JackBarnes

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Still The Beautiful Game: The Commercialisation of Football

 


The following is my MA Thesis, which is an exploration of the intersection between football and visual culture.

The Beginning


The year is 1989. Thatcherism has triumphed over the trade union movement, and neoliberalism is transforming the landscape of Britain. Football had reached its nadir. Grounds were derelict, disasters at Hillsborough and Bradford had seen lives needlessly lost, the Heysel disaster had seen English clubs banned from competing in Europe and the finest talent in the country were now jumping ship to the more attractive, lucrative leagues in Europe. Reform is needed. Despite all the game had endured, however, audiences were steadily growing, and a new kind of football was beginning to come to fruition. 

Fast forward almost three decades into the future, and the game as we know it is almost unrecognisable since the days of the old first division. The outlawing of standing grounds due to the Taylor Report, has seen an era of all-seater stadiums becoming the norm. Whilst attending a game is obviously safer than thirty years previous, little can be said for the continuation of the match-day experience from the eighties. A global game, football is now deeply intertwined into the very fabric of our culture. From the inception of the premier league, and the subsequent arrival of mass amounts of money into the sport, football has undergone a remarkable shift in status over the last twenty years. With the overall revenue of premier league clubs for the 2016/17 season standing at £4.5bn (Deloitte, 2018) and footballers being the only athletes to make up 3 of the 25 most followed Instagram accounts, the sheer scale at which football now operates is astronomical. It’s with this, however, that the motivations of the first division clubs who broke away from the football league in 1992 can be realised. 

Sensing the growth of the game in the late eighties, and the wealth that could be accumulated from the surge in broadcasting rights, it comes as no surprise that the clubs profiting from this sought to protect and consolidate their new-found wealth. Together, the larger clubs in the first division and BSkyB worked together to break away from the first division, and form what would later go on to be known as the Premier League in which the subsequent revenue generated from this new league, would only be shared by Premier League clubs, rather than the multitude of clubs within the entirety of the Football League pyramid. With the rights to broadcast the biggest club games in England now shown exclusively to satellite dish holders, the first stages of gentrification of the working class game had begun. 

Parallel to the embracement of free-market economics through Thatcherism occurring throughout Britain at the time, neo-liberalism slowly began seeping into football. Clubs floating themselves on the stock market contrasts heavily from the days of football clubs being founded by workers for the workers. We also begin to see the influx of tycoon ownership within the game with businessmen such as Alan Sugar and Mohamed Al Fayed going on to own Tottenham Hotspur and Fulham FC, respectively. Rupert Murdoch, of BSkyB, attempted to buy Manchester United for £634m, although the bid was blocked as it was deemed to be anti-competitive. 

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Surprisingly, however, the prosperous pervasiveness of business within football was a mirage. Clubs routinely operated with losses, debts accumulated and bankruptcies followed. With half of all football league members entering administration at least once since 1992 (Goldblatt, 2014), it’s hardly a lucrative option for outside investment when seen as a business venture. From this, it’s imperative to understand the importance of football club ownership as a means of social capital. 

On the pitch, clubs could now afford to exert their wealth with high profile transfers frequently crushing records year on year. This, in conjunction with BskyB’s broadcasting saw football transform into a blockbuster entertainment industry with Hollywood-styled montages being shown week-in, week-out to build up the narrative before games. We begin to see the commodification of the players themselves, most notably David Beckham, who perhaps personifies the explosion of commercialisation of football in the 1990s so well. Signing a sponsorship deal with Brylcreem for £1m in 1997, the Manchester United player increased sales for the hairstyling product by 50%. 

Granted, the notion of brands entering the football-world as a means of marketing themselves to fans of the sport was not a new phenomenon. As far back as the seventies, the influence of brands began to permeate into football, with Eintracht Braunschweig becoming the first club to pioneer the addition of sponsorships on shirts in 1973 with Jägermeister being displayed on their shirts. Obvious moral questions arise from this – with so many young, impressionable minds worshipping footballers, is it right to plaster potentially damaging brands on shirts? From this, however, we can begin to position the idea of football shirts being used as ‘portable’ billboards. With a growing broadcasting audience, brands could enjoy greater exposure through shirt sponsorships. In time, some grew iconic. Is it possible to reminisce about those timeless Eric Cantona moments for Manchester United during the nineties without visualising the Frenchman stood, hands on hips, collar up, with the golden Sharp logo stretched across the black Manchester United shirt? Brands were now beginning to become solidified within football visual culture.

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Shirts themselves had become commodified some time ago, as Leeds United began selling shirts to fans during the sixties. But with clubs now placing a greater onus on shirt design with the inclusion of sponsors, fashion now became intertwined within football. Kits became heavily individualised, and soon, many amassed a cult following. Hummel’s 1992 Danish kit encompasses all this, along with the 1989 West German kit by Adidas. Fetishized artefacts of capitalist nostalgia, these kits are now sought after by collectors. The motivations for this, however, are somewhat suspect. As established previously regarding the selling of kits to fans, the practice of clubs exploiting their fans loyalty to their clubs was taking shape. Much like in the business world, whereby customers are be loyal to certain brands, clubs themselves could exercise this privilege in the ever-growing commercialised world of football by capitalising on fans’ allegiances in the form of expecting them to buy merchandise. These “expertly targeted merchandising campaigns that exploit communal identity” (Kennedy & Kennedy, 2016) are another example of the gentrification of the sport. What’s perhaps the cruellest aspect of this practice, is that unlike customers who desert brands that don’t live up to expectations, the loyalty in which fans show their clubs, regardless of their success, would allow for exploitation at exponential levels.  

With the relationship between club and supporter now being increasingly redefined during the nineties to that of a business and customer, clubs slowly began increasing the ticket prices at games. Again, further gentrification saw the match-day experience for many fans become completely inaccessible. In tandem with the outlawing of standing at games, the terraces became an entirely different environment, absent of its raw, electrifying atmosphere. Jock Stein had once said that football is nothing without the fans, and now commoditised, the fans that created the spectacle in which brands and sponsors flocked to had now been ushered out the back exit. Filling this void, would see the filtering in of businesses and tourists, all keen on immersing themselves in the new, ‘trendy’ Premier League. 

From this, we can begin to frame football as a post-modern Debordian spectacle. French situationist, Guy Debord, presents in his 1967 book, ‘Society of a Spectacle’ the notion that, through capitalism, society now manifests itself as an accumulation of spectacles. Images are mediated to us, creating a narrative of how to live, and represent our lives. We ourselves become a product, our aspirations and desired organised for us, by the spectacle. 

Much of Debord’s thesis draw on the working’s of Marx, and it’s the examination of Marx that establishes a sense of poetry, here, as we apply Marxist thinking to the world of Football. Manchester, the industrial giant of the north, the city in which Marx and Engels first met, would later become the personification of football as a Debordian spectacle some 150 years later, with Old Trafford being known as ‘The Theatre of Dreams’– its seats painted in the pattern of its sponsored sporting brand - once home of the apotheosis of hero worship in football, David Beckham, advertising hoardings surround the pitch with portable advertising boards, designed in such a way that the grid of brand logos are always in shot, allowing them to be beamed to living rooms across the globe, free from obstruction. 

