What's the story, sporting glory?
So, it’s late at night. You’re crashed on the sofa with a lazy eye on the television while summoning up the energy to go to bed.
Two hours later, your moist eyes betray a mixture of emotions. The warm glow of a great movie is mixed with the anger at your weak-willed, good-for-nothing ass and the dread of a dead-headed day at work tomorrow.
But the plot must have resonated because, first and foremost, you stuck with the movie against your better instincts and, secondly, it affected you to such an extent that you had a physical, tearful reaction.
The main movie genres – action, drama, romance, comedy, horror etc – are correlated with specific emotions. If you leave the cinema in the same state as you entered then the flick has probably failed. Done well, a great story can echo for days, weeks or years.
This is the subtle art of film-making; the hook, the grip and the resonance. All content creators can learn lessons from the way they suspend your disbelief, imbue you with affection for their characters and then take you on a satisfying story-arc. But it is an incredibly tough task.
Just look at the list of credits on your average Hollywood blockbuster. While the director and cast take top billing, clearly a good picture is produced only when there is a clear vision and every part of a mighty big machine is working with cohesive excellence. Yes, there is the odd Apocalypse Now, a masterpiece in which the dysfunction of lead actor Marlon Brando and director Francis Ford Coppola nearly proved fatal both for the film and their sanity. However, Hollywood tradition dictates that the director’s pseudonym Alan Smithee is attached to a film that either suffers from multiple occupants in the lead chair or the original incumbent disowns. Unsurprisingly “he” has never been mentioned in the Academy Award nominations.
Apart from paintings, movies are perhaps the visual content with the longest tail. They can be scrutinised for decades, so millions of tiny details must be organised and aligned during shooting.
Even then, there will be rewrites, test screenings and late changes.
After that, the audience will decide its fate.
Many a film has left its canister with everyone involved believing its Hitchcock. But it turns out to be poppycock.
These productions may be years, even decades, in the making. Movies can be masterpieces than alter culture, change political consciousness or ‘merely’ provide two hours of much-needed escapism.
They exist on a grander scale than my specialist subject – sports content strategy. However, if you are prepared to take a step back, there are connections, if not similarities.
The most important is meaning.
Like the best movies, sport is meant to move you. Almost every football game is accompanied by passionate singing and cheering. In this traditional, still mostly macho environment, you find men who might struggle to express emotions to their mother, wife or even their children shouting their love for [insert hero’s name here] in front of thousands of their peers. And they will be doing it have spent a chunk of their weekend and their wages to be present when their team performs.
Emotion, energy, time and money are spent. Surely there can be no greater cost.
The appeal is based on identity of course. You see that in Twitter bios. “Dave, 25, husband to Sue, father to Jane and Bobby. Gooner”. For many, family and sport are all they are ‘about’.
Most will have a familial history with their team or, failing that, a memory bank full of glories, heartbreaks, nearlys, maybes, slights, arguments, grudges and despair. However, despite a huge variance in ‘the product’ on the pitch, relatively few truly give up.
I live just north of London. Over the past three years, it has been revealing to see the increasing number of Tottenham crests worn by people in the area. These fans did not really desert their team during their lean years, they just stopped shouting about their allegiance. The relative success of the club has given them the desire to be proud once more.
It shows that the meaning of their team was not severed, merely stretched.
Sports fandom is made up of millions of morsels. It is a collage of mental clippings which dive deep into your soul and then attach themselves.
And this is why content reflected by clubs and rights-holders must be better.
The state of this new, rapidly-developing art has moved on a long way since I left Arsenal a couple of years ago. Those in charge of content should now be certain of the importance of their custodianship. They are the voice of their organisation on a daily basis.
Therefore, like those film-makers, they have to get the big vision and the small details right. Every. Single. Time.
The foundation stone of this is defining your story. What makes you distinctive? What is the tale of difference your fans tell themselves? It could be a specialness based on a blend of history, tradition, culture, playing style, youth development, politics, ethnicity, geography, iconic players or even misfortune and grievance.
Riff on it and reinforce it, again and again and again. Always flavour your key content with the spice of your club narrative.
These days it is easy enough for content creators simply to jump on memes. Look around you, find an emerging trend, then steal it and paint it in your team’s colours.
That may get you attention, engagement and followers. What is wrong with that, huh? It will be good enough for a gloat on LinkedIN or that end-of-season presentation of statistics to the boss. I plead guilty to this in the past.
However, these days, the average football supporter is following at least five different clubs on social media. So getting those eye-catching metrics is one thing but your hearts and minds are clearly something else.
Meme jumping will amuse your fans but it also leads to everyone producing the same ‘stuff’. No-one really stands out. Unless your content correlates to your unique story it will always offer insufficient depth.
