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Paradigm FC: Commodification, the Systems World and Language.

* In a series of articles, I will be looking at a concept caused by the paradigm of the day and how it has seeped into football, how to spot it, how it affects football, and what football, as a lens, can teach us about the goings on in the broader societal landscape, away from the pitch.

In 2008, Emmanuel Eboue was subbed on in the 32nd minute during the Arsenal vs Wigan Premier League match at the Emirates Stadium. He had to play the remaining 58 minutes out of position, at left back. To be extremely charitable, Eboue did not have the best of games; to use modern parlance – he had an absolute shocker. In one surreal moment, he tackled his own team-mate, Kolo Toure, almost inadvertently causing a Wigan goal. The tension in the crowd, directed mainly at him, was palpable, but notably different – as the murmurings lingered longer than normal Emirates-Stadium-frustration at a wayward pass. In hindsight, I would file it under ‘entitled frustration’. Arsene Wenger finally had had enough and subbed the sub in the 90th minute. Eboue left the field amid a spontaneous and a seemingly justified cacophony of boos. Within me, a number of emotions arose at the time and some more persistent ones did after, most importantly: a feeling of disconnect with my fellow supporter firstly and most notably, followed by sympathy for Eboue, then, much later in life, a realisation that I had witnessed the manifestation of an ongoing change: it dawned on me that I hadn’t simply heard 55,000 disgruntled supporters relieving themselves of their frustration at a poor performance of a player but, instead, 55,000 customers simultaneously and metaphorically trudging over to the Arsenal customer service desk and complaining and asking for a refund. For Eboue was now a full-blown commodity in their eyes.

Commodification, very briefly, is the process by which something which does not have an economic value is assigned a value, consequently leading to a modification of the thing itself and resulting in the blooming of commercial relationships. Basically meaning market values can and often replace social values.

And the Arsenal fans, in that moment, saw their relationship with Eboue as a commercial one. Why? Because they were individually and collectively increasingly more aware that the vast sums of money they spend (the highest in Europe) on match tickets go towards the paying of his wages; and because the corporatised media, which they consumed, directly and indirectly, talked about how the ever increasing ticket prices paid his wages – his, by the way, 1500%-increase-in-20-years wages, too. A wage so high that he had long left the average fan’s stratosphere of comprehension years ago. The comprehensible had been converted into the absurd – by money. He was earning an amount of money which, for the average fan, was not at all anchored in their collective and agreed upon reality. Humans are social animals; we naturally gravitate and empathize with someone on our team, because sticking tightly together as a team was the evolutionary behaviour selected for on the savannas of Africa millennia ago. In that moment, Eboue, a piece of human capital, a cog in the machination of the global football industry was not part of their ‘team’. Eboue, in that moment seemed to be one of a group of players who were sent out on to the pitch in the corporation’s uniform, as anonymous, highly paid figures acquired by and representing a larger organization, operating in an entirely different sphere to the people watching.

When this extreme form of commodification happens, extreme forces are exerted upon the relationship. Fans have always expected professional endeavor and competence from players in return. But now players are receiving an inconceivable amount of money; the understood norms established in an old world based on shared experience and commonalities is far in the distance in the rear view mirrors of their Ferraris. In the Wigan match, the Arsenal fans needed to show that they deserved to get value for what they paid. No – they demanded it. The customer is always right, after all, aren’t they?

Jurgen Habermas, the German philosopher/sociologist, came up with the notion of the ‘life world’ and the ‘systems world’. It’s a complex insight, with a focus on communication, but one that is easily applied to the current paradigm, and therefore football.

The lifeworld is the everyday world that we share with others. This includes all aspects of life except institution-driven ones. For example, it includes family life, culture and informal social interactions. In short, it is the sphere within which we lead much of our social and personal life; football once operated fully in this sphere.

The lifeworld is based on a tacit pool of shared meanings and understandings that enable us to perform actions that we know others will comprehend. Think of a young boy going to the stadium with his brother and dad for the first time. He learns the norms from the adults around him. During the 90 minutes, before and beyond he will be soaking up all the sounds, chants, humour, visual cues, language etc. He learns a way of social connection and communal being among others. Any future replication of these actions will be collectively and individually acknowledged as being a form of communication commonly accepted by the groups involved in that particular pursuit.

In contrast, Habermas’ ‘system world’ refers to the ‘system common patterns’ of strategic action that serve the interests of institutions and organisations. System actions are essentially driven by money and power. To put it somewhat crudely, the system uses money and power to manipulate individuals to achieve its own (i.e. the system’s) aims. He says that these systems ‘colonise’ the lifeworld in any way they can. They are pervasive in their entirety and they generally do not coincide with aims of individuals (fans, in this case) or non-system outgroups.

