About three weeks ago Stan Collymore engaged in a ‘twigument’ (an argument through the medium of twitter for those not up on their lingo) with a football journalist and broadcaster called Paul Sarahs. While the initial reason for the argument is as irrelevant as any of Stan’s many, many disagreements. The situation peaked with Collymore essentially calling into question the relevance of reporting on football leagues and players not associated with what he considers to be inferior to the Premier League.
For what it’s worth, Paul Sarahs’ twitter feed is one of my favourites. He shines a spotlight on football that I would otherwise be oblivious to such as Turkey, Eastern Europe and South America. His enthusiasm for his subject matter is infectious and he obviously loves what he does. He is not alone in the Twitter sphere; there are many other people who graft hard on footballing subject matter as niched as the English non-league tier and non-FIFA recognized nations. Outside of twitter there are wonderful websites such as In Bed With Maradona, Tales from the Pigeon Stands and a certain Back Page Football that supply readers with a feast of information away from the ‘mainstream’.
So what does this rise in footballing ‘hipsterdom’ tell us about what people want? As always it’s supply and demand. And it’s clear that the mainstream media just isn’t supplying the goods. If we take television as the most prominent provider of footballing coverage it’s clear to see that they have totally misunderstood what a football fan wants. Perhaps part of this can be attributed to the enemy of creative, forward thinking television – viewing figures.
Both terrestrial channels - BBC and ITV - have to maximize their viewing figures to justify spending their cash on the rights to show Premier League highlights and Champions League games respectively. So as a result, their target audience is not the football fanatic but the casual viewer, the one who sees football as ‘light entertainment’. What this means is less stats and hard analysis and more light jovial words. Less Parkinson and more Jonathan Ross if you will.
It must be working because one of the sure signs of success is resting on your laurels. And the old boys club that permeates the presenters and pundits is clear to see (and before anyone comments, I’m including RTE in this club as well). There is seemingly little or no incentive to break from the norm and use the platform to say something incisive or that goes against current media consensus. Take for example ITV’s Champions League coverage, it sometimes borders on embarrassing how little the pundits are willing to know about a player not based in Britain past the old tired clichés that essentially border on jingoism.
The hunt for viewers extends to the matches we see on the box as well. Only recently ITV chose to show the FA Cup tie between Manchester United and Fulham. It was obvious to most that follow football that Fulham weren’t going to offer up much of a fight. But instead of broadcasting a tie between two ‘lesser’ teams that may have produced a better game ITV went after the casual viewer.
Sky is a slightly different beast in that by proxy of a subscription service it knows that its viewers are – for want of a better word – ‘proper’ football fans. Gary Neville’s rise to the top of the punditry tree has been an absolute breath of fresh air but he is the one stand out in an ocean of mediocrity. That’s why his Monday night show has become essential viewing, and it’s as if Sky know this. The Gary Neville segment is almost a designated hour for football fans to make up for Jeff Stellings drunk uncle at a wedding routine and Jamie Redknapp “literally” talking bollocks.
All these shortcomings in the product that the mainstream media provides have driven those who want a comprehensive footballing experience away and into the arms of those who operate with true passion for the game rather than the ‘entertainment industry’ that operates around it.
That’s why, as a direct result, people have gone out of their way to create their ‘own’ media. Of course this wouldn’t have happened without the advent of the internet. It has made available stats, players and dodgy streams from all four corners of the footballing world. And the trend is set to continue as the internet becomes more and more a part of our entertainment spheres. Between podcasts, websites and blogs mainstream television and print media will continue to erode its own relevance.
And if, by any miniscule chance, a member of the ‘mainstream’ media is reading this they may be very well inclined to care very little. They may very well think that this is all irrelevant if the figures (and cash) are looking good. The problem with this is that it’s a shortsighted vision. The casual fans they aim their product at are just that – casual. They will drift in and out, perhaps grow out of their football-watching phase. Football’s entertainment empire may be at its zenith, but even Rome was abandoned in the end. And it may well be too late at that point to coerce the football hipsters back.
So if I was in the person in a position to make changes to the coverage a mainstream outlet provides at this moment I’d be looking at the places the hipsters hang out – that’s where the passion exists in football media.
Now if you don’t mind I’m off to stream an Armenian third division relegation battle. Cheers.