Debord frames the spectacle, as a pacifier, detaching society from reality. Similarly, Marx portrays religion as the opium of the people, something which Terry Eagleton later reconstructs, and repositions as football (Eagleton, 2010). 

Compliant in all this, is design. Whilst at this stage during the commercialisation of football, it could be argued that whilst the industry is not yet graphically aware, the seduction of fans with the fetishisation of ‘must-have’ football merchandise and the growing ubiquity of brands within the game cannot go unnoticed. Football, had been absorbed by the gaze of neoliberalism – once a pastime centred on providing social respite for the working class, had now been commodified and reappropriated by capitalism. We will later see the development of this process at the turn of the millennium at an exponential rate and the development of the brand-awareness by clubs and how they would use design to amplify this.

The Birth of a Global Game

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Four years previous to the millennium, an event in Zurich would later solidify the new age of football.  The announcement of Japan and South Korea as co-hosts for the World Cup in 2002 would be the first time an Asian nation had hosted the competition, a move which sought to capitalise on the booming of the Asian markets for football that had emerged in the nineties. With over 15 of the world’s largest companies paying around $35 million each to join FIFA’s advertising programme for the competition, this encapsulates the growth of football to a global game, with its sponsorship program doubling in revenue since its debut in 1982 (Maidment, 2002). 

The competition itself exhibited a pledge to its image, enlisting global ad-agency Interbrand with the design of its logo – a signpost for the design world beginning to venture into the game. The logo was designed specifically to ‘work in many different practical applications, from TV spots to web-sites, banners, stationery and merchandise’ (Milligan, 1999), an approach similar to Adidas who had designed their boots to ensure they were identifiable from any camera angle, signifying the emphasis FIFA placed on the world-cup being a lucrative marketing opportunity for global brands. 

This would not be the first, or last time, a football badge would be designed for commercial purposes. In October 2002, Arsenal announced their logo of over fifty years would be revamped. The club was unable to copyright its previous iteration, prompting a revamp of the club’s brand to increase merchandising revenue. This in turn was the first of a trifecta of image changes deployed by the club, all with the aim of developing their brand.  The club later signed o2 as their sponsor, raking in £10 million across two years (BBC, 2002), and moved from their classic, iconic stadium of Highbury to the 60,000 seater Emirates stadium. 

Upon its announcement, fans greeted the new logo with hostility, angered with the apparent whitewashing of the club’s heritage. Design consultancy 20/20 had flipped the direction of the cannon, now facing forward – citing a progressive outlook on the club’s behalf - also stripping the logo of its Latin motto ‘victory grows through harmony’, and coat of arms of Highbury and Islington. In addition to this, anger arose surrounding the motives behind this rebrand. As supporters, many religiously buy their club’s shirt to illustrate their undying allegiance to their club, yet with the current shirt only being in use for less than 6 months now redundant, fans were now asked to shell out £40 for a newer iteration of their club’s shirt, exploiting their loyalty. 

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Whilst the discussion of club rebranding is an emotional battleground, due to the vast amounts of complex discourse that arises from the issue, Arsenal’s rebranding is of note due to the Pandora’s box the process had on subsequent brand decisions we later see. 

As previously discussed, Arsenal’s motives for the new badge were in response to the absence of a trademark over their existing badge. In turn this enabled third parties to sell merchandise containing the Arsenal badge. Feeling they were losing potential profits from this fact, Arsenal took legal actions against Matthew Reed, a third party souvenir-seller, profiting from using Arsenal’s badge on his products. The club cited fans were unknowingly buying unofficial merchandise, and that its subsequent existence could damage Arsenal’s brand image. The result, a victory for Arsenal, enabled them extensive protection over their brand. Clubs now had complete autonomy to commodify their badge; once a symbol of heritage and history was now a tool to boost merchandising income and increase brand engagement. 

It’s also worth noting the design process that is adhered to in the development of a club’s new badge. Whilst this practice will later be critically explored in forensic detail, perhaps the foundations need to first be set. In the case of Arsenal’s, like many that precede it, fans panned the logo at its launch, with supporter’s groups handing out 7000 flyers before a game, criticising the change. In the design community, reception to the redesign could not have contrasted more. DesignWeek heralded the cure of the ‘football badge disease’, vilifying the gothic lettering and clutter in the existing logo, (Booth, 2002). It begs the paradoxical question of what cultivates as good design in the design of a football club’s badge. Who is the target audience of a football club rebrand: the club, fans or potential consumers? And, is there a difference between fans and consumers? This discourse becomes proliferated in increasingly grey tones. 

If, in theory, fans are the target audience, the demographic who the rebrand seeks to engage, then receptions of rejection in no doubt deems the design a failure. Yet, if in doing this, invokes a dismissal of the principles designers learn in education, how do the creative industries react to this? Again, we will later see how clubs compromise, and take into consideration these issues. However, despite this, it’s expected that designers exhibit a sense of empathy in their design process, something which is evidently missing when you hear 20/20 brand director, Jim Thompson, nonchalantly dismiss ‘irrelevant’ Latin text in favour of elements ‘more important to the club’ and DesignWeek, who claim all imagery in football badges as ‘surreal’, with a ‘non-existent connection to the game’. It could be argued that the design community is somewhat out of touch, here.

In response to the newly developed community design legislation that allowed clubs to protect their brand from unofficial use, or the systematic commodification of a football club’s identity – depending on how you interpret this ruling, an array of clubs began rebranding their identities to capitalise on the newfound protections they were afforded. 

In 2006, Tottenham Hotspur launched their rebrand, designed by Navy Blue. Unlike Arsenal’s however, the redesign drew considerable amounts of inspiration from the club’s previous badges. Featuring a simplified version of the iconic cockerel and ball emblem that Spurs used from 1967-1983, the new badge is an example of clubs preserving their heritage in an increasingly-digital and commercialised age. The rebrand also saw the club commission Dalton Maag to create an exclusive and bespoke typeface for the identity, which sought to “remain true to the club’s long held ideals” with its roots in the industrial age. You could argue here, that this is one of the very instances where the role of graphic design is not being used solely to serve commercial purposes. 

Another instance of a club taking to its heritage in a rebrand at this time was Chelsea FC. In 2003, Chelsea FC was taken over by Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, signalling a monumental shift of power in the English footballing landscape. Investing amounts of money into the game that had not been previously seen, Chelsea’s takeover represented a new chapter of English football that was beginning to unfold. Of course, many were cynical of Abramovich’s motives behind the move, citing the Russian’s desire to gain ‘soft power’ by owning the club (Brannagan, 2018) – a form of social capital that sought to consolidate his influence in the west - whilst protecting him from persecution from his homeland due to criticism regarding the ethics of his accumulated wealth. As we have established; the identity and image of a club was of upmost importance in the neoliberal football economy, a reputation was beginning to form surrounding Chelsea’s identity. Nicknamed ‘Chelski’, many denounced Chelsea’s spending, claiming it damaged the integrity of the game. It therefore could be argued, that, in lieu of this, Chelsea’s subsequent centenary rebrand in 2005, which saw the Club’s badge revert back to a more traditional aesthetic derived from its heritage, the club used graphic design as a means of pacifying critics, distracting them to create the sense that Chelsea is still the same club that is used to be, ‘going back to the good old days’, as it were, regardless of its newfound wealth from Abramovich. 

