Something was missing last weekend. No one talked about football.
Saturday and Sunday were cup days. And without the Premier League, they felt quite flat as a result.
It’s incredible, just how tight is the Premier League’s grip on the national psyche. From a standing start in 1992, it’s grown to become Britain’s most successful brand. You don’t believe me, you’re not that interested in football and you’re attributing my claim to the hyperbole that surrounds the elite of the beautiful game?
A Populus poll found that far and away the most recognised British brand in the world was the Premier League. They tested 20,000 people in 20 countries with 10 of our best-known names – and the Premier League dominated, miles ahead of the likes of BBC, Rolls-Royce, Jaguar Land Rover, and yes, even the royal family.
Hard to imagine, given the stacks of souvenirs for the House of Windsor on sale to tourists in the gift shops, the crowds that flock daily to stand and stare at Buckingham Palace, and the coverage heaped upon Prince Harry’s wedding to Meghan Markle, but, overall, more folk worldwide are interested in the outcome of Man City v Liverpool.
Remarkably, as well, reports GlobalWebIndex, the consumer profiling firm, a bigger proportion of the population watches Premier League matches on TV in Thailand, Egypt and Indonesia than in the UK. According to Simon Chadwick, professor of sports enterprise at Salford University Business School, interviewed by Mat Snow for managmenttoday.co.uk, the clever bit was in making the Premier League competitive.
All the Premier League members have a share (the bottom three are replaced each year by the three coming up) and nobody has more muscle than others. This means that relative to rival leagues overseas, the difference in financial reward between top and bottom is actually fairly small (£150m to the champions Manchester City last season, £95m to bottom-placed West Brom). Because the playing field at least in this regard is reasonably level there is a chance, always, of an upset – that lesser clubs can afford to buy good players and give a decent account of themselves. They can, witness Leicester City, with a fair wind over an entire season, go on and win the thing.
Of course, such largesse does not extend to the depth of the owner’s pocket or the strength of support and size of the stadium. So Manchester United, Liverpool, Manchester City, Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham enjoy the advantages of additional wealth and spending power. But at least where a share of the TV rights is concerned, the spoils are distributed more evenly.
It’s this competitiveness that makes the Premier League so appealing. Says Chadwick: “On holiday in Sicily in 2012, a group of Swedish guys were watching Barcelona on TV. I was saying how wonderful they were to watch – Messi, Iniesta and so on – but they said, ‘No, this is terrible: it’s just pass, pass, pass. We like the Premier League – it’s fast and intense, a battle between big aggressive guys and quick, skilful little guys.’ It’s basic and primitive. Premier League football is about competing – to survive, to protect our identity, to ward off hostile forces.”
What the Premier League has mastered also is the art of consumer involvement. Ironically, it’s the aspects that English football used to be so criticised for, says Chadwick, that have become its advantage. “I cannot advocate a sanitised, quiet, perfectly civilised afternoon, a tea party where we kick a ball around. A lot of the Premier League’s strengths, the speed of the game, the tribalism, the passion, are all caught up. If people were not irrationally involved it would not be the great league that it is.”
The Premier League has successfully tapped in to consumers’ desire to be part of the creation of a product – “co-creation” or “prosumption” to use the vogue words. Other corporates need to take a look at the Premier League’s success. It’s easy to mock the hype surrounding the league: the vast payments from TV and sponsors, the cost of tickets, the stars’ enormous earnings. But these, along with the breathless excitement of radio phone-ins, Match of the Day, and Sky, complete with its pioneering computer-generated graphics and Gary Neville’s technical analysis, all add up to a compelling package.
Involving consumers, giving them a say, listening to them, explaining the product, taking it apart, inspiring loyalty, talking about it – these are all key ingredients in the enticing Premier League mix.
The days when customers were encouraged to stay apart, to remain detached, and to take a back seat are long gone. Fans need, and want, to be engaged, to be asked about the business, to feel as though it belongs to them, that they somehow part-own it, and are responsible for its development and evolution.
This means taking them with you, communicating to them treating them as equals, and not speaking down to them, not hiding or obfuscating. A tall order, but one that others have managed, not just the Premier League. Richard Branson steered Virgin to heights because he made passengers feel they were sharing in the airline’s journey.
The Premier League is back this weekend. I can’t wait. See, that’s the effect it has; that’s its achievement.
Chris Blackhurst is a former editor of The Independent, and director of C|T|F Partners, the campaigns, strategic, crisis and reputational, communications advisory firm