Or, to put it another way, a few cool videos do not a strategy make.
A sense of connection, whether it is pride, elation, sadness or whatever, only comes from meaning. And that means baking “your story” into any important content.
This takes time, exactly the sort of time eager digital/social media practitioners don’t usually deal in.
It also requires a sense of overall vision from the leaders of your club, and there is often precious little of that going around amid the revenue-focused egos and competing fiefdoms at the top of these organisations.
Then there are differences between these groups: power, age, attitude, confidence, yardstick of success, language and pressures.
The digital revolution has meant the older, commanding generation must rely on younger colleagues to fuel the distribution engine for their message. Efficient execution involves conceding a measure of control and actually listening to those they deem ‘less experienced’ and, God forbid, ‘not (supposedly) revenue-driving’.
The space between the two groups is the one I aim to occupy as a consultant because, in truth, it rarely works well. I like to think I am bi-lingual, fluent in sports content and its application to the overall business strategy.
But how, on top of this ill-conceived canvas, is anyone really supposed to paint a meaningful story of a club with thousands of precise brushstrokes?
The Premier League is the world’s most important club competition. Its success has raised standards of play, coverage and facilities, along with numerous other benefits, but it has also driven a wedge between supporters and their teams. Fans feel they have been milked for money, taped off from touching their heroes and ignored by ownership. The connection seems to have decreased in inverse relation to the revenue explosion.
Coupled with this, greater scrutiny by a rapidly-changing, increasingly-challenged media has made clubs clam up. So not only have they built walls but they have whitewashed them too.
All of this in pursuit of success and pound notes, which in turn leads to more success and pounds notes. The aim is to spiral skywards in search of the silver and silverware.
But if that is the only path you can take then why did Leyton Orient’s season-ticket sales reach a 16-year high after the departure of a hated owner who presided over their drop into non-League for the first time in their history. Likewise, Durham County Cricket Club, relegated and docked points that would prevent promotion the following year, saw a bump in membership.
In August 1998, Man City dropped to their lowest ever position in the English League, 56th out of 92 teams, yet their average attendance that season was 28,261. A home game in the record-breaking, title-dominating, best-in-history 2017/18 season was only attended by 10,000 more if you strip away the misleading ‘ticket sold’ metric.
Whether it is the Cubs winning their first World Series in a century or the Cavaliers ending the city of Cleveland’s trophyless run after 52 years, the connection kept fans coming at some sort of level during the lean years. The deeper and more special the tale the more robust the fan-base. Just look at St Pauli, a football team with a distinct ethos but have never won top honours in Germany, or Atletico Bilbao, who surely would have tasted more success if they had loosened their self-imposed rule of only fielding Basque players.
Of course, success brings ‘lapsed’ believers back to 'The Cathedral', ironically the name of Atletico's stadium. But from that, we can infer the bond never truly broke.
The story always meant something and always will.
The same applies to the elite participants. Buried deep in the recent report about misconduct into to the win-at-all-costs culture of Australian cricket team was the suggestion that the country’s sporting population and, most significantly perhaps, its sponsors favoured how they played and what they represented over and above success. Certainly if it involved breaking the spirit of the laws.
I got the sense from this interview with Lance Armstrong that, while there is some repentance, he still fundamentally justifies arguably the most successful and sustained system of cheating in sports as “what you had to do to win”. I can empathise when everyone else is cheating but surely you know, deep down, it does not mean as much a clean victory.
No, it is emotional depth and true meaning that creates a world in which my teams and my children are the only things that can make me cry.
However, I fear that my two pre-teen Clarkes will not have the same connection to any team when they are my age. Tickets are expensive and/or tough to come by, parking is a pain and TV offers ceaseless games from all over the world. No child went training in a foreign team’s shirt when I was a colt. Now Barca and Real kits match the combined total from English teams when my son practices on a Wednesday evening.
And of course, if the game is too messy to play and too expensive/difficult/ angry to attend then there is always an easy, immediate dopamine hit available on the Xbox.
That’s why we need deep, meaningful and resonant and consistent stories from our teams, backed up by congruent, caring actions like this. These are narratives that, like those late-night movies, keep your attention when they should not and tease out your emotions exactly when you do not want them to.
The challenge is to make these pointillistic pictures of our teams profound, technicolour and multi-faceted with every dot reinforcing their unique specialness.
Like almost every significant facet of our existence, it is only created via a long-winded, precise painstaking process that involves intelligence, practise, focus, self-discipline, thick skin and the avoidance of short-cuts.
But, in my humble opinion, it is the only sports content strategy that truly means anything.