Whilst not a notable, high profile rebrand, it’s also worth discussing the proposed rebrand of Coventry City during this period. In conjunction with the club’s move to new stadium, the Ricoh Arena, the club presented a new badge for the club. An incredibly drastic change from its existing badge, the unveiling was met with controversy. “A Telegraph poll at the time showed 98 per cent of votes cast were against the new-style crest” (Ecclestone, 2018), with fans launching a campaign to preserve their previous badge. The club listened, instigating a rare example of fans still holding power over their owners.

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Throughout the beginning of the millennium, we have seen the embracement of graphic design by clubs motivated through the increasing of their revenues whilst attempting to grow their global brands. However, what we have begun to see during this period is the increasingly blurred definition of the ownership of these brands.

As an owner of a football club, you would assume they would have ownership of the club’s brand. However, like we have seen with the fan reaction to Coventry City’s rebrand, which subsequently saw the u-turn of the direction the club’s board planned on taking the club’s brand, it could be argued that the fans themselves have some control over their club’s brand. 

A resistance was forming, by fans, in the defence of their club’s identity. With discontent evident amongst fans that their history was being erased by the increasingly commercialised footballing industry, we see a concerted effort by clubs using graphic design as a means of consolidating and preserving that identity. 

However, due to the increasing globalisation of the sport at this point, it could be argued that far more fans (and consequently, customers) of the game existed overseas. With the already established notion that allegiance to football clubs is almost hereditary, developed through generations of engagement with clubs, how would clubs evoke support from overseas, with new fans who had new previous ties to the game? 

In some senses, this perhaps becomes the reasoning behind the onus clubs placed on modernising their image. Whilst to some, a 60 year old badge constructed of a town’s coat of arms stands for a supporter’s undying love to their club; a constant throughout their life, to others it may appear dull, uninteresting or archaic. 

How, then, would clubs rope in unbeknown fans to the lifetime of heartache and euphoria that is part of supporting a football club. In some senses, we see them incorporate brand-thinking into their identity as club’s begin to accentuate characteristics which form their identities; “Arsenal has French-European cache, London-based Chelsea is cosmopolitan, Bolton is gritty and direct. Supporting a club becomes a statement about a person’s lifestyle” (Bolgar, n.d). Whilst not expressively linked to graphic design, this way of thinking is intrinsically intertwined in the same process designers invoke when designing branding work for clients. 

Due to this, we also begin to see the increasing vagueness of football fans as a target audience as a result of the globalisation and commercialisation of the sport. This places clubs at a difficult tangent, from a marketing perspective – how can they engage with their audience in a concise way? Much like the branding world, target audience can be segregated based on gender, socioeconomic status or age. This cannot be applied in football. Football fans come in all ages, exist at a multitude of socioeconomic statuses and aren’t confined to any geographic area. Take for example, Chelsea FC, which we have discussed previously. Situated in Fulham, the club has a reputation for its cosmopolitan geographic location - the average income of season-ticket holders is almost double the national norm (Goldblatt, 2014) - yet still has a loyal, working class sub-section amongst its fanbase. The diversification of football and its supporters was enormously perpetuated at the beginning of the twenty first century. This poses the question - has football lost its identity?

Later, we begin to reflect on the contemporary intersection between graphic design and football, and the symbiosis of this relationship and its influence on the commercialisation of the game, as well as how fans react to this now-commercialised game.

The New Game

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Now almost unrecognisable, football is vastly different to the game that discussed at the beginning of this thesis, both in terms of its supporters, its status in contemporary culture and as a spectacle. With its existence so deeply intertwined in consumerism, the pervasiveness of branding and commercial interests within football has became ubiquitous – an accepted entity – no different than other fundamental aspects of football. It’s now
part of the game.

What’s interesting, now, however, is the push and pull symbiosis that has been established between football and brands, arguably due to the game’s standing in culture and society. With this, many brands have developed some sort of collective responsibility in the way it conducts its relationship to football. 

When West Brom striker Nicholas Anelka celebrated a goal by performing a quenelle – an anti-Semitic salute – property website ‘Zoopla’ pulled the plug on their £3m sponsorship deal with the club. When Ched Evans, then-convicted-rapist, was signed by Chesterfield Town, the outrage caused from this move subsequently saw the club lose its current sponsorship with HTM Products – this not being the first time a brand’s association with a club who seek to employ a rapist cause controversy as Nandos also withdrew its sponsorship with Oldham Athletic – a move which ultimately saw the club decide against signing Evans. Once an ever-present staple on many of the early-millennium Premier League shirts, alcohol brands now have refrained from sponsoring football clubs, not wanting to be seen marketing alcohol to children (Pitt-Brooke, 2017)

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This awareness shown by brands under the motivation of not attracting any negative PR associated with football, is however, rarely reciprocated by football clubs who often seek to associate themselves with the highest bidder, regardless of their identity. Many have criticised the lack of ethical responsibility shown by the football establishment, recognising the influence it can have on an impressionable younger audience, with a survey indicating that exposure to shirts sponsored by alcohol brands can influence alcohol consumption (Brown, 2016). Of course, their prevalence is now weaning, with gambling sponsorships now filling the vacuum left by the vacated alcohol sponsorships. However, demand for policy which regulates the ethical use of football shirt sponsorships has not weaned, with Labour deputy leader Tom Watson calling for a ban on gambling companies sponsoring football clubs. 

Of course, this isn’t to say there’s a complete absence of ethical deployment of sponsorships in the game, with FA rules indicating that under-18 youth players are forbidden from promoting gambling or alcohol consumption, causing clubs like Newcastle United to remove these sponsorships from their shirts at youth level. 

We also begin to see the beginning of brands disrupting the ubiquity of the conventional prevalence of branding within the game, as Paddy Power and Danish Striker Nicklas Bendtner collaborated on a controversial advertising stunt, in which Bendtner revealed a set of Paddy Power branded boxer shorts upon scoring a goal at Euro 2012 – disrupting the sponsor-free amnesty – in which UEFA enforced a rule stating that “All kit items worn during the final tournament must be free of any sponsor advertising” during the competition. The stunt also saw a violation of a controversial rule in which players are forbidden from under-jersey messages – a move which is discussed extensively by Craig Oldham in his book ‘I Belong to Jesus’.  

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Reflecting on this, it’s easy to sympathise with clubs, as they ponder the obvious ethical ramifications from signing sponsorships with questionable organisations given the nuclear-arms race that many clubs are actively engaging in, soaking up as many sponsorships as they can get their hands on as a means of staying competitive in a highly-competitive league. 

Master of this, arguably, is Ed Woodward of Manchester United. A former JP Morgan banker, Woodward took over from David Gill as chairman of the biggest football club in the world following his departure in 2013. As Manchester United’s competitive success faded in the post Sir Alex Ferguson era, the impact this placed on United’s global profile was strained. Woodward mitigated this by the sheer gargantuan amount of commercial deals he agreed off the pitch. Commercially, the club generated £268 million – a rise of 36% in a year – due to deals with brands such as Chevrolet and Aon, as we see commercial revenue, standing at 52% of United’s total revenue, eclipse match-day income at 21%, diminishing from 41% in a 10 year period. If ever there was a piece of data which signposted football clubs’ shift of onus from local, matchday-attending fans to the new, global audience, this was it. 

