We Are Fast Approaching a Time When Supporting a Top Football Club Will Become a Paid-For Privilege

By Liew, Jonathan | New Statesman (1996), January 17, 2020 | Go to article overview

We Are Fast Approaching a Time When Supporting a Top Football Club Will Become a Paid-For Privilege


Liew, Jonathan, New Statesman (1996)


James Milner and Andy Robertson can barely get their words out for chuckling. As the Liverpool teammates and close friends stare intently into the autocue explaining the benefits of subscribing to Liverpool's new premium YouTube channel, they take it in turns to try to put each other off. "I think we've sold that, James," Robertson says in mock-solemnity at the end, before both collapse into fits of giggles.

The pitch may be jovial, but for a club enjoying unprecedented Premier-League era success, the stakes are deadly serious. On the field, Liverpool's 1-0 win against Tottenham on it January left them an outlandish 16 points clear at the top of the league. Their 20 wins and one draw from 21 games this season is the best start in the history of elite European club football. If, as expected, they end their 30-year wait for a league title in May, they will simultaneously be champions of England, Europe and the world.

For all the jaw-dropping dominance of Jurgen Klopp's side, however, off the field Liverpool remain a little way short of Europe's financial elite. The latest Deloitte table of football club revenue puts them seventh, behind their two biggest domestic rivals, Manchester City and Manchester United, and more than 200m [pounds sterling] behind market leaders Real Madrid. Commercially speaking, Liverpool have been playing catch-up for some years, hamstrung by a historic failure to move with changing times (as late as 1998 they did not have an official website) and an indifferent playing record.

Right now, though, they are not only the best football team on the planet, but its most admired and resonant brand: this is why the club was so keen to enlist two of its star players to promote its new YouTube offering, despite a hectic winter schedule. Last month, Liverpool announced that it would be the first sports team in the world to launch its own YouTube membership subscription, which has two tiers. For 99P or 2.99 [pounds sterling] a month, fans can access "an enhanced video package" and other features including youth team highlights, behind the-scenes footage and bespoke emojis.

In many ways, Liverpool's foray into the world of paywalled digital media encapsulates a dilemma facing top clubs. The runaway success of European club football over the past couple of decades has created global audiences of unprecedented size and scope. Years of toil and lavish resources have been ploughed into accumulating huge online followings who hang on these clubs' every move. Now, how do they get these people to start paying for stuff?

Under football's current financial model, the relationship between clubs and their global fan bases is largely indirect. Apart from lucrative pre-season tours and the occasional wide-eyed, selfie-hunting foreign visitor, their main sources of overseas revenue have been through television rights deals for competitions such as the Premier League and Champions League. …

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