So while a whole list of things have happened in the time since I last posted, the one that I choose to start writing about is the other – other – football: the CFL.
Tonight is the 101st Grey Cup, the Canadian Superbowl of mounties, bilingual anthems, and roughly 80 Americans running around trying to win a game for the two smallest-market teams in a small-market league: Hamilton vs Saskatchewan. Now I like the Grey Cup, I’ve got my boys into it by bribing them with chicken wings, potato chips and pop, but it is distinctly Canadian in its spectacle. The week prior to the game involves multiple parties for all of the eight teams in the league, a parade, pancake breakfasts, horses being taken into bars for a drink, and finally a game, but knowing that the hosts would also be playing in the game this year made it that much more special. Regina is a city that loves its team, but also with generations of people from Saskatchewan moving elsewhere in the country (the demographics only recently reversed) it seems that the rest of the country also loves the Roughriders (apparently they sell more merchandise than the rest of the league combined!). Going to a ‘Riders game means that they are the home team just about wherever they play. Fans hollow out watermelons to wear as makeshift helmets and the stadium tonight is a sea of green. So here it is. This is success for a small market team, they have become the biggest thing in the league by being the smallest.
The lesson here is transferable to soccer. One of the stories I have been following over the last few months is the drama of Hull City AFC and the changes being made to the team by their owner Assem Allam. He has taken the small team and with some big investments managed to lift them into the premier league, but the cost to the club is the name and the sense of ownership by the local fans. While he hasn’t messed with the colours or personnel the way that the owner of Cardiff has, Mr. Allam has decided that the name that the team has had since the beginning of time will not help him in building Hull City’s global brand. Hull City AFC will henceforth be known as Hull Tigers. The change has been explained by Allam as one that is necessary to distinguish the team at a global level: he says that nobody understands the AFC, or Athletic Football Club, so that is gone. Next up, the ‘City’ in the name is nothing special and kind of redundant, so that’s gone too. That leaves lots of space for the mascots, the Tigers. Now changing a name and making it sound like an American franchise team was bound to go over like a lead balloon with some of the fans, and many have protested the changes. I should note that the change from Hull City to Hull Tigers is not official, as it will not be approved by the Premier League prior to April. In the meantime, there will be a fair bit of noise from the fans that don’t approve of the change: at the weekend match against Crystal Palace stewards scuffled with fans who unfurled a “We are Hull City” banner across the front of the seats.
So the motivations are that Allam wants a financially stable team, one that can stand on its own and that can compete on a world stage. Now I haven’t seen the Hull financials, but judging by the fact that they’ve been around for over 100 years I’d say they’d been fairly stable prior to Allam’s involvement. Jumping them up to the Premier League took a significant investment by Allam, and the sort of funds that many a team could only dream about having access to, but then the stability becomes reliant on the largess of their benefactor. And that’s where things so often fall apart, Allam expecting that football is somehow an investment strategy. Yes clubs are raking it in off the fans that pass the turnstyles every week, but don’t get into club ownership because it’s a place to make a quick buck. I had sailing described to me as standing in a cold shower and throwing money down the drain, football is not so different: you still get wet and your money drains away. I don’t think many owners do look at it as investment, they see it as an ego thing (Abramovich at Chelsea being a classic example), rarest of all is the one that does it just for the love of it all, I’m thinking Dave Whelan at Wigan. Whelan was so excited at the FA Cup, he looked like a kid, but then he was a player and seems to value the importance of stability in a team, even if it means a relegation. Allam clearly got involved for ego, and now wants a financially stable ego, but at a level he finds more appropriate to his needs and unfortunately for Hull that means the EPL.
But in trying to sell the Hull Tigers to the world, Allam is forgetting that perhaps it is the first word in that name that hurts the marketing the most: Hull. It takes years, even decades to build a fanbase of the sort that Allam wants and is no instant sell based on cute stuffed animals that will available in the gift shop. Hull just isn’t the global draw that Allam wants it to be, yes they are the 2015 City of Culture (or is that Tiger of Culture?), but it’s not London, Manchester, or Liverpool – cities that mean something around the world. In the globalized world Hull is a distinctly second or even third tier city, without the global punch that those other cities have. He can change as much as he wants but without the major trophies – a League title minimum, or success in Europe. Hull will just be one of those other teams that people are aware of but don’t really back.
Marketing the team this way goes against the whole marketing program of the Premier League this season. What happened to #youarefootball if one of the owners can come along and rip the heart out of the team? Or was that whole #youarefootball just some way to get some of the more uppity fans off the league’s back? Never mind, I think I know that answer. For a league that markets itself on the importance of fans and the supporter culture, Hull City (and Cardiff City) are doing a great job of alienating those fans that they say are so important. Fans also crave authenticity and belonging, and if Allam has just kicked many of the most passionate Hull fans to the curb, how does that create the atmosphere needed to draw in others?
Meanwhile in Canada, a team that has always been about small is actually quite big because they haven’t tried to become the Dallas Cowboys. Oh, and by the way, the team is publicly owned – tell me you weren’t surprised.