Francesco Buschi, Strategy Director - FutureBrand Milan and Giacomo Zani, Strategist - FutureBrand Milan discuss how the most admired footballers by the new generations are not only champions from a performance point of view, but also from a human point of view, combining their fame with political and social activism.
For many, football is almost a religion. A fundamental and primordial part of our lives that can stir up local rivalries and be a trend topic on any social medium. In such a passionate and emotional context, football clubs look like strange entities that are half brands and half institutions. They determine people’s cultural, social and political identities as well as their geographic and sporting roots: in this way, local derbies are far more than simple football matches, they are true confrontations among the different souls of a highly fragmented country. And the national team, with its epic victories and dramatic defeats, is capable of bringing to the streets - real or virtual - even the mildest and most disinterested among the fans, in a crescendo of excess.
The most famous players are, perhaps in spite of themselves or perhaps not, real consumption models. Their haircut, their tattoos, their way of dressing, have been influencing generations of young and less young people. The archetype of the 'footballer with their show-partner' couple has established itself as an aspirational model of social redemption, often elevating kitsch to a stylistic figure. Cristiano Ronaldo is perhaps the epitome of that evolutionary path that is transforming champions of his standing into personal brands strong enough to even overshadow Coca-Cola.
But is this really still the case? Are these references - the clubs, their colours, their players and everything that goes with them - still so attractive to the new generations, so much so as to determine their unconditional and eternal participation?
Teenagers today tend to escape from that line of football succession that tied them to a team by birth or by geographical and social context. This does not mean that young people are immune from cheering or football passion, but that the type of relationship no longer has the identity traits of the past.
The reasons for this disaffection are different. On the one hand, the attitudes of the GenZ must be considered: they are the first truly global generation, made of digital natives exposed to a vast range of stimuli covering sports, arts and various entertainments. They really have a wide choice and they can deepen any stimulus vertically, taking part in the debate themselves. In fact, kids live those stimuli intensely, like those who preceded them, but in a more intimate and participatory way, which also involves the creation of subcultures, made up of communities of enthusiasts who share their common interest for a book, a saga, an author, a film genre or a fashion trend. The interest of young people is segmented, ranging in a transversal and often surprising way from a football player to a fictional character, to a soundtrack passing through a pair of sneakers.
Football celebrates the agonistic and stylistic driven to excess, and the GenZ tend to take the distance from events that are so far from reality and, in some ways, no longer sustainable from an ethical point of view. Football is an Olympus of athletically and socially unattainable gods. Football is a faith and, as such, dogmatic, inaccessible.
Covid has made the gap between young people and football wider: with closed stadiums, the only places where you could truly participate in the ritual and affect the result, the match has ceased to be the moment around which to organise the day. It has become one possible program among many others.
Already in October 2019, Andrea Agnelli, Juventus FC chairman, reported a significant piece of data: "We recorded a 40% drop in audience in the range between 12 and 34 years old". When the Italian Major League championship resumed after the lockdown, the trend became undeniable: spectators went from 6.5 million to 4 million. A drop of 2.5 million, almost 40%. However, these figures are the result of changes already underway. A study conducted by McKinsey and Nielsen between 2019 and 2020 on a sample distributed among UK, Spain, Germany, Poland, the Netherlands and India, found that 27% of respondents between 16 and 24 years old claim that they have no interest for football; 13% say they even hate it. Added to this is another fact: if 49% of the young people interviewed say they follow football to "cheer", the 32% said they only follow a specific player and only watch the big matches. The bond that has kept fans and clubs inextricably united is loosening.
The new generations are looking for inspiration, identity, commitment and causes in which to believe and values in which to reflect. And champions generally adapt faster than clubs to this. The most admired by the new generations are not only champions from a performance point of view, but also from a human point of view and combine their fame with political and social activism. Just like brands, even the most discerning record holders are repositioning themselves towards these issues. Claudio Marchisio, former midfielder of Juventus FC, is a very clear example: he is using his social channels to launch messages of gender inclusion and sexual orientation and he is not the only one. Neuer, goalkeeper and captain of die Manschaft, the German National team, wore the LGBTQ community rainbow armband during the match against Hungary just a few days ago, and did so in spite of the UEFA’s recommendations.
On the brand side, Nike shows to always be a step ahead: at the beginning, the relationship with sport proposed by the brand was pure idealisation and celebration of the sporting act. At the end of the 90s, Nike entered the world of football with a series of spots where the best champions of the time, promoted to demigods, defended the earth in a match against the forces of evil led by Satan, in the unprecedented role of goalkeeper. Today, Nike chooses Kaepernick as their ambassador to send a message of social and political commitment.
Clubs have also taken this path, but not always with great conviction. They continue to resist the idea of participating in the more political and social dimension of their followers' lives, not realising that staying on the sidelines of major debates is not a sign of impartiality but of detachment from the real world.
Inter FC, with its recent rebranding, has significantly changed their reference imagery. The evolution towards a more urban and underground culture was already underway, but the rebranding marked an important discontinuity. The logo is no longer a sign of recognition, it is communication: I M, I Am, maximum personalisation and adhesion between fan, player and team. The launch video equates the club with a street-fashion or lifestyle brand, thanks also to the choice of electronic and contemporary music.
Despite the troubling numbers, football will not die. It will change shape, it will change appearance, it will find relevance among the new generations through greater inclusiveness. We need to open the locker rooms and dialogue with the protagonists, becoming aware of the social function that sport still covers, and guide it.
The growth of eSports
The other big change in the football world is linked to eSports. The largest increase was recorded in Spain and Italy, where two out of five respondents (44%) declared greater use of content compared to the months prior to the pandemic emergency (in the other countries the percentage is around 30% / 38%). Conducted in June and published in collaboration with the Interactive Software Federation of Europe (ISFE) and the German trade association, Game, Deloitte's report says that Europe has become the third most active area in eSports globally, after Asia and North America.
What are the differences between football on the pitch and football on the console? First of all, accessibility. Although there is a very high level of technical skills even in professional gamers, it is understandable, the external perception is that it is much easier to play football with a controller than with your own legs. Furthermore, gaming is accessible, even to people with disabilities, with non-athletic, non-performing bodies.
The way of use also represents another point of difference: on demand, fluid, elastic and versatile. The champions of eSports are more accessible characters, not yet mythicised and detached from reality. And this for football has an even greater value.
Major League has gone virtual, and the big clubs are developing their team of professional gamers, digital champions like the players on the pitch. It is another step towards inclusiveness and expansion of the football imaginary.