On 13 April 1995, Channel 4 aired a programme called Gary Lineker Is Dead, a spoof documentary imagining what sport would be like in 2019. Its prediction was not only that by then Gary Lineker would be dead, but that football would be too, killed off by greed, self-interested agents and meaningless cup competitions. Instead of football, people would spend their leisure time watching competitive entertainments like Gladiators, which in 1995 was enormously popular Saturday evening TV fare.
As predictions go, this right up there with “they couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist-”. Gary Lineker is currently the very healthy and exceptionally well-paid face of Match of the Day, which is still a centrepiece of Saturday evening telly. The stars of Gladiators were last seen at Stoke Con Trent charging a fiver for an autograph.
Still, just because people were wrong about football dying in the past doesn’t mean they will always be wrong. This week, Florentino Perez warned that football would be dead by 2024 because of the decaying attention spans of the younger generation, and that shorter matches might be needed to reel in youthful fans. Perez’s prediction was so obviously just a disingenuous excuse for the European Super League that it is easy to dismiss it completely. But sports and pastimes do rise and decline. In the last fifty years, football has boomed, but county cricket, horse-racing and snooker have declined. So it is worth at least thinking about whether football will always be as popular as it is at the moment, and if not, what the major threats are.
One threat is the growing popularity of non-sporting entertainment. Fifty years ago, football was competing with rugby union and league for winter spectators in England. Then it was competing against cricket and the Olympics as its calendar expanded. Then it was competing against sports from other countries. Now it’s competing against Netflix and e-sports.
This doesn’t provide much evidence for Perez’s attention span argument, though. Netflix’s success has been built on people binging on box sets for hours at a time, e-sports are enormously time-consuming and modern superhero franchise films are far longer than in the past. In fact, you could argue that in the past decade, the entertainment industry has taken a leaf from football’s playbook: complex and immersive narratives, frequent new instalments and recurring characters who inspire passionate emotions.
Another threat to football’s future is the quality of its leadership, which is where my favourite topic, VAR, comes in. If you think, as I do, that football’s authorities have handled VAR very badly, then last week’s European Super League shenanigans explained a lot. Football’s owners understand very little about the game and what makes it popular. If football’s major challenge in the next decade will come from Netflix, then actually I do fear for the game, because I think that Reed Hastings has a greater understanding of what people want than Florentino Perez.
One of the reasons football flourished rather than dying in the 1990s is that at the start of that decade, its leaders did make some good footballing decisions which showed they understood and appreciated the game. After the 1990 World Cup, the offside rule was relaxed to encourage attacking play, and the backpass was banned. I think these both had a positive impact on the game, and have been completely accepted by fans.
Football faces a new set of challenges now, on and off the pitch. Its biggest threat comes from leaders who don’t seem capable of identifying what the problems are, let alone solving them.