Monday, 11 November 2013

Cognitive dissonance and the football fan

2 November 2013 - Bristol City 1 Oldham Athletic 1

Are you a football hipster?

The odds have to be pretty good here.  You’re voluntarily using your spare time to read a tiny blog about the experience of being a fan of a third-tier Football League side.  It’s quite niche.  It’s cultish.  It’s a long way from arguing about whether Van Persie ought to celebrate.  Just being here means you must be a bit of a hipster.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, or you’re not sure whether you are or not, you can (sort of) scientifically find out here, by using this excellent Guardian quiz.  (I am, by the way, A Bit of a Hipster, but I think I’d have done better if it weren’t for the fact that I already own that Dortmund shirt).   It’s a fun quiz – witty, clever and interesting, I liked it a lot. 

But one of the things I found most interesting about it was question three, the one about what you watch on TV.  The first two possible answers are “Manchester United v Milan on ITV1” and “Athletic Bilbao v Shakhtar Donetsk on Sky Sports Red Button”.  It’s clear what the implication is – yer true connoisseur of off-the-beaten-track football is far keener to watch the encounter between the men from San Mamés and the team of Dario Srna, Eduardo and Bernard than the game between boring old United and the dwindling power that is AC Milan.

What I found most noteworthy, though, is the identity of the TV Channels in particular.  The ITV of butt of a thousand jokes Adrian “Toby jug of warm piss” Chiles, the deranged Keane and the appalling Townsend.  And the Sky Sports of the great Gary Neville, the affable Stelling and the “legend” that is Chris Kamara.

Or the free-to-air ITV and millionaire behemoth Rupert Murdoch’s Sky Sports, depending on how you look at it.

You see, I think there’s a bit of cognitive dissonance happening here.  Because one often finds that the people most knowledgeable about obscure football, most in love with the game beyond the endless United/Chelsea/Barcelona/Real Madrid axis, are the ones who are most vocally Against Modern Football.  While accepting that all-seater stadia have done a lot to make the game more accessible, they bemoan the demise of the relatively egalitarian football world of the past, where the game belonged to the local community, Anderlecht could reach the European Cup final, and the world’s greatest players were unknown geniuses appearing out of the mist once every four years for a World Cup.  They are often, in short, Against Modern Football.

As far as I can see, to be Against Modern Football means to be against the extreme haves-and-have-nots-based market economy that football has become.  Nobody denies that some clubs have always been wealthier and more successful than others.  It didn’t take the establishment of the Champions League to ensure that Arsenal’s roll of honour dwarfs Shrewsbury’s.  But it’s undeniable that the last 20 years or so have seen the vastly expanded sums of money in football roll disproportionately towards the “establishment” (or at least the version of it which happened to exist in the early ‘90s and was then set in aspic) and away from the smaller clubs.  The TV deals, the sponsorships – you know the stuff.  But it starts with the TV deals.  It starts, effectively, with Sky Sports.

Sky Sports created modern football. Indeed, they didn’t just create it – they sustain it.  And with every subscription taken out they become more powerful.  Yet there’s rarely any sense that they themselves are a bad thing. Cause and effect aren’t always linked, sure, but it’s odd for cause to be celebrated whilst effect is bemoaned.  Listen to the Guardian’s podcast – you’ll hear forty minutes of complaints about the state of things followed by an enthusiastic list of games available that weekend on Sky or BT.

Ah, BT – the channel that hired Baker and Kelly, Richardson and Honigstein, dressed itself brilliantly in the clothes of the savvy, intelligent fan and then, just as it was established, threw more money than ever at the big clubs of UEFA, whilst taking away from the fan who can’t afford to pay for more TV at home, or whose parents can ‘t be persuaded, the guaranteed Tuesday night Champions League treat.  You have to admire their business acumen, even if you can’t admire the result.  The attempt to stop Sky having a monopoly has just increased the cost to the fan who does want to watch everything, and therefore the cash tipping into the pockets of the biggest clubs.  Who saw that coming, eh?

You win this round, capitalism.

This stuff matters not just because intellectual dishonesty is a bad thing.  I’m not really mad at the football hipsters.  Shock reveal: I am one.  And I watch the Champions League like everyone else.  I’ll go to the pub if Dortmund v Real isn’t on free-to-air, but I’ll watch it.

It matters because I support Bristol City.  And there’s a good chance you support Bristol City.  If you don’t, I’d like to think you support one of the 85 or so English league sides who missed out on the golden tickets, although statistically you probably don’t, you probably do support one of the lucky few.

There are enough closed shops in British life.  Very little social mobility.  The rich get richer, the poor get shat on.  You die in the class you were born.  When John sodding Major makes the point that this is a problem, you know it’s a hell of a problem.

It’s depressing seeing football, still ultimately two villages kicking a pig’s bladder at one another, come to this. And while it’s perhaps inevitable (why should football be unlike basically any other aspect of modern times) that doesn’t mean just taking it.

Ultimately, while I’d love to sit at home and watch that Bilbao – Shakhtar game (it does sound very good) I’m not going to consciously prop up the edifice that sustains those at the top by feeding on those at the bottom.  That’s no exaggeration – read about the way clubs get remunerated for losing their best kids nowadays.

And while I’m not naïve enough to think that anything I do or say, ever, can particularly change the status quo, I do wonder whether we have enough football hipsters, and enough Bristol City fans, to at least knock a few bits of masonry off kilter.  Otherwise, ultimately, we accept that we’re sacrificing the spirit of the game purely because we want to watch more of it, in comfort and convenience.

Hipsters.  Bristol City fans.  Shall we start with not subscribing to BT Sport and to Sky?

And then shall we work from there?

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