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The future of Scottish football as a commodity

St Johnstone fans

Author – Catriona Blair

 

Ticket prices rising faster than inflation, an increased number of live televised matches and widespread sponsorship of anything from football stadiums to football boots have led to the transformation of football as a sport played and watched purely for social enjoyment, into a multi-billion pound global entertainment business. This transformation process, known as commodification, has enabled football clubs in some of the world’s top football leagues to transform themselves into global brands, with fans in every continent and starting line-ups worth millions of pounds. However, variations in the wealth and popularity of football leagues across the world mean that this explosive growth in the financial value of football in countries such as England, Germany and Spain has not happened ubiquitously.

Clubs in smaller countries (such as Scotland) may often fail to profit from the same benefits of commodification as larger, internationally known clubs. Between May 2013 and May 2015, the Scottish Professional Football League (SPFL) failed to attract considerable commercial interest in the form of a title sponsor, and broadcasting deals continue to barely scratch the surface compared to the deals which clubs in England receive from the same companies. Televised matches in Scotland have been found to bring positive publicity, but also reduce attendance figures at Scottish Premiership matches (Allan & Roy, 2008), with fixture scheduling a particular concern for most clubs involved in this study. While Scottish clubs are affected by a number of issues relating to the transition of football into a commodity, it is argued that the SPFL clubs involved in this study exhibit behaviours associated with commodification, but with entirely different intentions to the typical profit seeking motives of larger footballing economies. This creates implications for the future of Scottish football, as it must adapt to its own environment rather than attempt to imitate the behaviours of more commodified leagues elsewhere.

What is Commodification? 

Walsh & Giulianotti (2001, p. 55) define commodification as “an on-going process… of translating the social meaning of a practice or object into purely financial terms”. This essentially defines the movement of football from its historical purpose as a recreational activity, into a highly commercialised product reliant on substantial quantities of money to prosper. Commodification has not happened overnight, and may begin with charging spectators for the privilege of watching a match, and progress differently within each country or club (Walsh & Giulianotti, 2001).

Commodification endangers the relationship between a club and its community, as clubs start “prioritizing . . .  profitability within the sports enterprise over its historical, cultural, social or aesthetic dimensions”  (Walsh & Giulianotti, 2001, p. 55).  The isolation of traditional supporters at the expense of wealthier individuals compelled some Manchester United supporters to create their own community-owned football club to protest against the commodification of their club:

“changing kick off times for the benefit of television, soulless all-seater stadia full of ‘new’ supporters intent to sit back and watch rather than partake in the occasion, heavy handed stewarding and ridiculously priced tickets propping it all up.” (FC United of Manchester, 2015)

The Study

Club officials from 11 SPFL clubs – St Johnstone, Heart of Midlothian, Hibernian, Raith Rovers, Falkirk, Dunfermline Athletic, Stenhousemuir, Stirling Albion, Arbroath, Montrose and East Stirlingshire – were interviewed individually during December 2014 and January 2015 for approximately one hour. Face-to-face semi-structured interviews were used to identify issues Scottish clubs face in regard to commodification – televised matches, rising ticket prices and the extent to which supporters should be classified as customers – as well as other questions relating to how clubs are dealing with the effects of commodification; including strategies to increase attendance and alternative sources of income. The purpose of the study was to identify how Scottish clubs are affected by and respond to commodification, and the subsequent implications for how this may shape the future of Scottish football as a commodity.

Scottish Football as a Commodity 

Three key aspects of commodification were covered in the study: the effect of live televised matches on clubs, the rising price of match day tickets, and the extent to which clubs consider their supporters to be customers.

Television

Scottish football has been consistently overlooked by both domestic and foreign broadcasting companies:

“In general, Scottish soccer clubs lack a global outreach comparable with that of other leading professional sports clubs, and the negotiated broadcasting deals are substantially smaller than those observed elsewhere.” (Allan & Roy, 2008, p. 594)

With domestic television income in both the English Premiership and Championship vastly exceeding the comparatively insignificant sums of money offered to the SPFL by the same companies (Russell, 2014), it is little wonder that Scottish football cannot compete with its English neighbours. Additionally, Allan and Roy (2008) found that televised Scottish Premiership matches adversely affect attendances. This is a serious issue for Scottish football clubs which typically depend more on the “recurrent expenditures of core supporters” (p.593) than television revenue.

During the interviews officials acknowledged that televised matches generate excitement for supporters and players, particularly for clubs which rarely feature on television. However, officials were also in agreement that televised matches lead to a decline in attendance (with the exception of novelty matches). Officials also felt that at present, rescheduled matches for the purpose of live television lack consideration for Scottish football supporters, and can cause a significant reduction in both gate and hospitality revenue for the home club.

