Where do Doncaster Rovers fit into the future of football?
Some things just don’t mix easily.
To understand why football and capitalism are an awkward mix it’s important to understand how a football club serves both its fans and its owners.
For the fan, a football club serves as a place to meet others, to be part of something bigger than ourselves and as a welcome distraction to the myriad of thoughts and anxieties we spend the rest of the week battling with. Togetherness. Socialism.
For the owner, a football club serves as a place to make a return on your investment, make objective decisions to help expand your audience and grow your brand. Objectivity. Capitalism.
The fact that football clubs manage to survive serving both fans and owners whilst walking this tightrope is remarkable.
The introduction of the ESL (or a re-heated, less embarrassingly disorganised future version) may well prove to be the moment where the tightrope breaks.
Clubs that serve themselves with little to no regard for fans.
I am going to define those clubs that were within the ESL (and those that felt unlucky not to be invited, we can all guess who) as the Elite.
The Elite have decided that football fans can be commodified just the same as supermarket shoppers.
We’ve been put into distinct categories, distinguishable only by how we consume.
The Legacy Fan is the old man in a flat cap talking about the miners’ strike and how easily footballers go down these days.
He consumes football for 90 minutes at a time through a match ticket, a pie and a programme.
Outside of football he consumes 5-day-test cricket, hard boiled sweets in case the grandkids visit and cod liver oil to keep the doctor away.
The Legacy Fan holds little value to the Elite for he is deemed to not want to consume it.
The Future Fan is the 18-year-old glued to their phone screen in search of the next distraction to keep hold of their goldfish attention span for the next 30 seconds.
They couldn’t possibly sit through 90 minutes of football but may well subscribe to a deal to view the last 15 minutes of a match to cut to the chase.
They don’t care if Real Madrid play Liverpool every week because frankly they can’t remember last week.
Outside of football they consume adverts subconsciously through apps, free range avocadoes on free range toast and the last chapter of any book left lying around.
The Future Fan is also anybody within the Asian market.
The Future Fan holds much value to the Elite for they are deemed to want to consume every last drop.
Irony aside, where does this potential future of football leave Doncaster Rovers and clubs of similar and smaller stature, where do we fit?
The truth is that we don’t. It’s not that the Elite don’t care about us, that kind of regard is reserved for Everton, Seville and Ajax. It’s that without the ability to enhance the brand of the Elite and to engage with the Future Fan, clubs like Doncaster Rovers serve no purpose.
If and when the Elite clubs do re-shape and come back with their next Elitist idea, they’re effectively throwing the house keys on the poker table. The rest of us still have our chips to play.
So rather than following in the footsteps of the Elite, can’t we learn from their mistakes?
If the Elite’s ultimate mistake does prove to be alienating their fans, how do the rest of us ensure that this is not our fate?
A key ingredient in the solution may well be to ensure that we don’t make such sweeping assumptions about the football fan.
Owners of those clubs disregarded by the Elite now have the foresight to see that the moment Real Madrid, Juventus and co started categorising us into consumer groups might be the very moment it all started to go wrong.
Consumer categorisation may work in retail but how often do Sainsbury’s shoppers come together to sing about their love for the new fishmonger? Football is communion, not consumerism.
So, can engagement between owners and fans to understand each other’s respective needs help ensure the gap between owners and fans does not widen further?
Communication is key here. I for one gained a great sense of solidarity from the letters sent out by the Rovers over the course of the pandemic explaining the financial difficulties.
Whether good or bad news, human beings generally appreciate honesty.
The community work the Rovers do and how this is publicised online also gives me great pride in feeling part of something that gives back.
Despite the strengths of the Rovers board, on a matchday I do feel forced to turn a blind eye to numerous irritations.
From the pre-match music drowning out the fans’ harmony to the middle-class priced food menu.
But how do clubs’ owners know my, yours and every other football fans’ opinion?
Forums, surveys, fanzines, anything that obtains the various individual opinions of each club’s fans should be regarded by owners as vital to understanding the collective voice of the football fan.
Don’t assume you know the collective voice of your community, ask them.
But if owners could do more, then what about fans?
The one jewel in the ESL shipwreck has been the evident and previously underrated power of the fans.
We were sure we’d lost it; we’d turned the house upside down. But then it turned up. Fans do have a voice.
But there’s an air of ‘you’re too late, mate’ about the Manchester United fans’ protests.
Before any of us begin to feel as alienated as they do, we now have a chance to decide what we want to say and how we want to say it.
So, what do we want our clubs to be? Do we want our clubs to engage with us more, to really make us feel part of it?
And what more should we each ask of ourselves as fans? How do we play our individual and collective parts in ensuring we retain a feeling of belonging with our clubs?
These are difficult questions to answer but if the alternate is to ignore the possibility of fan alienation and to assume the future will be fruitful, then maybe we have more in common with the Elite than we first thought.