The behaviours, formed in the lifeworld, struggle to coexist with the new system led world, and end up being corrupted – or colonised – to such an extent that they can cease to exist.

If we continue with the stadium as an example, we can see it in many ways: the most obvious systems world’ influence is inflated ticket prices. The consequences are huge for the lifeworld. Pre and post-match rituals are affected,  a couple of hours in the pub are now cut out as clubs push their fans’ cash flow to the limit to afford the tickets. The boy, from above, is no longer sharing the sacred, connected moments with his father and his brother but now with just his father, since he now shares his ticket with his brother. Fans in the same section as the boy regularly sell their tickets to a carousel of tourists or friends, meaning common shared experiences, such as song, suffer – no one knows the words. The family enclosure has been reduced in size to make space for corporate boxes. In 1968 the average age of fans standing in the Stretford End was 17. Forty years on, the average age of fans sitting in the Stretford End is over 40. Our paradigm favours the empowered (by money) individual over the family. Who has money in our society? Not the youth, nor the 18-35 age bracket – they barely make rent.

As a further example of the system-led colonization, we need to look at how football is communicated. A significant percentage of the sport’s coverage is delivered by the very media that owns the rights to the sport itself. This allows for filtering and shaping how we look at the thing in question: it concentrates on a few issues and subjects leading the public to perceive those issues as more important than other issues. It also uses a certain language which often infests once within. In this case the language is an economic one.

‘Transfer Deadline Day’ on Sky Sports is now, unequivocally, an event, like the Queen’s birthday. It happens twice a year and would probably be considered as a high point for the corporation in terms of output and overall viewing figures. What does it showcase? Reduced to its most simplified form, it presents non-stop coverage of commodified goods going for large sums of cash. “AND WITH THAT TRANSFER, THIS IS NOW THE HIGHEST SPENDING TRANSFER WINDOW EVER!”, a coked up presenter screams. The talk is money, basically: agents’ fees, wages, value, signing on fees, loyalty bonuses, brightly coloured side screens flashing up the window’s biggest transfers on repeat. We have normalized the transactional process of football clubs exchanging money and cash for human capital to such an extent that it is now entertainment. It has the feeling of watching a high speed auction on speed. Imagine actually voluntarily booking a day off to go to a farmer’s markets for fun. Sky has duped some into doing this, all the while forcing this one way lens in front of your face to see football through their parameters. This is how lifeworld colonization occurs.

What caused it in football? Well, incessant economic concern has come from the main paradigm (economics – capitalism and neoliberalism) and has creeped into every domain. Years back, I remember reading an article about a sheep transporter toppling over on the motorway and killing a lot of sheep. Ok. But what shocked me was how much of the article was focussed on how much it, the inadvertent act, would cost the economy. This will cost the economy a lot of pounds, the article reworded many times. This is what neoliberalism does – it reduces everything to its monetary value. In the absence of the divine realm, the economy has become our God.

In January, I was privy to a 15-20 minute WhatsApp debate between friends. The topic: Alexis Sanchez’s wages. “I don’t want him if he’s on 500,000”, one friend said, “Is that after-tax?” said another. “Not worth it!” said the third. But it was eventually worth it for Manchester United, who boasted on Twitter that the “Sanchez signing generated 75% more social media interactions than Neymar to PSG” and that he also “set a new January record for shirt sales – three times previous best.” Thank God for that. This economic fertilization of the wider culture is now just ‘part and parcel’ of the modern football fan’s lexicon. ‘He spread the play to start a promising move’ is on an equal footing to ‘the spread sheet is looking promising’.

One denominational tool which is now in full swing is the player wage/value prefix. Very recently, the press discovered that the mother of an Arsenal player, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, was living in a 10ft square metal storage box. An alien landing on earth that day would have assumed that Maitland Niles’s full name was actually quintuple-barrelled: 30k-a-week-Ainsley-Maitland-Niles.

One article I found, in fact, achieved the magical full house in the first sentence of the introduction: “Mother of 30K a week Arsenal player Ainsley Maitland Niles, rated at 15 million pounds, and who lives in 700k house…” it started. Three clear barometers which we all now live by in an economic system dominated world: our earnings, our potential, and the cost of our home (usually bought on credit). In the ensuing debate which I saw on several platforms, the financial aspect was at its heart – people were weighing up the money involved and the outlay for the young player – as if morals were somehow affected by earnings. In a neoliberal context all evaluation procedures are just cost analyses.