Currently, United enjoy commercial success without competitive success, and, whilst this doesn’t necessarily ring alarm bells for the club itself as they smash revenue records year on year, this doesn’t bode well for fans who live for silverware. Quite bizarrely, we see fans, now marginalised by the gentrified match-going experience, gloat and take pride in their club’s commercial and financial dealings, revelling in their club’s net-spend, compared to their rivals. 

The latest commercial avenue in which clubs are now exploring, is the increasing prevalence of shirt sleeve sponsorships. A new edition to the glowing cluster of shirt real-estate, many view these logos as anathema on the shirts fans hold as sacrilege items that extend into their identity. Obviously, from a design criticism perspective, it could be argued that it’s unfair to criticise these logos for their design and aesthetics, as the design process which saw their inception would never have considered them to exist on the sleeve of a football shirt. Nevertheless, when Everton fans were delivered the news that their 2017/18 kit would be sponsored by Rovio Games’ mobile game ‘Angry Birds’, many fans, both Evertonians and their rivals, were quick to make a mockery of the sponsorship. 

Interestingly, however, the deal’s reveal was like some sort of self-aware, Dadaist commentary on the state of commercialism in the contemporary game. That season, it became a competition, amongst clubs and marketing agencies to produce transfer announcement videos for social media, in the hopes they would go viral. In another dystopian reflection of the post-modern state of football, we see supporter’s allegiances become commodified in hopes their clicks, shares and comments would perpetuate the proliferation of their team’s brand to new, potential consumers. 

Everton fans themselves were no stranger to their beloved club causing controversy with contemporary marketing and branding decisions, however. In the following case study, their 2013 rebrand will be forensically examined, in an attempt to understand the design process which is adhered to in the rebranding of a club like Everton.

Case Study: Everton FC

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Founded in 1878, Everton FC are a proud club, deeply rooted with tradition. They have been based at Goodison Park since 1892, making it one of the oldest stadiums in the premier league. For a club like Everton, that prides itself on its heritage, finding the balance between its traditional identity and the future-facing, current outlook that is so imperative for clubs to exude in order to capitalise on the contemporary, commercial football industry is difficult to say the least. 

This is what the club was trying to achieve in May 2013 when they announced their new badge. No stranger to rebrands, this would be the 10th crest Everton had deployed since its founding; their previous crest which spanned 13 years now deemed too complex for use in a commercial setting. Of course this implies a cynical shift from the focus of a club’s badge, once now representative of a club’s ideals and identity, now a logo, functioning as a face of a brand. 

The result – a badge which “combined four historic elements of the previous badge - the Tower, the shield, their name and the year of their formation - to form a concise, modern and dynamic representation of Everton” (BBC, 2013), evoking a modern, cleaner representation of the club’s identity, after consultation with fans about the significance of the badge. Despite this process of attempting to adhere to the previous badge’s historical structure, it did see the omission of the two laurel wreaths and the club’s motto from the redesign. In addition to this, the rebrand saw a redrawing of the club’s badge – to “appear modernised and simplified” (Banks, 2013), along with Prince Rupert’s Tower, bearing a closer resemblance to the actual tower the badge derives from.

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The reception, however, was polarising to say the least. Greeted with animosity amongst fans, they mobilised with 23,000 fans signing a Change.org petition, lobbying the club to overturn the proposed changes. Likewise, a scan across the media at this time paints a vivid picture of negativity, with fans quoted as claiming the badge as ‘ridiculous’, ‘clownish’ and ‘amateurish’. Again, like previous rebrands we have discussed, the whitewashing of the clubs heritage was the principal trigger-point for fan’s reactions. We also see a rejection of the redrawing of the badge and Prince Rupert’s Tower. This begs the question, if the design process consisted of fan consultation; why was the rebrand so adversely responded to by fans? 

Whilst it can only be deemed a failure, the rebrand did receive some praise from the design community, as critics from Creative Review and Under Consideration made the case that Everton should have stuck with the badge. Despite this, the discourse that Armin Vit from Under Consideration uses is troubling to say the least. Branding the fans ‘dumbasses’ for opposing the rebrand, whilst reducing the previous logo to ‘crap’, reeks of a naïve and ignorant attitude that is so often exhibited by the design industry in relation to football design work. Many designers cry out for an acceptance and understanding of their profession from the general public, yet fail to grasp the principles of branding that are instilled into us in design school simply do not apply here. Outcomes that evoke simplicity and modernity are not the ingredients for a successful rebrand like they would in a more commercial, conventional environment, and lambasting the fans for not accepting these is elitist, and only seeks to alienate the already marginalised football fans, stifling future dialogue between creatives and supporters. Again, it comes back to the sense of empathy that is required on the part of designers and those in charge of the rebrand; an understanding that football clubs, for many, are so deeply intertwined into the fabric of their everyday life. All you need to do is look at how many Evertonians have their beloved club’s badge tattooed onto themselves to see why so many were opposed to the tarnishing of their identity. After all, how many times do you see other people tattoo their favourite drinks brands onto themselves?

Rightfully, the club made a u-turn on the rebrand that same week, apologising to fans sincerely whilst promising to include fans in the future design amendment. This form of democratic collective ownership shown between club and supporters is undeniably a step in the right direction in terms of building bridges between the increasing detachment many supporters feel with their clubs. Also enlisting the services of consultancy Kenyon Fraser, a triangulated relationship was established between fans, the club and designers. 

From this, we see the co-operation between parties involve surveys, consultation and ultimately, a final poll on the final design, giving fans control of their club’s identity. Announced in October 2013, the final design voted by fans saw the badge bear greater resemblance to the original, seeing the wreaths and Latin motto returning, along with the previously thinner iteration of Prince Rupert’s Tower. Arguably, this is a contradiction of what Everton’s ‘problems’ were with the original design, as we see the Everton badge revert to its formally ‘busy’ self, thus, Everton’s problems which they presented the designers, not solved.

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This brings into question, in this process, who are the clients in this project: Everton Football Club, or the fans themselves? And, why did the initial project fail so catastrophically?

Approaching this from the handling of a design brief, you could theorise that in this scenario, Everton (the clients) approached the designers with the task of redesigning their badge to make it more fit-for-purpose for reproduction, enabling the badge to be commoditised, whilst appearing more ‘modern’ and ‘dynamic’. In what followed, it’s fair to say that the designers here solved this problem with their solution. Yet, in many ways, this exchange shows how the relationship between design and football has proven that we have lost sight of who we actually design for. 

By framing the notion that Everton viewed their badge as a logo, we can begin to understand why Everton fans reacted the way they did. An extension of their identity, to them, a badge is indicative of what their club represents and their belonging to that club. They literally wear it on their hearts. Whereas a logo operates in a more commercial context. Paul Rand discusses that ‘good’ logos’ effectiveness depends on their; distinctiveness, visibility, usability, memorability, universality, durability and timelessness (Rand, 1991). Understanding this, it’s worth asking, would an Everton fan necessarily desire a change to the universality and usability of their badge if it saw elements of their identity become expendable to achieve this? It’s doubtful. Badges, instead, form more of a collective banner under which a sense of belonging is nurtured. It’s under this allegiance to a badge, and the shared experience that we all go through as football fans, that the badge becomes an embodiment of our identity, and a change to this artefact is inevitably interpreted as an attack on our collective heritage, and by extension, ourselves.

