Why local and little are lekker

You don’t remember Helmuth Duckadam, do you? Sporting a snappy Jewfro and looming tall, Duckadam saved all four of Barcelona’s penalties in the 1985-1986 European Cup final. His antics for Steaua Bucharest that memorable summer’s day in Seville – memorable for half of Romania, that is – led to Steaua winning 2-0 on penalties and marching home as champions of Europe. With sophisticated Balkan wit, Duckadam was nicknamed “the Hero of Seville”.

Football was different back then. Barcelona were coached by the flash Terry Venables. They had an old-fashioned Scottish centre-forward in the final called Steve Archibald and – amazing, this – their opening kick in Seville consisted of a speculative hoof up-field in the hope of chancing upon Archibald’s head.

In 1986, there was no vaguely tiresome possession football from the Catalans. They played pretty much like everyone else. Sensibility had yet to harden into dogma. If the opening Barcelona salvo in a Champions League final today involved a donkey kick upfield, Barça fans would throw off their replica jerseys, burn their season tickets and vote out the club president. This isn’t a club, it’s a dynasty. Reputations must be maintained.

Which leads one to suggest that contemporary football seems to be bloated by its own self-importance. Folk love the snarling Diego Simeone but doesn’t he teeter on the verge of self-parody?

Nowadays European football is dominated by a handful of clubs, of which Simeone’s Atletico are one. Just this week, defender Mats Hummels was bought by Bayern Munich from Borussia Dortmund, following purchases in the same direction of Mario Gotze and Robert Lewandowski. Such economic power is reputedly what forced Jurgen Klopp to leave Dortmund for Liverpool, sick and tired of having his best players slip through his hands.

Ah, Liverpool, remember them? Once was the time when teams like Liverpool were the best on the continent. Look at the names of European Cup winners between 1975 and, say, 1990, and see the themes. Here are teams who have emerged from large ports (Liverpool, Hamburg, Malmo) or declining industrial centres (Nottingham Forest or, in Aston Villa’s case, Birmingham). Working-class centres with working-class players and fans.

Nowadays the words “class” and “football” don’t go as readily together. Football is the playground of the few and the rich.

Later this month is the second Champions League final featuring teams from the same country in four years. The past 10 finals have featured teams from only four countries (Spain, Italy, England, Germany) with no French, Portuguese, Belgian, Dutch or Scandinavian finalists to speak of. Increasingly, it’s a race of the powerful few.

Such gigantism has inspired a move in the opposite direction. Sport in some corners of the United States is downscaling, with smaller stadiums and smaller player rosters. With smaller stadiums you can charge more for season tickets when they’re oversubscribed.

It’s a move embraced by several codes – notably cricket and rugby – here in South Africa. Several weeks ago, 16 784 fans packed into the Alberton Rugby Club to watch the Lions against the Blue Bulls in a Currie Cup curtain-raiser to a club match between Alberton and Union.

A prominent local administrator thinks that the creativity of such initiatives might be a portent of things to come. “People want a social experience out of rugby,” he says. “They want to be able to take their wives and kids to the game, have a drink while overlooking the field, be able to saunter to the bar when needed, be able to buy reasonably priced food that is made by the locals, and be able to have their kids play in a safe environment (many clubs these days have things such as swings and jungle gyms). I really think we are at a tipping point now.”

How many of us have suffered as fans from the cult of gigantism, visiting large, relic-like stadiums that draw reasonable crowds but because of their size nevertheless appear half-empty?

Unions now speak of the user ex-perience. Visitors to the home Tests against England at the Wanderers and Centurion were treated to super-attentive vendors, and all kinds of flattering little extras.

But the secret is out. One franchise chief executive estimates that it costs nearly R70 000 a day for outsourced match-day security; turning on floodlights for night-time football, cricket or rugby games is exorbitant. Many cricket stadiums now have their own generators – another overhead.

In other respects, society is also moving in the opposite direction, towards craft beers, artisanal bakeries, organic produce. The move to greater intimacy in the experience of live sport is irrefutable. Punters just don’t want to pay good money for wors of dubious provenance and stale mustard on their week-old roll anymore.

Smaller stadiums and more intimate fan experiences presumably allow officials to monitor demand more carefully, which, in turn, gives franchises greater pricing flexibility.

As Rich Gotham, the president of the Boston Celtics, explained to the Harvard Business Review: “So, it’s a matter of trying to keep our finger on the pulse of demand in order to maximise our return. We monitor pricing and demand in real time using algorithms to help inform our decisions. In some cases, demand says that you can raise the price. In others, it says lower the price to drive a higher volume.”

So the wheel has turned – or is in the process of turning – away from bloated super-clubs to more real experiences consumers can trust.

Leicester City might have won the English Premier League but they are 12th out of 18 when it comes to the size of their home crowd, with an average of just over 32 000 fans a game.

Look again and the table shows something even more intriguing – Leicester’s ground is, on average, 98.5% full, a percentage only bettered by five other clubs in the league, including Chelsea and Spurs as well as Stoke City and Swansea. It tells you less might be more, a contemporary antidote to the cult of Bayern, Atletico and Barça.


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