Post-structuralists would point to this as evidence for how the language we use shapes our reality, but you don’t have to go that far to the left to get at the point: it’s safe to say the language used by the people within a sphere simply evidences the reality of that sphere. And football is now awash with talk of money: even a striker can now ‘cash in’ on a decent cross, after all.

I found a comment from a Rangers fan in 2004 about commodification in football: “There was a real shambles with the new strips. About 2 weeks before they were released, all our club members were given “exclusive access” to buy them at a special price: £40. When they hit the sport shops, they were £25 within a few weeks. We’ve sent them a strong letter and when we met, we voted to boycott all direct buying until the pricing was changed. They were fleecing their own support! We’re just too damn loyal when it comes to the top [team shirt].”

The modern club and fan are in a power dance: fans recognize that ever greater demands are made on fans’ disposable income to maintain support for their club at the expense of alternative cultural activities. The possibility of a fan changing that way of life by entirely abandoning the team would cause them to be a pariah, and that doesn’t mesh with the supporter’s self-identity. And the clubs know that. That doesn’t stop them wringing every last penny out of them.

The model the Rangers’ fan uses as an example is actually becoming very common in other domains. In the music industry, concert tickets are sold early, before official release dates. If you think about it, it’s tantamount to the commodifying of a concept and a feeling: kudos (having the ticket before anyone else) and loyalty (to the artist) are given a price and simultaneously ‘rewarded’. The buyer buys the ticket earlier at an (artificially) higher cost. Normal priced tickets are then released a week later.

Third kits used to have a use: home kits could clash with away kits, so a third kit was used by one of the sides and vary rarely changed – remarkably simple. However, it takes no economic genius to work out how an extra replica shirt has financial gains. Interestingly, very little of the money goes to the club whose badge adorns the shirt, the winners here are the major manufacturers and the retailers, but the former reward clubs with handsome contracts based on shirt sales. I remember watching a Juventus game a couple of seasons back. They were playing in pink, their new third kit, but at home. I and thousands of Juve fans, on Twitter, were perplexed. I found out they had to play X% of home games a season in their third kit for maximum exposure, as part of the deal with the kit manufacturer. In England, Arsenal even tried to make as if they were doing the fans the favour they deserve. They said in 2014 that the third kits “are driven to a significant degree from supporter demand”. The tail wags the dog according to them.

Logically extrapolating the commodification of humans, concepts and feelings, it must follow that one day we will commodify ourselves. We actually already do that. Unwittingly and frivolously, every social media user does this every time they like/read/comment on something on social media, tell social media about their preferences, even the things they don’t read (Facebook published an academic paper on this mining tool called“self-censorship” in 2013) are logged. Data is the gold of our day. It can be sold to the highest bidder to be used how they wish (normally to advertise). The data revolution has turned users’ own activity into a commodity. Consider how companies use Google adverts. Clever algorithms, being fed with the data the user unwittingly allowed the technology used to know and store, will now seemingly follow you around the web suggestively dangling products you googled in front of you, or a show or a hotel your friend checked into on Facebook and you liked.

Has football channelled this? Not per se or yet. Fans may well receive personalized emails based on previous buying behaviour. I wouldn’t be surprised to see clubs introduce a more developed kind of app – the current ones just give you transfer news and live updates etc. But the money is in data, at the moment. If the EU doesn’t come down hard on data mining after the recent Facebook scandal, new club apps may allow the fan to prepay for beers at the stadium or in affiliated bars, a ticket exchange system, and ways to ‘connect’ the fan with others, all glossily packaged with the fan in mind, but secretly mining their data, and using it for further financial gain.

I’m hyper-aware that these articles are very Anglo and big club-centric. Unfortunately, Britain is the biggest expression of neoliberalism second to the States in the world, so the best examples will come from there. A good friend of mine is a huge Brighton fan and he often tells me about the club initiatives in place to keep the feeling of community that has built up over years of being in the lower leagues, among other things. The schemes are admirable. Nevertheless, my cynical side simply tells me that Brighton haven’t been riding the Premier League juggernaut long enough to have been infected.

Germany has a remarkable, non-hypnotized approach to dealing with the issues I raise. Young fans make up a huge percentages of the safe-standing sections; in 2013 the average fan was a decade younger, on average, than their British counterpart. Clubs purposefully hold back on selling all their season tickets to allow young fans to attend games. A season ticket policy tends to favour older fans – who can afford one off payments. Cheaper match day tickets include free travel to the stadium. They did not let the rot start, and the league is flourishing. Habermas would say the Bundesliga’ lifeworld has yet to be colonised.

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