Case Study: City Football Group

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A short trip down the road, watching this PR nightmare unfold, were Manchester City. Now owned by the Abu Dhabi United Group, fronted by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan – a member of the ruling family of the United Arab Emirates – City were quickly becoming a large cog in the growing empire that was City Football Group (CFG). An entity of scale and ambition that had never been seen before in football, CFG and its motives perhaps encapsulate the contemporary state of the commercialised footballing industry. 

A growing dynasty, CFG “owns, or co-owns, six clubs on four continents, and the contracts of 240 male professional players and two dozen women” (Tremlett, 2017), with infrastructure in place to develop their players using state-of-the-art training facilities, all of which facilitate their desire to become the greatest footballing force on the planet. Whilst this sort of plan for world domination wouldn’t look out of place in the scheme of a Hollywood villain, this business-centric approach to football club ownership has been branded the ‘disneyfication’ of the sport, and has the potential to change the footballing landscape forever (Ahmed, 2017). Compliant in all this, however, is design. Here, we will discuss the application of design in the proliferation of the CFG project. 

The ethics of this, however, are questionable to say the least, and bring into question the moralities of owning a football club, and the way in which image manipulation, and by extension, design, can be used to distract, pacify and protect. 

First, however, before this can be discussed, it’s useful to map the parties involved with CFG and why, under further inspection, these unsavoury individuals become a stain on football. A web of corruption, human rights abuse and greed surround the UAE royal family, with human rights researcher Nicholas McGeehan shining a light on this in a powerful article in which he discusses the ethics and motives of UAE royal family and CFG. 

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Drawing on Mansour’s own brother being filmed torturing a former business partner, as well as the UAE’s outlawing of homosexuality, McGeehan puts forward the idea that CFG is a front for Mansour and co to control their image to the western world, whilst allowing them to use their status to gain soft power and accumulate further capital. 

Perhaps the window-dresser orchestrating all this is Simon Pearce, the director of communications for Abu Dhabi, after making his name for Burson-Marstellar; a PR firm with a client list consisting of Nicolai Ceaucescu, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Jorge Videla. Pearce, McGeehan argues, is in charge of Abu Dhabi’s ‘brand’ and regularly consults on their business dealings from a PR perspective (McGeehan, 2017). In the days leading up to the inception of New York City FC, CFG’s first venture into MLS, Pearce discusses that “once the deal is in public play, delaying a decision further on the franchise and stadium creates additional risk to the project as well as to ownership group reputation”, citing UAE’s ‘vulnerabilities’ on homosexuals, women’s rights, wealth and Israel being used against them. Pearce also notes that the ownership of such a club, is being defined as Abu Dhabi, rather than CFG by media and fans, in a series of leaked emails from the UAE’s ambassador to the US, Yousef Al-Otaiba.

Interestingly, this notion of having their business dealings laundered through CFG as a front to hide Abu Dhabi’s polarising reputation potentially inflicting damage upon them does confirm the idea that the royal family are using City and CFG as an instrument of soft power. 

However, whilst McGeehan argues that Mansour’s venture into club ownership is not motivated through generating revenue from the club – a net loss of £850 million across the decade the royal family have owned the club doing little to subvert this notion, in a Guardian Long Read, Giles Tremlett actually puts forward the idea that through continued, successful franchising, a business-minded approach could see club ownership becoming a successful business practice. This is something which, as we have previously discussed, has been a rare occurrence since multi-million takeovers became prominent at the advent of the Premier League (Tremlett, 2017). 

Through the appointment of former Barcelona general manager Ferran Soriano, Tremlett discusses Soriano’s desire to turn City and CFG into a ‘global entertainment company’. Positioning City as a potential super-brand, Soriano hypothesises a “glocalisation” approach to gaining more revenue from the commodification of fans and players. 

The establishment of a franchise, takes a global product and positions it into a local context. Simply, a New York City FC fan is more likely to also support Manchester City. An ever-presence of a consistent set of sponsors will be replicated across the CFG network, and a sharing of global facilities will aid player development. Soriano also details how a global portfolio of clubs can, in effect, allow for the mass development of players, allowing them to then be sold on for profit. One of the underlying reasons why CFG purchased second division Uruguayan team Atlético Torque was the statistic that Uruguay was the largest per-capita exporter of pro footballers on the planet. This venture-capitalist approach - viewing clubs as player factories - confirms the notion that players are now commodities. This part of Soriano’s scheme is the first element of Soriano’s model which sought to accumulate mass amounts of capital from CFG’s ambitions of becoming a footballing super-brand. 

Soriano himself described CFG’s brand as perfect - the application of branding and marketing principles allowing them to add ‘City’ to their club names (such as New York City FC or Melbourne City FC) - amplifying CFG’s unified identity. This process, in turn, enables CFG’s clubs to appear enticing to new fans, or clients, as Soriano refers to them as - subsequently increasing revenue. 

In 2014, this was cemented further when we see two rebrands of two CFG clubs – New York City FC and Melbourne City FC. Again, the deployment of graphic design creates a succinct uniform for CFG’s clubs, all sharing a consistent identity. 

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New York City FC’s new badge, designed by Rafael Esquer, was part of an open competition held by CFG, inviting fans to design their own badge for the new club, before a vote allowed fans to choose which badge best represents them, highlighting a democratic sense of ownership given to fans over their identity by CFG. The result was a circular badge, at which a monogram inspired by the traditional New York City Subway token being the centre-point of the logo, dressed in the colours of navy blue, white and orange, drawing from the city’s heritage, this time in the form of the city’s flag. At either side of the monogram, two pentagons appear, symbolising the five boroughs that make up New York City. Finally, typographically, we see the rebrand incorporate Gotham into its identity, seen as an epitome of New York City’s signage, CFG viewing this result after a study at the city’s environment indicates “the rich graphic language that is a signature of the five boroughs”. 

On the surface, this sounds like a noble attempt by CFG at integrating a city’s heritage into a club’s identity, a welcome approach given all the rebrands we have previously examined which eradicate club’s identities in the name of commercialisation. However, two months later, another of CFG’s clubs received a rebrand. Melbourne City FC, formerly Melbourne Heart prior to CFG’s takeover, applied to the FFA to be rebranded, integrating sky blue into its identity, a change from white and red. A new badge was designed, sharing a strong resemblance to the NYCFC badge in its circular structure and the use of Gotham continuing from NYFC’s badge. The validity of Gotham’s status of representing NYCFC’s heritage now being questionable, it could be argued that the typeface’s purpose is now to establish a sense of continuity across the CFG brand. Again, the rebrand also draws from Melbourne’s heritage, much like NYCFC’s badge. Somewhat cynically, this encoding of each city’s heritage into their identity could be perceived as some sort of token celebration of the city’s identities; a PR move creating an impression that CFG are progressively protecting and championing these heritages, diverting attention away from the group’s motives and UAE’s reputation.

