Football is bending over backwards to prove its relevance. From 60-minute matches to sin bins and throw-ins taken with feet, Fifa, the game’s governing body, is exploring every option in a bid to attract a newer, younger audience.
These ideas are not new. Real Madrid’s president, Florentino Pérez, used the claim of a growing army of disinterested youth to justify the case for the European Super League. The 75-year-old said on the Spanish TV show El Chiringuito that 40% of fans aged between 16 and 24 are not interested in football. “Why? Because there are a lot of low-quality games and they have other entertainment platforms,” he said. “It’s a reality. They say the games are too long. We have to change something if we want football to stay alive. Sometimes we don’t understand our children or grandchildren.”
The Super League may have been shot down, temporarily at least, but the idea that football must do something to recruit a disengaged younger audience is still high on the agenda. At the Financial Times’s Business of Football Summit in February, Eurosport’s head of sport, Andrew Georgiou, said: “Our research shows 42% of people between 13 and 23 are saying they’re not interested in sport at all.”
A 2017 ComRes poll of 18- to 24-year-olds for the BBC found that 62% engaged with football through playing computer games and close to three-quarters of young fans got their football news from social media. Meanwhile Nielsen data in 2019 from eight markets (China, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Spain, the US and the UK) showed that 16- to 24-year-olds prefer shorter “snackable” content.
Perhaps, though, the answer is not to shorten games or tweak the rules of the most followed sport in the world, or to assume the attention spans of young people have shrunk (they manage to sit through franchise films that are two or three hours long, after all). Instead the solution may be much simpler.
At the Women’s European Championship just ended, around 100,000 of the 574,875 tickets sold across the tournament were child tickets. This was not because the women’s game has managed to capture young fans in a way that men’s games cannot but rather because the tickets were affordable. From the group stage to the final, concession ticket prices ranged from £5 to £25. An adult and a child could watch the final for as little as £22.50 (and £75 at most) and a group game for as little as £15 (£30 at most).
There was a time when generations could, and would, watch football at all levels together, passing down the match-going baton. Now, season tickets in the Premier League range from an average low of £547 to an average high of £646. Five clubs have crossed the £1,000 barrier for their most expensive season tickets.
With staggeringly long waiting lists, clubs can justify the high prices but the rewards are short term. Fewer and fewer match-going fans can afford to take their partners and children to games. With the cost-of-living crisis biting, that situation is going to get worse. The impact will be felt in the long term.
Walking through crowds boosted by huge numbers of children during Euro 22, and at the end of games in particular, one could see these were kids who had felt the buzz of live football.
Football fandom is about being a part of the collective, of belonging, of community. Going to matches is the ideal, watching in a big group at a BoxPark or on another big screen is the next best option, watching at the pub with mates is a step down from that, watching at home on TV, listening to the radio or following the online live blogs is a rung below. Each, though, is about tuning in to the collective experience. International fans turn on the TV each week but for many the dream is to get to a live game and experience live football first hand. They do not want to go for the football itself, they want the atmosphere and to be a part of something. Yes, football is a great game to watch but, if people wanted to watch only good games, they would not watch the same team week in, week out but flit between the biggest fixtures.
What makes young fans future season-ticket holder? It is going to live games. If they cannot afford to do that, if they have not tasted collective emotion, then they are unlikely to develop a lifelong love and commitment for the sport. By putting short-term gain ahead of ensuring the next generation is fully engaged, all clubs risk undermining football’s very foundations.