“I think there’s a general consensus that TV exposure . . . is beneficial, in that it’s raising the profile of the Championship [and Scottish football], but it’s the fixture scheduling that’s the issue” (Raith Rovers)

While the SPFL benefits overall from additional publicity and television income, individual clubs can lose out as a consequence of television income being distributed based on league position at the end of the season, and not on a per televised match basis. Therefore, clubs can lose a significant amount of revenue when their match is rescheduled for television, and television money may be used to recoup lost hospitality and gate revenue, rather than to reward clubs. An official at Montrose suggested that “TV money should in fact compensate for some of the fall in attendance,” which may indeed be one way to solve part of the problem. However, officials also expressed concern that should television schedules continue to be prioritised over the preferences of supporters, that some may not renew season tickets through fear of further inconveniently rescheduled matches.

Overall, a combination of increased scheduling sensitivity and compensation for each televised match to minimise short-term losses in revenue is likely to reduce the negative side effects of televised matches for both clubs and supporters.

Price

Ticket pricing has been a highly controversial feature of football in Scotland over the past few years. In a recent survey by Scottish Fans, 83% of Scottish football fans answered ‘Yes’ to the question “Is the average ticket price at your team too expensive?” (Scottish Fans, 2014). Evidently, supporters do not feel that they receive value for money in supporting their club, and it will be incredibly difficult to encourage those outside of the core fan base to attend games if there is no perceived value for money.

A number of officials in the study were concerned that supporters consider attending matches to be low value for money, whilst some lower league clubs felt that their prices were reasonable. Officials recognised that supporters are dissatisfied at the cost of watching consistently poor performances in adverse weather conditions whilst alternative entertainment options are available for comparable or lower prices:

“Football is priced out of the bracket of the traditional fan base” (Dunfermline).

However, although the cost of watching Scottish League 2 teams can be equivalent to the price of a standing ticket for German Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich, the results from the study demonstrated that most Scottish clubs’ ticket prices are as low as possible. In fact, many clubs have protected supporters by absorbing rising costs rather than raising ticket prices.  Officials  explained that whilst clubs would prefer to charge less for entry, fixed staging costs and high wage bills force ticket prices up: “the only way that’ll come down [ticket price] is if wages start to come down” (Anonymous).

Interestingly, several officials voiced concerns about lowering gate prices purely to stimulate demand, revealing that attendance does not increase sufficiently to financially compensate for a reduction in ticket price, leaving clubs with their hands tied: “It’s our observation based on experience that discounting tickets will not bring more people into the ground” (Dunfermline). It was suggested, however, that ticket prices could be lowered if average attendances or income from alternative sources were to increase.

Generally speaking, the motives for rising ticket prices in the study were far from profit-oriented and many clubs highlighted their efforts to maintain or even reduce ticket prices for their supporters. This clearly demonstrates the commitment officials have to offering as much value for money as they can sustainably provide without jeopardising their club’s ability to pay bills.

Are Scottish football supporters customers?

“One of the most controversial issues relating to the commodification of football concerns the proposed entry of market rhetoric by way of reclassifying the supporter as a consumer or customer.” (Giulianotti, 2005, p. 393)

Giulianotti (2005) challenges the description of supporters as customers by recognising the strong emotional tie which exists between a supporter and their football club, making market mobility impossible. He also argues that supporters have a “traditional duty to support the team irrespective of its fortunes” (Giulianotti, 2005, p. 389). Therefore unlike a conventional business with customers, supporters are often loyal (although not satisfied) regardless of negative conditions such as financial instability, long runs of poor results and high ticket prices. If a regular business were to provide poor value for money, poor quality products and run into financial difficulty, customers would tend to switch to a competitor offering better value for money. Hence, it is suggested that traditional football supporters who turn up regardless of their club’s circumstances should not be labelled as customers.

All of the club officials in this study drew caution upon labelling supporters as customers. However, most officials admitted that to improve solvency, value for money and success, supporters must be viewed as customers to a certain extent. Thus to regard supporters as customers through “the way you communicate to them, the way you sell to them, the way you engage with them, how you treat them. . . as a supporter, in the way you want them to feel” (Anonymous).

Clubs which suggested that supporters are customers did so with the belief that as customers they will be treated properly and will want to come back: “Until you start thinking of fans as customers, you’re never ever going to run a proper business. You’re never going to run football properly” (Dunfermline).

This was not a unanimous sentiment, however, as some club officials maintained that supporters only pay money to ensure the survival of their football club. Another official described the loyalty of their supporters as inhibiting their ability to be classified as customers: “we could get beaten 10 times in a row and they keep coming” (Stirling Albion). This view is consistent with the argument put forward by Giulianotti, rejecting supporters as customers.

Overall it was clear that clubs which recognise their supporters as customers do so to satisfy their diverse needs and guarantee sustained loyalty, recognising that supporters are the nucleus of Scottish football and should not be taken for granted. This implies that the clubs interviewed recognise that supporters are primarily supporters and secondly customers, as their emotional tie is predominately what commits them to the football club and encourages financial and physical support.