Finally, completing the trifecta of rebrands by CFG, Manchester City would receive their rebrand in 2016. Development of the badge began in October 2015, seeing the club consult with fans about their views on propositions for a new badge. Interestingly, interactions also occurred physically around the Etihad Stadium – the club keen to involve all fans, regardless of their access to digital platforms. Again, the design process was democratic in its conduction, with CFG avoiding the PR nightmare which unfolded at Everton, allowing fans to vote on their favoured badge. Fans were asked for their preference on graphic elements they wanted to include in the redesign, as well as which colours they preferred. 

The result was in converging with CFG’s previous rebrands, a circular badge with Gotham used across the new identity. The club likened the new badge to a ‘modern original’ – a throwback to the club’s previous badge which preceded the eagle badge, which was introduced in 1997.  We see symbolic representations of Manchester’s identity being used in the badge, such as the three rivers, the red rose of Lancashire and the ship. The club’s founding date is also introduced to the design, having previously never been included in the club’s badge. Omitted, we see the disappearance of the eagle, the club’s Latin motto and the club’s three stars (which was only introduced in 1997 to appear ‘graphically stylish’). 

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As part of the unveiling of the new badge, the club launched an extensive digital campaign, including figures such as Noel Gallagher and Howard Bernstein supporting the badge, as well as a marketing stunt which saw the new badge being projected onto Manchester’s Town Hall – again reaffirming the symbiosis that CFG wanted to establish between their clubs and their intertwinement in their cities. 

Concurrent to this, we see an embracing of digital marketing by City in the launch of their new badge. The club’s website is subsequently changed from www.mcfc.co.uk to www.mancity.com, their Twitter handle soon reflecting this change. Arguably, this could be interpreted as an eradication of the club’s footballing identity with the absence of ‘football club’, as well as a rejection of the club’s Mancunian ties due to the shortening of the name. Justifying this, the club argued that global and domestic audiences are four times as likely to use the term online than any other associated term. Again, this reinforces CFG’s emphasis on making the club engaging to as many people as possible, capitalising on the growing ubiquity and influence of online technologies on football. 

With the growth of fans overseas, and the accessibility to the sport that prevalent digital technologies provided, it was imperative for the club to tap into this to grow their brand profiles. In this, we see City lead the way in the embracing of this process, as they become the first club to have a Facebook messenger AI bot, a dedicated Giphy page and the first British club to reach 1 million YouTube subscribers due to their innovative insight into club activities. In turn, this enabled global audiences to develop a closer a bond to their team, regardless of the thousands of miles that separated them. 

It goes without saying that all these changes to City’s identity were in tandem with the pursuit of propelling City to a global footballing superpower. However, unlike many changes to clubs’ identities we have discussed previously, there was no overwhelming, negative reception by fans. Emotionally invested in their clubs, many perceive any change to the club’s equilibrium an attack on their collective identity. Yet, with an absence of petitions, campaigns and animosity like we saw with Everton and Arsenal, fans embraced their new identity, with City identifying a 66% approval rate for the shape of the new badge. 

Yet, somewhat cynically, all may not be what it seems. By CFG deploying a progressive, endearing identity, it earns favour with the City fans. With the media fixating on the controversy surrounding the owners, City fans become a vital ally if CFG are going to be able to continue their plans in developing a super-brand, at which City are the crown jewels of. In this, graphic design ultimately becomes a tool to pacify, in addition to its established purpose of increasing the commercial viability of a brand. Under the guise of the new forward-facing identity which celebrated City’s traditional Mancunian identity, City fans were systematically coerced into perpetuating the neoliberalist influence in football.

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Despite this, criticism this attracts are often rebutted with criticisms of partisanship. My own club, Manchester United, are one of the biggest proprietors of the neoliberalisation of football, yet my allegiance to my club can subsequently invalidate any criticisms levied at City. Discourse can quickly become muddied with accusations of bias due to the inherent nature of tribalism within football. Perhaps this can be accredited to Simon Pearce, the sheer influence of football’s status in our culture making neutral conversation a rarity.

Nevertheless, it’s worth attaching some credit to the design team involved in these projects. As mentioned previously, a footballing rebranding project is unlike no other branding project, and by including fans in the design process who arguably own the brand, they are deservingly given control over its identity.  Future clubs should look to City Football Group, as an example of how to rebrand a club’s identity in the context of the commercialised game of football.  

Bad Rebrands

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With the preferred approach to rebrands being established in the previous case studies, perhaps it’s worth discussing examples of attempted rebrands by clubs which have been unanimously rejected by fans. From this, we can begin to examine the role graphic design has played in these efforts, and ultimately, why these rebrands failed.  

Arguably the most notorious example of a failed rebrand is Cardiff City’s in 2012. Following a takeover by a Malaysian-led consortium in 2011, their new owner introduced a new identity for the club in the 2012/13 season. Whilst previous examples we have seen are often slight, or still retain much of the club’s identity; Vincent Tan deployed a drastic rebrand – stripping much of Cardiff City of its heritage of over a hundred years. 

The Welsh dragon became the centrepiece of the new identity, in the owner’s attempts to amplify the club’s Welsh identity, arguably identifying the club’s status as one of the few Welsh clubs in the English Football League as a unique-selling-point to audiences overseas. As such, this saw the club’s traditional blue colours being replaced by red. Justifying this move, the board claimed such a move enabled the club to ‘maximise brand and commercial revenues in international markets’ (BBC, 2012); red being more marketable in Asia, often seen as lucky and a symbol for integrity. 

Naturally, the fans revolted. Petitions were launched and fans protested the changes. Harnessing creativity as a means of trying to effect change, fans unveiled banners rejecting the changes to the club’s identity. Banners with messages such as ‘Red is Dead, Stay Blue, Stay True’ and ‘He took something perfect, and painted it red’ were flown around Cardiff City Stadium. Those fans who still attended games wore blue, rather than red. Whilst some fans begrudgingly accepted the change, accepting the financial benefits the change would bring, dialogue commenced between supporters groups and the club to reinstate the club’s previous identity. As time passed and blue became more and more ubiquitous around the stadium, the club performed a u-turn on the red identity, reverting back to a blue kit in January 2015, promising the fans a new badge the following season. The bluebird returned, and the club recommenced playing in blue. 

This, in turn, can be attributed as a victory for fan power in the increasingly commercialised game. It evidences that fans still have some control over the identity of their club and that, by extension, are still valued by the clubs and their owners over the accumulation of wealth. 

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It goes without saying why this particular rebrand failed – a whitewashing of the club’s history under the motivations of increasing revenue only served to anger fans – alienating them from the club they have supported for the majority of their lives. Supporter’s Club spokesman Vince Alm reflected on the rebrand, with the need for the heritage of a club to be ‘considered separately from the business side of a club whenever anybody takes over a club’. (Alm, 2016). Alm also stressed the imperative nature of rebranding to take into consideration the need for fan approval to be met beforehand, again reaffirming the notion that fan involvement and consultation is imperative for a rebrand to be a success.

