Borussia Dortmund’s chief executive Hans-Joachim Watzke recently gave an interesting observation about English fan culture: we are more clients of the game than members.
Speaking to BBC Sport following Germany’s trialling of a Monday night game, Watzke commented that he didn’t want Germans to be the same way. “The Germans don’t want to have circumstances like in English football,” he said.
He has the numbers to back up that assertion, too. According to the BBC’s report, 30,000 Borussia Dortmund fans opted not to attend their Monday night game against Augsburg despite paying for a ticket.
Watzke believes that up to 80% of Germans are against Monday night games. “The TV contract is not done again until 2021. Maybe something happens before then but 80% of the football fans in Germany don’t want it and you can’t do anything against 80%. No chance.”
I’d be fascinated to see how many English fans would be against Monday night games as well.
Fans vs TV companies has been an ongoing battle for years. The sudden changes to dates and kick-off times have caused no end of troubles for match-attending fans.
However, one thing that’s been accepted as the norm here is Monday night games, which have been around pretty much since the Premier League’s inception in 1993.
Watzke mentions this resignation, saying: “In English football, the fans accept, mostly, that they are more clients than members or pieces of the club. We have 154,000 members. Everyone wants to be a part of the club, not a client of the club. That is a big difference. This is the special spirit in German football.”
In football business terms, fans are the clientele. I’m not sure when the shift happened but I’m confident that it’s not a new thing. The money involved may be greater now, but clubs and TV companies have been looking to monetise supporters for decades. I suppose the only difference now is that they’re a lot more transparent about it.
For example, there’re few more naked attempts than spreading out a round of fixtures over as many days as possible.
Friday used to be a football free day in England, but now it hosts both Championship and Premier League matches. Monday nights are a thing, as are semi-frequent mid-week rounds of Tuesday and Wednesday.
Hell, the wisdom of Sky Sports decided that the re-arranged fixture between Arsenal and Manchester City would be best played on a Thursday. Every day of the week is good for football in their eyes.
Their motive is simple enough. They pay big money for the rights to show games and want, maybe even need, to maximise the exposure for what they’re paying for. Why have eight un-televised Premier League fixtures on a Saturday when you can have one live on Friday, two on Saturday, two on Sunday and one on Monday?
Nevermind asking fans of, say, Newcastle to travel down to Brighton, or asking City fans to travel through the snow and ice to Arsenal in the middle of a working week. No demand is too great for the loyal, paying supporter.
Fans have protested this treatment but still turn up to games like the loyal soldiers they are.
I’ve seen it argued that fans should not have to choose between supporting their team or not, but the protests lose a lot of their impact when there’s no sacrifice involved. Actions tend to speak louder than words, after all.
This, I feel, is what Watzke means by “acceptance”. We might complain and point fingers but, when it comes down it, we’re not doing anything to make a meaningful difference. Deep down, we know it won’t. We’ll buy into the service as long as it exists.
Away from the financial and moral obligations against expanding TV coverage, I want to make a point about how dull most Monday night games feel.
I’ve often felt a lack of buzz around fixtures not scheduled on the normal Saturday or Sunday. They tend to feel detached from the big weekend event that is football and has less social and entertainment value.
When you go into work or school on a Monday morning, you can feel left out when everyone’s talking about the weekend action when your team has yet to play.
The round of fixtures technically hasn’t finished, but everyone else has moved on and is looking ahead to the next game. So this final Monday night game ends up feeling like the spare.
The feeling is difficult to describe, but on a weekend it feels like the whole country is doing something football related. Maybe they’re watching a game, or maybe they’re actually playing it, at every kind of level.
Monday to Friday is for work and education. Saturday and Sunday are for football. That’s kind of how I’ve always viewed it.
So when football is on a Monday, it feels less of a big deal. Sky Sports’ viewing figures may show otherwise, but how much people care is tied in with the magnitude of the fixture and the context surrounding it. If this one game doesn’t sell, then there is no other choice. I’m certainly not going to waste precious hours on a Monday night on a bad game.
Maybe that’s how the Germans feel as well. Friday night is the prelude to the weekend, and the weekend itself is often bountiful with free time. After that, we’re fitting football into a hectic schedule, picking and choosing what we can drop to free up time that could be spent on something else.
Only, if you’re a very loyal supporter, you don’t think you have the choice.
There’s plenty that we can learn from German football. Perhaps how they’re fans deal with TV companies could be one of them.