The Future

As has been identified above, SPFL clubs at all levels are often affected by the negative implications of commodification without the financial benefits experienced in wealthier leagues. In some cases clubs are even losing out on revenue as an effect of an increased number of televised matches, or maintaining low ticket prices at the expense of additional revenue which could be used for numerous investments such as better players or stadium upgrades. Scottish clubs therefore must begin (or in some cases continue) to explore opportunities to benefit from additional income and increase engagement with supporters. This could be approached in a number of different ways: through the market segmentation of supporters; an increase in unconventional sources of income; to initiate new strategies to increase match day attendance; or to increase supporter representation.

Segmentation of Supporters

Although the segmentation of football supporters can be challenging and costly (Tapp & Clowes, 2000), targeting initiatives at those most likely to be interested – whether it be ladies’ days or hospitality days targeted at younger fans – increases the effectiveness of marketing strategies. Blanket covering supporters with a ‘one size fits all’ approach is no longer enough, and larger clubs have started to respond before they fall behind.

Attempts to segment supporters based on demographic, geographic and behavioural variables were virtually non-existent at most clubs in the study. For example, an official at Raith Rovers stated, “we’ve not been good at that in the past but we’re trying to get better”. A small number of other larger clubs in the study have also started to segment supporters into different profiles:

I think that’s obviously the plan, to try and target specific audiences because I think that has to be part of the way forward. Not just to encourage the people to come but if they’re not coming find out why not” (Anonymous).

Of course, smaller clubs are restricted by the size of their fan base and some explained within the interviews that they do not feel the need for a supporter database. These lower league clubs may need to focus on alternative options such as strategies to increase attendance, as the number of supporters within different segments may be negligible.

Segmentation is a key area which larger clubs need to improve upon so that supporters can be effectively engaged with.

Strategies to increase attendance

Despite the total SPFL annual attendance remaining relatively constant over the past 5 seasons (see below), it is crucial that clubs attempt to increase attendances to mitigate the effects of rising costs and improve the atmosphere in stadiums which in 2013/14 were, on average, between 8% (League 2) and 60% (Premiership) full. Surprisingly, many officials admitted that strategies to raise attendance had not been a priority, whilst others expressed their frustrations at the difficulty in increasing attendances: “over the years we have probably tried just about everything” (Arbroath).

However, a handful of innovative initiatives have been particularly successful, such as Falkirk’s ‘No Nil-Nils’ scheme which simultaneously rewards season ticket holders and attracts new supporters: “any game that is nil-nil, every season ticket holder gets to bring a friend free of charge to the next game.”

Year 2009/10 2010/11 2011/12 2012/13 2013/14
Total Annual Attendance 3,855,607 3,825,527 3,794,387 3,762,229 3,784,460
(based on attendance data extracted from SPFL.co.uk)

 

Through the study, two practical approaches for clubs to increase attendance were identified.

Firstly, a number of SPFL clubs have begun to encourage more children through the turnstiles by offering free or heavily reduced season tickets. As such, many clubs have experienced an increase in the number of kids at games. For example, Stenhousemuir distribute free season tickets to children and incentivise the kids to attend matches by offering rewards for attending a set number of games.

As staging costs are fixed and most clubs have a large number of empty seats on match days, children can contribute to revenue by spending money in kiosks, and many will be accompanied by a paying adult. Even Hearts, with extremely high utilisation rates, hope to encourage more children to attend matches despite the potential for reduced revenue if seats mostly occupied by adults are taken by children: “the reason we’re doing it is that we want these kids to come along and support them and when they do start earning they still want to come along.”

The second approach for increasing attendance relates to away supporters. “The away team and what kind of travelling support they bring” (Stirling Albion) significantly affects attendance, particularly for lower league clubs. Incentivising away supporters to attend was described by officials as increasingly difficult. Therefore, football clubs must work together to create reciprocal agreements for season ticket holders. Offering reduced entry for opposition fans with season tickets may both increase the number of away fans at matches and increase the number of season ticket holders for the home club. Stenhousemuir and Raith Rovers have both recently expressed their intent to offer such schemes, with the hope that other clubs within the leagues will follow suit.

Increase in alternative income streams

Wilson (2014) recommended that clubs should attempt “to be more responsive and resourceful” to accommodate for the changing football environment. Scottish clubs are increasingly compelled to seek alternative income streams to compensate for nominal revenue from conventional sources. Clubs in the study were attempting to pursue a wide variety of initiatives to generate income from unconventional sources such as supporter-run bars and renting out plastic pitches to the local community. Clubs with modern, purpose-built stadiums located in the centre of towns or cities were in particular able to benefit from the use of function suites for non-football events such as parties or conferences.

