OPINION PIECE: To football administrators, the ball is in your court

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In football, the term “12th player” is one of the most, if not the most, important elements of the game as it represents the supporters.

The supporters become especially important if you ask any successful businessperson, or perhaps even a club owner if you are privy to one, what the most critical aspect of their business is.

Customers are the core constituent of any entrepreneur’s journey as the product offered revolves around their needs. In this instance, the need for stellar entertainment.

Without this need, the sport would have just been an unnecessarily complex exercise that people do for leisure. It would be a far cry from the multibillion-dollar industry that it is; generating more continued interest than political realities and elections.

Stadia across the globe are constantly packed irrespective of the importance of the match. Do people that run local football ever ask themselves why it’s not the same here – Is it because of the economic stability? Could it be that fans do not have a broad enough range of entertainment options on their menu?

Let’s assume it is, but then if our country’s economy is one of the strongest on the continent then we should see bums on seats every 90 minutes. Inversely, countries like Tanzania and the DRC shouldn’t be filling up 40k seaters. Americans wouldn’t even attend matches since their entertainment catalogue is the size of a telephone directory and feeds much of what is consumed globally. It surely must boil down to interest, or a lack thereof in this instance.

Majority of South Africans aren’t interested in watching the sport live. At least not the PSL, as they would jump at the slightest opportunity to watch their favourite European teams play at their fortress. We witness this whenever teams like Barcelona, Manchester United and Tottenham visit our shores.

Every so often, we get a glimpse of an occurrence that is rare to the local game. Drawing the attention of those who may not be fans of the sport to begin with. But the same cannot be said for local fixtures. The land has a special breed of supporters – the kind that are interested enough to engage in every debate about their favourite local team, but never keen to teleport that passion to a football field. Enter the 13th player. The stay at home supporter.

Let’s try retracing the origin of this genus. Football was at some point the only thing supporters of this kind could find solace in. A stadium. A sanctuary. Something drastic must have happened to repel even its most loyal fans. When you delve deeper into what could have transpired and compare that to what the trends of the most successful teams on this planet are, the common denominator becomes the administrator.

Administrators in the sport have become the difference between fans flocking up to a stadium to witness the team’s latest signing or not seeing the need to attend a cup final. They are the difference between identifying a rough stone and polishing it into a world beater or buying a superstar and failing to set up processes that would protect him from external factors that may be detrimental to his career.

Their vision is reflected on the current state of the team – on and off the field. The biggest challenge for them is finding an equilibrium on the pitch and in the stands. Is it safe to conclude our football administrators failed this 13th player?

The 2010 Fifa World Cup vindicated the 13th player. Granted it was FIFA that was officially running the show, but since the LOC (Local Organizing Committee) primarily consisted of decision makers in the local league and were literally handed the formula, the least one would expect was for them to make the system mnemonic.

Instead things went back to how they were before the tournament. It was as if they took out the best crockery set for the visitors and soon as they left, it was carefully placed back in the boxes and wall units. Like before, finding parking outside the stadium proves a mammoth task, ticket sales are not centralised, buying a cup of your favourite beverage at the stadium is mainly reserved for category A matches and smoking restrictions no longer exist. You’d think that was the worst of it. Club bosses still have this warped idea that communication with the fans is a one-way street or marketing an upcoming game needs a 90’s modus operandi.

Teams are trying to gain back the affection of these lost supporters, but the approach is sparse. They can barely keep up with the demands of those in the stands. When you also consider the cardinal sins they repeatedly commit in the digital space, it’s a lost cause (Where in the world have you heard of clubs’ social media accounts blocking people for fun?!). The 13th player has realized that there are far better things to do with their time and resources and that means they’ll constantly remain in the bubble.

Administrators now have 2 choices: to continue treating the loyal fan the same way they treated the 13th player and run the risk of further growing the population of the latter or to cater to the needs of those die hard supporters that pitch for every possible game in full regalia and treat them so well that the 13th player trades in their position for one among the 12.

To any and all administrators, the ball is in your court.

Koketso Moutlane,

Mamelodi Sundowns supporter

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