I have gotten into the habit of writing my blog entries on Thursday evenings. Generally if I haven’t posted by Friday morning, there won’t be an entry that week because I am away or busy or just couldn’t think of anything to write about. This week however I felt compelled to break this rule, as the reason I didn’t post anything yesterday is also the topic of this weeks entry. I meant to write it yesterday, but something distracted me for so long that by the time it was over it was past midnight and I would have been up until 3am on a schoolnight doing spelling corrections just for my own personal deadline. And to paraphrase Sweet Brown, no one has any time for that.
The reason I was so distracted until so late was because yesterday, Thursday January 31 at 11PM GMT, was the deadline for completing player transfers in the winter transfer window of European football. (I realise with that sentence that I am losing a lot of people right now who have no interest in sports, but if you people stick around there will be some stuff here for you too). In European football leagues, there are two main transfer windows. The summer window lasts for three months, from the beginning of June until the end of August. Outside of these times it is not possible to sign a player from a European league, unless it is in the winter window, which just lasts for the month of January. The main European Leagues run from August until May, which clearly means that the winter window occurs right in the middle of the playing season. Therefore it is the only opportunity for a struggling team to turn its fortunes around by reinforcing its squad and spending heavily on new players in January.
An entire month seems like plenty of time to achieve whatever transfer goals a team may have, however in practice it does not work like this. Agents, negotiations and even actions by the players themselves mean that in every winter window, most of the business gets done on transfer deadline day. Transfer Deadline Day™ is thus overhyped beyond belief by newspapers, rolling news TV channels and online media. For the entire month of January, sports journalists constantly hint at what might happen before the window closes, and in the past week, all have closed in on speculating what might happen before Thursday at 11pm. As usual, Sky Sports News in the UK devoted an entire day of programming, complete with a doomsday clock counting down the hours and minutes until the window closed. So Transfer Deadline Day™ is obviously a big deal for sports journalism if it gets this amount of coverage. They would not cover it like this if they didn’t think people would be paying attention. Those few who have no interest in sports and yet are still here may now be asking: “why is this deadline day so important to demand all this attention?”. And it is a valid question.
The easiest way to understand fans of a particular sports team is to think about it as a kind of fanatical brand loyalty (indeed, fans are fanatics). Football like all professional sports is an industry, and Manchester United is a brand, no different from McDonalds or Coca Cola. We all know people who prefer Pepsi to Coca Cola or Burger King to McDonalds, and these people may argue incessantly about why their preference is correct. The difference between this brand loyalty and that of football fans is that a Pepsi guy will not obsessively track Coca Cola sales statistics on a weekly basis in order to see how Pepsi are doing in comparison. As I said, this is the easiest way to understand football fans, however like all marketing theory it is highly simplistic.
A much more potent analogy would be to think about the difference between shareholders of a company, and its stakeholders. Everyone reading may know that shareholders are basically those who have a financial interest in the performance and existence of a business enterprise. On the other hand, stakeholders are a much more vague group of people. A stakeholder is anyone who is affected by the existence of a business enterprise. For most large businesses, this usually is narrowed down to the inhabitants and environment of the areas where the business operates. A few years ago during the BP Oil Spill, BP suddenly found that they had a lot more stakeholders to account for than they ever wanted, and those stakeholders will be part of BP for a long time to come. BP is an exception however, as most businesses do not really have to think about their stakeholders too much on a regular basis.
When you enter the business of professional sports though, the stakeholder issue suddenly becomes very important. Obviously the fans of a team are its primary stakeholders. Fans of Liverpool or Barcelona get little financial gain from their team doing well. The benefit of Liverpool winning for most fans is purely emotional. It is surprising and nonsensical for non-sports fans to hear, but it can also be the difference between being in a good mood for a week or a bad mood. These stakeholders also do not suffer in silence. Message boards, blogs, podcasts and obviously Twitter are media platforms which bring all these stakeholders together to inspire debate and often forge consensus about what is happening with their team. These fans also search regularly for news articles written online about the fate of their team.
Online journalism is still in its infancy hoever, and it is often very difficult to see the difference between a professional and some guy just out to generate user hits and therefore online ad revenue. The big English teams have millions of fans all over the world, and therefore transfer news for these clubs, no matter how vague, will get an extortionate amount of hits. If it is reported by a legitimate-sounding news source that a big-name player is coming to your club, you will read it, share it, and promote it on Twitter. Twitter however is a tool that highlights information that is popular rather than important or true, and therefore football transfer news is a perfect candidate for assimilation along with celebrity deaths and declarations of love for Justin Bieber. Twitter is noise, with a small amount of relevant information packed away somewhere, and no one knows where. During Transfer Deadline Day™, this noise is built up to a roar, with rumours abound, sources being shared, and big names being dropped in relation to the most marketable international football teams. So football fans stay on Twitter, dreaming and hoping, while also simultaneously tuning in to Sky Sports News Deadline Day Coverage in the vain hope of something actually happening in the real world.
I support Arsenal, which is one of these big clubs that internet entrepreneurs exploit in order to gain web traffic. Yesterday, the louder voices of the Twitter Noise were shouting that Arsenal were going to sign David Villa, one of the best strikers of the past decade, and also Stefan Jovetic, a young Montenegrin who is one of the rising stars of the European scene. In the end what kept me hooked and prevented me from writing last night were not the rumours online about these dream signings, but a persistent, growing voice within the Twitter Noise about a young Spanish defender who was apparently talking to Arsenal about a move. At 11pm last night, Ignacio “Nacho” Monreal signed for Arsenal, from Malaga, a man who I had never heard of until 8 hours previously. Yet just the thought of one of these incessant rumours coming true was enough to have me monitoring Twitter feeds and Sky Sports News until the window of the Winter Transfer Market slammed firmly shut. And it gave me a surprising amount of joy, as all last-minute signings do, no matter the quality of this player that still I know nothing about. Drama and tension exist in environments that are limited, not infinite. Excitement comes from those things that may not have happened, but did so just in time. This is the essence of what it is to be a stakeholder in a football team. We know it will all happen again in a few months with the summer transfer window, but in sports you constantly have to live in the present, as this is what the media is currently screaming in your face and is therefore the most important thing in the world. For now.