In the same week that London Wasps announced that they would be moving into the Coventry Ricoh Arena, the Premier League also raised the prospect of moving regular season league matches abroad. It raises the question of whether the potential of immediate economic gains outweighs the long term risk of ignoring your traditional fan base.
Whilst the issues for these announcements vary, the underlying motivation is the same; driving revenue. Wasps claim that without the move the club would not survive, having been very close to bankruptcy on a number of occasions over the last few years it was a simple choice of moving or disappearing. Whilst they claim that they had no choice other than moving to Coventry, many believe that other options closer to their traditional fan base were available however economically they were not as financially attractive. The premier league is clearly not on the verge of bankruptcy however they see the significant financial benefits of moving matches around the world. The dangers to both are similar, turning your back on the traditional fan base for the sake of short term financial gain could spell long term issues.
Since the dawn of professional rugby in the mid 90’s Wasps has moved twice from its traditional Sudbury home, first to Loftus Rd and then to Adams Park, Wycombe. As a result the club has always had a nomadic existence, never quite knowing where its home was, and as a result the fan base could never match that of Leicester, Northampton, Bath or Gloucester, despite considerable success both domestically and in Europe. Whilst the season ticket holders are being offered free coach travel to the new ground, this will only be for the remainder of this season. The 187 year history of the club is now largely irrelevant as it will have to start again, effectively the Wasps franchise has moved and will need to completely build a new fan base from scratch.
Similarly the English football league system has been sacred in England since 1888. The great appeal of football is its tribal nature. The intimidating prospect of playing against a hostile crowd and scrapping for points against the odds is why the game is so loved, nothing beats this highly intoxicating environment. However the premier league is considering turning its back on the essence of what makes English football so appealing and following the NFL in staging matches abroad which is very a dangerous policy. NFL demands stunts to drive appeal of the sport outside of its traditional geographical boundaries, football already has the global appeal it does not need these stunts. Football fans accept the pre-season matches played abroad as largely irrelevant but a good way to boost the transfer fee confers. However once the fans are robbed of vital league matches they are being neglected. As this is a financially driven decision, it is a reasonable assumption that if the Chinese revenue is attractive enough the Chelsea v Man City match (or whoever the top two teams in that season are) will be played in Shanghai, for example. That is the day that the premier league begins its decline. Fans will not tolerate it, it may be a long term decline but ultimately the premier league will lose its appeal amongst the neglected traditional fan base.
Fans loyalty cannot be taken for granted, especially when there are so many other options available for the leisure pound. Fans across all sports, especially football, often feel exploited through ticket prices, ever evolving replica kits and the cost of a pie & a pint at the ground. However they accept it because they have a natural affinity, an emotional bond with their team. They have invested so much time and emotion into the club that they accept the cost, justifying the expenditure as assisting in building the club. However when their team turns its back they will think twice. Fans will not accept the fact that their team is now playing its home matches 100 miles or 8 time zones away. There are enough distractions that, over time, will take them elsewhere.
The respective clubs may not be too worried as they believe that new fans are being exposed to the team and will ultimately replace those lost. I would advise caution on this theory; these new fans are not stupid, they will enjoy watching the team and even buy into it but on a superficial level. However they will also have a transient outlook of sport, as a result they will not have the same passion to stick with the club through both the good and bad times and, importantly, they will not have the same desire to pass this passion down to the next generation.
Without loyal and passionate fans, professional sport becomes a handful of blokes chasing a ball around a field. Club owners need to take a long hard look at how they treat their fans, it is simply not a sustainable business model to take them for granted no matter how attractive the short term financial gain.