Another example of the growing conflict between fans and owners over a club’s identity is Hull City. Taken over by local Egyptian-British businessman Assem Allam in 2010, the owner began constructing an identity for his club in 2013 in an attempt to strengthen its brand. After an initial name change to Hull City Tigers was rejected in 2013, Allam persevered, this time applying for the club’s name to be changed to Hull Tigers. 

Allam’s reasoning was, as you’d expect, deeply rooted in making the club more marketable. In an interview with David Conn for The Guardian in 2013, Allam was frank in his business-minded approach to the running of a football club; 

“As a businessman I am preparing the club to go globally selling merchandise. To do it you want a shorter name, and you drop the words which don’t mean anything and are common … City, Town, County: these are meaningless. In marketing the shorter the name the more powerful - think of Coca Cola, Twitter, Apple” (Conn, 2013). 

Showing little compassion to fan’s thoughts on the matter, Allam dismissed fan’s protests citing that “Nobody in the world will decide for me how I run my companies, certainly not a few hundred people.” (BBC, 2013). When fans responded with a campaign called ‘City Till We Die’, bullishly, Allam told them they could ‘die as soon as they want’. This disregard for the fans did little to thwart their efforts in fighting for the preservation of their heritage. With fans arranging protests about the proposals, they unveiled banners such as ‘Hull City AFC: a club, not a brand’. 

There are those who, supported Allam’s efforts. Nigel Currie of sports marketing agency ‘Brand Rapport’ claimed the idea was ‘pretty sound’ but felt it ‘was conducted badly with supporters’, whilst Simon Chadwick, a sports business strategy professor denoted how the rebrand could increase overseas marketability; “India has one of the biggest populations in the world, with a huge appetite for sport and a growing interest in football. A teenager on the streets of Mumbai might not know the difference between, say, Newcastle, Aston Villa and Hull, but he knows the word tiger, which has really positive connotations in India - as proud, noble, aggressive and strong.” (BBC, 2014)

It could be argued, however, that these figures who have a background in business have a lack of empathy to the shared identity that football fans experience when they support a club. As discussed before, a club’s identity is often an extension of the fan’s individual identities, and many fans agree that changes to a club’s identity results in the club losing its soul. 

Ultimately, the football association council rejected Allam’s proposals, and Allam put the club up for sale immediately after. Citing the inability to generate revenue as the reason for making the club available for sale. The club is yet to find a buyer, with Allam now blaming the ‘militant’ fans for this.

Despite Allam’s refusal to invest in the club, the club unveiled a new badge in 2014. Interestingly, the club’s name was completely removed from the badge. Stripped back in nature, the crest now consists of the tiger’s head in a shield. Despite the club’s city being abandoned in the new badge, the club’s founding year was incorporated, a nod to the club’s history. More protests met the new badge, fans aggrieved by the lack of consultation shown by the club. 


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Yet in another sweeping victory for fan power, the club have since announced a transparent plan to redesign the badge. Available for all to view on the club’s website, the plan details extensive democratic efforts the club is engaging with to avoid any future reputation damaging events. Involving supporters, community voices and influencers, the club is aiming to establish a panel consisting of pillars within the Hull community, again, all voted for by the fans themselves. From this, the design process will involve preferred graphic elements chosen by the general public, as well as a preferred tiger. Taking this information into account, the panel will then meet to decide the final crest for the club. Whilst the final design is yet to be realised, this does suggest a newfound respect of fan’s feelings shown by the Hull City board, and with such a thorough creative process been initiated, it does sound promising that the finished product will be received well by the Hull fans.

Completing the trilogy of failed rebrands is Leeds United’s efforts in 2018. It’s worth establishing beforehand, however, that Leeds have had a multitude of varied badges throughout their history, with many fans divided on which badge they feel represents them and their club the most. 

On this occasion, the club announced their new badge on January 24th after 6 months of research, and consultations with 10,000 fans. Because the club felt the previous badge didn’t say who they really were, the board fixated on trying to solve this problem. The club felt that the white rose was not unique to the city, and the previous smiley symbol was a symbol of past successes rather than representing an identity. The club instead wanted to depict the ‘Leeds salute’ to symbolise what the club stood for. Rationalising this design decision, the club stated – “It is used extensively, and notably on match days when, with right hand on heart, fans sing the Club’s famous song ‘Marching on Together’. Leeds United owes everything to the supporters who have stood by the club through thick and thin. We are delighted and proud to reveal a new crest that reflects the passion and loyalty that runs deep through the Club, and celebrates the fans at the heart of our identity”. 


The club could not have anticipated the reaction the new badge would receive, however. Being on the receiving end of angry Leeds fans, and the butt of jokes across social media, the rebrand was a PR nightmare for Leeds United. Despite the club’s best efforts by marketing the new badge on social media using a video showing fans, staff and players collectively celebrating it, this did little to subvert the 50,000 Leeds fans who signed a petition calling for the new badge to be scrapped. Meanwhile, opposition fans seized the opportunity to reappropriate the logo into a Gaviscon advert, graphic design being uniquely used here to poke fun at opposing fans. Less than 24 hours since its unveiling, the club subsequently performed a u-turn on the proposed badge. 

In the following post-mortem, it’s understandable to see why the rebrand failed. For the first time, we can begin to theorise the notion that continued rebrands throughout a club’s history can begin to have a disruptive impact on that club’s overarching identity. Through the abundance of varied badges that have represented Leeds over the years, a visual, graphic heritage has failed to become established. In the design process, this potentially poses a problem as so many Leeds fans become segregated on which aspect of this visual heritage they align with the most. 

Through its unorthodox manifestation as a badge that doesn’t retain ‘conventional’ graphic elements that we see in other badges, it could be argued that the drastic nature of the rebrand did little to contribute to the rebrand’s success. By viewing this idea from the approach of a branding process, this does subsequently make the badge stand out, given its uniqueness. This outcome is often desired result for traditional brandings in other commercial contexts, yet as we have established previously, approaching the rebranding of a football club in the same manner as other commercial products is a common pitfall that many clubs have experienced.   

In response to the scrapped rebrand, Leeds United implored fans to submit their own designs for the new crest – which could create a sense of a completely autonomised identity for the club; created by the fans, for the fans, if you will. Whilst it would be optimistic, and arguably naïve, to think that the club would hand complete creative control over to fans, it remains to be seen whether this approach to designing a club’s identity will pay dividends – due to the sheer amount of entrants received – the club delayed the launch of a new badge until the 2019/20 season.

The State of Play

Reflecting on these failed rebrands, it’s worth concluding that 3 instrumental guidelines need to be adhered to in order to conduct a successful rebrand of a football club;

1.     The importance of fan-power in regards to the control over a football club’s ‘brand or identity, cannot be overestimated enough, and consultation needs to occur with fans

2.     Imperative, in addition to this, is the preservation of football club’s heritages. What many fail to realise when handling a club’s identity, is that many of these graphical aspects are considered deities by fans, such as Prince Rupert’s tower, and that the removal of such artefacts is seen as a whitewashing of these club’s identities. It’s only reasonable to expect some levels of friction by fans in the face of these changes.

3.     Framing the identity of a football club in the same context as other commercial applications of branding will inevitably fail. Principles of ‘good design’ that many brand designers strive to implement do not apply in a footballing setting.

