital world as they do for athletes in the physical one. Meanwhile, club shops have expanded to include custom consoles and controllers, and licensing and sponsorship deals are increasingly being struck with gaming platforms and publishers.

But in reality, clubs aren’t moving quickly enough. ESports teams are rapidly encroaching on their turf, with teams like Fnatic followed by millions of supporters that are just as likely to spend their weekends watching Twitch as they are Sky Sports. Flamingo’s new quarterly cultural trends report, The Frame, explores the cultural dynamics driving this loyalty; in an era where authority within media is shifting, eSports has become the ‘bastion of community engagement’ to which 600 million fans are expected to flock to next year alone. Moreover, perhaps more worryingly for football clubs, these e-teams are becoming increasingly sophisticated commercially - competing directly with traditional teams in the merchandising market.

But the fact that 60% of fans would reportedly now rather play EA’s FIFA than watch a real-life football match shouldn’t scare conventional clubs, it should excite them. Football clubs are a traditionally unlucrative business model, often only monetising fans to the tune of less than £1 per year, and relying instead on well-off owners to fund their operations. Even the Premier League’s clubs – widely considered the most popular in the world – jointly post pre-tax losses most years.

The gaming industry suffers from no such problems. Globally, it has developed into a cash cow that will generate $140 billion this year. This is significantly more than the music and film industries combined, and eSports alone is now worth a rapidly rising $1 billion a year.

So while clearly a threat to some degree, the expansion of the digital world is more of an opportunity for football clubs, offering a range of new high-margin revenue streams to a business model that suffers from an epidemic of under-monetisation.

A club’s bottom line is blind to whether someone is a fan of its physical or eSports team; in fact, in the not too distant future, it may actually favour the latter. Football clubs actually have a huge head start in these emerging sectors, having built up loyalty over generations, and with an understanding of the beautiful game that they can leverage in the digital world. But they must act quickly as smaller, nimbler and digitally-native companies are nipping at their heels.

As the physical world continues to adapt to its digital rival, football will be an interesting proxy for society’s reconstruction. It will be fascinating to see how it plays out.

Archie Heaton, Flamingo