By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Apr 26, 2017) US Soccer Players – You, the super-engaged, 24/7, all-in, totally consumed (and consuming) soccer fan might not know it, but what it means to be a fan is changing. It’s changing rapidly, and not in subtle ways.
The advent of on-demand sources of entertainment have flipped the traditional paradigms. That’s a fancy way of saying that younger generations aren’t watching television like their parents and grandparents. A fundamental change in how people think of their options is leading to a dramatic reduction in the live television audience.
While the sports industry likes to think that it’s largely DVR-proof, a move away from recorded programming and toward on-demand products will certainly impact the business of professional leagues. More than just hitting the bottom lines of those concerns via an effect on rights fees, a shift in how people watch will morph sports fandom into something unrecognizable to an older generation.
For soccer, there’s the added element of removed fandom to consider as well. There’s certainly an American fascination with the English Premier League, with it’s brutally athletic brand of the game laid on top of a quilt of rich traditional soccer history. Newer American fans of Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool, and Chelsea fans will tell you about their deep appreciation for their club’s glorious past, but the reasons they support those clubs are more about their modern successes than their ancient lore. Even smaller clubs that can point to significant American fan bases (Everton chief among them) benefit from a combination of factors that has almost nothing to do with geography.
EPL teams are thousands of miles away from an exploding market, and yet Americans remain commitment in ever-growing numbers to the sport and the league. Viewing habits are leading people away from live television. The latter does not necessarily change the outlook on the former. Rather than see the Premier League and its clubs become less popular, it probably means fans will follow in entirely different ways.
Already, the gif-ification of the sport has colored the way younger internet-connected fans consume soccer. The Premier League is notoriously aggressive in shutting down those who would share images of the league on social media, but that’s unlikely to stop a revolution in soccer viewing that is already well underway. Fewer and fewer fans are committing to watch a full 90 minutes of their team on a given weekend, and even those that intend to (as any good fan should, goes the thinking), are just as susceptible to relying on edited highlights and after-the-fact analysis.
Distance plus the technologically driven changes to consumption bring into focus question about the investment these fans are capable of. Not in their individual team – even the 18-year old who hasn’t ever sat through an entire Chelsea match is likely to declare his or her unending devotion to the club – but in issues a level up. Buying into a sports team in the United States and Canada typically means taking a keen interest in big picture items like cultural impact and league governance.
The stage on which the Premier League plays is very removed from the day-to-day lives of its North American fan base. Does that lead to fans on this side of the Atlantic tuning out when the games are over? While American sports pundits debate the words and actions of players off the field and court, and armchair observers consider the growth/direction/philosophy of their favorite sports, the domestic sports media apparatus is largely quiet on those issues as they pertain to the Premier League.
It’s possible for soccer fans to fully immerse themselves in all of the accoutrement of following soccer (also known as “football”) as if they themselves were living in England, minus the extraneous day-to-day interactions with English football fans. But the effort required is significant by modern terms, and runs counter to spirit of our bite-sized, on-demand culture. If you want to watch an English game, listen to English podcasts, and read English commentary, you can. To do so to the exclusion of anything else seems pointless and unnecessary to being a “fan.”
Not that any of this is bothersome to Premier League teams cashing in on America’s rising interest in their version of the sport. The popular clubs, plus any and every team with a bit of cache in the US market or who counts an American player among their ranks is reaping the rewards. Some might be ahead of the trends and have some sense of how the disconnect in location and wider concern will impact those revenue streams in the future, but most are probably oblivious. America’s contributions to the ledger are new enough that any real understanding of it is still resolving.
Whatever all of this means is the major unknown. We don’t know what will happen with sports on TV. There’s at least some potential a crash in rights fees. Those fees to migrate to digital platforms that may or may not pay at the same rates. There’s a chance that support for the Premier League in the United States will continue to grow, but that that growth will not show well in a legacy metric like TV ratings.
Despite what some might suggest, fandom is an ever-evolving concept that looks nothing now like it did just a few decades ago. Maybe this move to viewing smaller and smaller pieces of the game, and following clubs on the other side of the world with a detached-yet-passionate attitude is just the latest version. As is always the case, it’s not what fandom is that ultimately matters, but how the sport responds.
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