Through this, however, it’s worth discussing the growing detachment between fans and clubs, and the subsequent mistrust of any perceived change to club’s identities shown by fans. The rejection of these practices suggest that fans themselves feel that graphic design is compliant in this process. For example, in 2016 when Aston Villa unveiled a newly designed badge, that was subtle in nature, many fans felt the redesign was a waste of time due to the misreported £80,000 fee the club supposedly paid for it. Given the club’s struggling competitive performances at the time, fans felt the funds could have been invested into more appropriate avenues. 

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Concerning to say the least, good use of graphic design should arguably primarily represent and communicate the core values of a club; its heritage, its history and its principles. Instead, since the turn of the millennium, clubs themselves have became ‘graphically-aware’. Whilst sometimes graphic designers themselves over-estimate the value of their practice, it’s now undeniable that graphic design is now inherently positioned in the marketing arsenal that clubs deploy to nurture their brand with the intention maximising the accumulation of capital.

Perhaps, however, this is more damning of the identity-crisis that contemporary football itself is experiencing. Aligning with the idea that football has lost itself after its commercialisation, it’s with this that we can begin to position a similar phenomenon occurring between the graphic infrastructure of the game, and the state of physical space within football. In an article for Vice in 2015, Will Magee incorporates thinking by French anthropologist Marc Auge by likening the new Wembley stadium to a ‘non-place’ (Magee, 2015). Defining a non-place as man-made spaces that are devoid of the status of an actual space, such as airports or shopping malls, Magee argues that Wembley is docile in its character; a space created for maximum profit, detached from the area they exist in; now an extension of the establishment who seek to maximise revenue from football, given the commercial pollution of advertisements that visually span the stadium. Perpetuated by the gentrification within football, club stadiums become disconnected from its roots and the clubs they home. Take, for example, West Ham United. The Irons, a traditionally working class football team in the east end of London born out of a Ironworks and Shipbuilding work-team in 1895, the club resided at the Boleyn Ground from 1904. A sacred space to many fans, the club would move to the former Olympic Stadium in Stratford in 2016, a move which angered many fans. In its place, the Boleyn Ground would be replaced by luxury flats, whilst Hammer’s fans now watch their team play at a ground that’s routinely called ‘soulless’ by fans. Devoid of any similarities with Upton Park, it’s understandable to empathise with fans – a running track surrounding the pitch and an absence of the traditional working class establishments which made up Green Street only seek to estrange fans from the match-going experience. 

Not exclusive to architecture, we can also begin to frame the theory that football badges and club’s identities are becoming ‘non-badges – empty of character and stripped of their heritage. Now existing purely as placeholders for the commercialisation of football, they act as an umbrella under which merchandising occurs, with clubs exploiting and profiting from fan’s loyalty to their clubs. 

Over the last few chapters, we have seen how design has been coerced by neoliberalism and free-market capitalism into allowing clubs to profit from their visual identities. From the process of clubs becoming graphically aware, we have seen clubs become brands, and badges become logos. In some senses, you could also conclude that the graphic identities of clubs have also been gentrified themselves, as traditional heritages become replaced by commodified applications of branding. 

Yet, it doesn’t have to be like this. As we have seen, fans are spearheading the fight against this process, with evidence showing that they do still have collective ownership of their identities. Because of this, designers must conduct a sense of responsibility in how they approach design work that involves football. Arguably, the visual traces of heritage are one of the few remaining foundations of the traditional working class game. In a game now marred by gentrification, corruption and corporate interference, perhaps the graphic heritage will one day be the last signpost of what used to be. Now more than ever should the graphic identities of clubs become preserved with the footballing environment becoming non-places and the match-going experience now being more akin to a Debordian spectacle. 

The consequences of this, could potentially be fatal for the state of the domestic English game. As the game becomes gentrified and its identity fades away due to the pervasiveness of corporate interests within the game, fans will inevitably become detached from the game.  In some senses, you could begin to apply Marx’s theory of alienation to football fans as the game becomes more and more commercialised. 

With football providing many a working class football fan a recreational sense of escapism from the tediousness of modern life, yet due to commercialisation, the gentrification of their sport results in fans not being able to attend matches and support their team. Through the free-market economics which perpetuate the subsequent monopolisation of broadcasting rights, many fans cannot afford to even watch their team play from their living room. Then, through the manifestation of business practices within football we see the application of branding and marketing processes consequently eliminate the very identity that many fans see as an extension of their own species-essence. What’s left is an isolated fan, detached from the club that’s no longer the same club the supporter fell in love with. Arguably, being a modern day football fan is nihilistic due to commercialisation. 

Design, here, could be a partial remedy to this. Through design, as mentioned before, identities can be preserved if the correct design process is adhered to – a process which treats the project with empathy and puts fans at the focal point of any creative effort. With the proliferation of social media, it in turn enables fans access to players, clubs and football in general. With this, through the ubiquity of social media and the application of digital design, perhaps this offers a bridge to the alienated fans – one of the few remaining senses at which they can still share a bond to the club they love. Of course, how this is mediated is imperative; and should be deployed for the engagement of fans and not for profit. It would be naïve, however, to think that this would single-handedly solve the problem of detachment of fans from clubs – after all – access to such means is arguably for the privileged few, although you could argue that, with time, this will change. Finally, through design, dissent and agitation can be expressed – an outlet for the fan to still retain some means of control of their club. As we have seen with clubs like Hull, banners, flags and stickers all contribute to the overarching sense of creativity that is so powerful in affecting real change.

In time, this proliferated, alienated effect could see an exodus of fans from the clubs they love. Fans could also become alienated from the collective support they share with fellow supporter, ultimately seeing the death of football as a community game due to the gentrification of the match-day experience. Subsequently, football could also go full circle – reverting back to its state before the Premier League; the ‘bourgeoisification’ of their game resulting in a ‘working-class resistance movement’ seeing the re-emergence of hooliganism (Taylor, 1971). You could argue that this is actually beginning to surface, with West Ham fans invading their pitch in their game against Burnley in March 2018. Due to the move to Stanford, as discussed earlier, fans confronted the owners with chants of “We’re not West Ham anymore”. Fan footage from the event also highlights the conflict between fans, those who disagree with fans invading the pitch lambast them with cries of “what’s that going to achieve, you pricks” and telling stewards to “give them a fucking hiding”, before fans erupt into violence amongst themselves – all reinforcing the theory that due to the commercialisation of football, fans are becoming alienated from each other. 

In light of this, can an alternative present itself? Much like capitalism at a real-world context, with its proliferation we become sedated by its manifestation and intertwinement in every fabric of society. Normalised by the pervasiveness of commercial interests within the game, any such alternative would seem foreign. As the previously quoted Jock Stein quote goes – “Football without fans is nothing”. Yet, what would happen if we framed this rhetoric into questioning the state of football without commercialisation? 

There are those who are fighting this very fight. In what follows we will explore the grassroots efforts by fans, movements that look at dismantling the corporate interests within football, and breaking from the bondage that commercialisation constricts upon football. In this, we will look at how this manifests, from the establishment of new clubs and the existence of football at a non-league context, to the agitation fans present, all hoping to effect change. The intersection at which this meets design will also be examined, in a bid to understand how design can champion these efforts.


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Jack Barnes