Is football losing the younger generation to the masses?

A model for football? For Super Bowl LVI, the world’s largest LED video wall is expected to provide spectators with a modern stadium experience. (Picture: dpa)
(Photo: Maximilien Haupt/dpa)

Hanover – If Manchester City officials have their way, you’ll soon be able to experience an English champions home game in your own living room. As if you were there live.

As the world’s first football club, City wants to replicate its stadium in a virtual world, the Metaverse. The supporters would then only have to put on special glasses to feel in the right stadium. And the club can sell unlimited tickets in its virtual arena. Basically, that’s the plan.

Don’t miss the technical developments

Digitization is also changing a lot in football: the technical possibilities, the media use of young supporters. Futurist Marcel Aberle of the Zukunftsinstitut in Frankfurt am Main and Vienna does not believe “that a virtual stadium experience can ever replace a real stadium experience”. However, he warns German professional football in particular not to sleep too much on these technical developments. Because a generation growing up with smartphones and social media no longer wants to passively watch a sporting event for just 90 minutes.

“Football clubs compete with all other experience industries, not just other football clubs. And I often feel like a lot of people don’t understand that yet,” said Aberle of the German press agency.

In March, he attended a Brooklyn Nets basketball game in the United States. It was “amazing what you’re doing there in terms of interaction and loyalty to viewers,” said the IT expert. “Each fan could project their own video from their mobile phone onto the big screen in the hall.” In football, on the other hand, he sees ‘a lot of leeway and no creativity’ in this regard.

The DFL recognized the problem

The German Football League, the umbrella organization for the 36 professional clubs, has acknowledged the problem. “We have incredible opportunities ahead of us,” CEO Donata Hopfen said at the “Sports Innovation 2022” technology fair in Düsseldorf. During an “Innovation match” between 1. FC Köln and AC Milan in July, the pros are supposed to wear a camera on their body so that spectators can follow the game from their point of view. Because Hopfen’s claim is: “We want to be the most digital football league in the world!”

The only question is who else represents this claim in German football. Because modernization in general and digitalization in particular is a subject that some fan curves and some clubs openly oppose. As if the question were: modernity or tradition? And not sure: how do the two fit together? “Football takes place offline” was the message on a stadium banner during the Eintracht Frankfurt v SC Freiburg game in April.

VfL Wolfsburg have come a long way

When it comes to the future of the sport, there is hardly a Bundesliga club as advanced as VfL Wolfsburg. The VfL no longer sees itself as a traditional club to which you commit yourself by applying for membership and paying a fee. But more like a “360 degree platform” that works in a network with as many other institutions as possible.

“There are 350 clubs within an hour’s drive of Wolfsburg, 200 of which have a partnership with us,” explained general manager Michael Meeske. “These clubs receive from us ticket quotas, discounts on purchase prices from our suppliers, training for coaches, management training for division managers, webinars, small tournaments with visits from later stages.”

Meeske also knows that the fact that there is more money and shorter distances at the VW site in Wolfsburg makes things easier for VfL on this subject. But the former FC St. Pauli general manager is fundamentally concerned about how to keep kids involved in the sport in the future. “Football that only wants to be an offering for purists will become a niche subject in the long run and – I think – will be less and less compatible with the masses,” he said. “There will always be a target audience for that. But it’s getting smaller and smaller.”

A cautionary tale about American baseball

There is an example of this in the United States, which cannot be compared 1:1 with football, but which nevertheless has an alarming effect on Meeske. Baseball was the national sport of the 20th century in America – until, unlike American football and its successful NFL professional league, it failed to open up to a young target group.

Baseball games sometimes last three hours. Young people often find them boring. Thus, the decisive game of the last baseball season in the United States was watched by only 11.75 million viewers, while 99 million watched the Super Bowl. The most famous baseball pro Mike Trout is followed by 1.9 million people on Instagram. Soccer star Odell Beckham Jr. has 16 million.

A club crest should be instantly recognizable

But back to football. There, Munich graphic designer Mirko Borsche was commissioned to design a new logo for Italian club Inter Milan. His multi-award winning studio has previously worked for the Venice Biennale and clothing brand Supreme in New York. But never for a football client.

“Inter president Steven Zhang was only 27 at the time and thinks a lot more numerically,” Borsche told the German Press Agency. “The new coat of arms aimed to create rapid recognition. When looking at sports site charts or bookmakers’ offers on a mobile device, a club crest should be instantly recognizable. As more and more people watch games on their phones, the logo should also be visible on players’ chests. »

Borsche’s team therefore changed the shade of blue and removed two of the four letters from the crest. The response from many fans was very critical (“I now know almost all the Italian swear words”). But after this ‘rebranding’, it wasn’t even a year before Inter signed a contract with a high-end Italian fashion label, because the brand’s new identity is now so modern.

About the coats of arms of German clubs, he says: “HSV, 2nd Bundesliga! Otherwise, almost no one can meet modern requirements for visual appearance. So the graphic designer Borsche, the futurist Aberle and the football coach Meeske look at German professional football from three different angles, but all come to the same conclusion. “Football clubs are often very poorly positioned strategically,” Aberle said.

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Mathew Baynton

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