Many football fans display the most obvious signs of topophilia (love of place). Yes, they love the club, the team and the games even through the tricky times, but place affinity is still a huge factor in the football deal.
I can track my curiosity on place back to intently watching the league results on a Saturday evening as a child – instinctively understanding this was serious and essential viewing, like the news - and marking off the pools coupons looking for the magic 24 points. And I loved the club names associated with these places – Bolton Wanderers, Bristol Rovers, Queen of the South….
The football brands, clubs and performance were and still are integral to place identity.
Of course Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea have long since became global brands and attract followers from across the world. And it’s not just soccer – we all know the Harlem Globetrotters or the Dallas Cowboys. These clubs and global brands have superseded the place brand and place affinity for supporters (outside of the locale) is either less important or sometimes non-existent. But it was local supporters and fans that built the clubs, rooted the national leagues and the whole business in the first instance. It was all about community, sense of place, identity and pride.
The decision to can the SuperLeague plans by the English clubs is a victory for supporters, communities and place. It was a power to the people moment – the fans knew the move would mean their clubs were essentially overtaken by big business (and arguably already are), but the football would most definitely become secondary. Place would have been seriously relegated. The upswell of opposition was about a loss of identity, a fightback to the owners that have bought these clubs without understanding their legacy and importance in the cities they were founded, and the sense of injustice that other places would unfairly be left behind and not able to compete. The Government intervention in rejecting the Superleague was needed to evidence their commitment to the levelling up agenda - we need more dispersal, not greater concentration of power and influence - in place as well as football.
I now admire the supporter of the local league and used to wonder why they bothered. No big stadiums, no star players, light on the glamour factor, less enjoyable to watch. Does the local supporter lack ambition or have misplaced hope? Not at all it turns out, they are the eternal optimists. And there is definitely read across for us as economic developers and place managers. We know there are better options, more exciting places but our roles are to support and develop our own team to make sure they keep competing. Every goal achieved for liveability, investment and tourism is a win.
Grassroots development is now recognised as a necessity in place management – engendering action, pride, identity and community; we can still learn a lot from football.