However, several officials stated that alternative income generation is an area which has to be improved upon, whilst others explained the difficulty in coming up with something new and exciting:

you have got to try and think out of the box… because the things that are going round in football are repetitive and people just get fed up listening” (Stenhousemuir)

Lower league officials in particular struggle to encourage supporters into parting with extra money, as revenue is often restricted by a smaller fan base, a lack of human resources to investigate new revenue streams, and the effects of the recession were still impacting some commercial revenues as previous sponsors had shut down or reduced their expenditure. These smaller clubs expressed a difficulty in exploring new sources of income because, “when you start doing these things… in a small town, you’re competing against [local businesses]” (Montrose).

Based on the study it appears that a number of small clubs, despite great efforts, are restricted by their geographic and socioeconomic environment and thus may struggle to gain substantial revenue from alternative revenue streams.

Increased supporter representation

It is crucial to recognise the value of supporters to football clubs and allow them to have an input in decisions which affect their club (Hamil, et al., 2000). In general, officials within the study supported increasing the involvement of supporters to a higher level within football clubs; for example through the introduction of a fan on each Board as a Non-Executive Director. There was consensus amongst interviewees that fan involvement is essential for the future success and sustainability of Scottish football: “you have to have them involved or I dunno [sic] how you’d survive without doing that.”

Interestingly, the Boards of Directors and shareholders at most clubs did consist almost entirely of supporters. Furthermore, many clubs had a means of protecting themselves from an individual or company purchasing and controlling the club in a manner that may compromise the values of the supporters and club. This demonstrates a secure and sustainable form of ownership which favours long-term sustainability and focuses on the interests of supporters over the unsustainable pursuit of profit.

One of the key obstacles limiting Scottish football’s appeal may be sharing a border with England. English clubs have disproportionately larger revenue streams, making it impossible for Scottish clubs to compete financially, and therefore competitively. English clubs have the purchasing power (partially thanks to their significantly larger population) to lure talented youngsters to a nation which shares the same language, culture and currency, and this was a key concern for larger clubs in the study. However, as the results which emerged from this study suggest that Scottish and English football are on completely different playing fields in regard to the commodification of football, comparing the two nations should be done with caution. For Scottish clubs to achieve a similar product to the top leagues in England would require clubs to take excessive financial risks and receive significant financial investment from wealthy individuals or companies, with no certainty that this would pay off. The vast difference in population size also undoubtedly hinders Scottish football’s ability to compete and therefore Scottish clubs and supporters must accept the reality of Scottish football as a business focused on its supporters rather than profit.

Conclusion

Scottish football has experienced commodification in a different way to clubs in more financially prosperous leagues across Europe. While exhibiting behaviours associated with commodification, the intentions of such behaviours have not been focused on profit. Firstly, while ticket prices have been rising, it was identified from the study that this is to meet rising costs and ensure solvency, not to generate profit. In fact, a number of clubs have tried to maintain ticket prices by internalising rising costs and many officials would be willing to reduce ticket prices should income from other sources increase. Secondly, officials which regard supporters as customers do so to secure their long-term commitment by treating them well, rather than exploiting them for profit. Thirdly, televised SPFL home matches often reduce gate and hospitality revenue and hence, clubs make a short-term financial loss. Thus, a greater need for scheduling sensitivity and compensation for lost income should be considered by the SPFL to improve the effects of televised matches on supporters and clubs.

Although some clubs attempt to mitigate these effects of commodification through small scale revenue generation from unconventional sources or through strategies to increase attendance, clubs must strive to do more.  Scottish football depends on its domestic supporters and must, where possible, seek to recognise their diverse needs through segmentation, as well as increasing their involvement in the running of clubs and encouraging more children and away supporters to attend matches.

While many supporters may prefer their clubs to be better off financially, the consequences of rich owners demonstrating unsustainable financial behaviour should not be preferred over sustainable football which focuses on incremental financial improvements and providing better value for money for supporters. Many Scottish football clubs survive and prosper largely thanks to the revenue they generate within their local communities rather than depending on extravagant handouts from large broadcasting companies and businesspeople. As has been seen too many times in football over the years, reliance on a small number of large benefactors can prove fatal should they relinquish their support. While the near future of Scottish football may not lie in attracting worldwide supporters, investors and sponsors, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Supporters have been, and perhaps always will be, the most important component of Scottish football. Hence, through realistic initiatives aimed at greater supporter representation, increased engagement with supporters through segmentation and raising attendance through innovative initiatives such as reciprocal season ticket schemes and encouraging children to attend matches, Scottish clubs can offer a product which focuses on the importance of maximising supporter value.

 

Catriona is graduating from the University of Edinburgh this summer with a MA Hons in International Business. Her dissertation focused on how Scottish football is impacted by and responds to the pressures of an increasingly commodified game.