Football - game or product?

Business, IT, money and the beautiful game - they all fit together you know...

Business, IT, money and the beautiful game - they all fit together you know...

Martin Brampton isn't a big football fan but even he is aware of the current wave of World Cup hysteria. Here he says the fan-club relationship can tell us a lot about IT and business... My editor at silicon.com thought I should be topical and perhaps write about the World Cup. I asked someone what the World Cup is. Apparently it is a football competition but I know very little about football. And I trust you would not be so insensitive as to riposte that my purchase of an unusable Ericsson PDA demonstrated my ignorance of IT. People have been playing games since well before the start of recorded history. Young animals seem to play, so we must assume that most living creatures have an affinity for games. Given human propensities, no doubt it was not long before rivalries became fierce and supporters urged on their heroes. One might see the World Cup as a series of games that involve tests of skill and where the protagonists bear the spirit of national pride. But there seems to be an underside to contemporary football and sadly it seems to have parallels with IT and business generally. In an innocent past, top footballers were paid a few pounds a week and mostly played by the rules. Inevitably there were breaches of the rules, but the 'professional foul' is a modern phenomenon. The same trend is visible in IT, where top executives talk about 'playing hardball' when they refer to duping markets or evading laws. It always happened but it used to be a source of shame rather than pride. While international tournaments are dramatic, the more usual professional football game is linked with the well-known clubs. Football clubs still command intense loyalty, often based on their locality. People with an interest in football are nearly always supporters of a particular team. Which teams are dominant tends to vary over time, just as the leading companies in IT vary as one time giants fade to be replaced by hitherto unknown newcomers. Yet anomalies have started to appear. Supporters would never think of themselves as customers but football clubs are businesses and many have cynically exploited the emotional ties that link a football team with a community. Directors of successful clubs have become rich and laughed condescendingly in private at the naivety of supporters. Perhaps this is an example of the dark side of CRM, what might be called customer relationship manipulation. Companies would like to be viewed favourably and would like their customers to be involved in an emotional relationship that ties them. To the extent that the customers relate to genuine qualities of the company, this is no bad thing. Too often, though, the customer's trust is exploited. Just as the football club overcharges fans for team colours, so the building societies play on the trust of their members, leaving the unobservant in uncompetitive accounts at the same time as attracting new customers with different and highly publicised accounts. IT companies are probably no better and no worse. Most encourage their customers to trust them and that trust is often not reciprocated. The World Cup now seems to be a symptom of this monetarisation of every relationship. Is it my ignorance of football? I just do not associate Japan with prowess, or even interest, in the game. Cynics are saying that the event is being held in Japan because of the commercial opportunities there for sponsorship. Football becomes yet another product and the loyalty of supporters starts to seem inappropriate. As government increasingly likens itself to business we are denied the possibility of doing anything simply because it is, in itself, worth doing. Only what makes money is to be done. Does that deliver better football? I really know too little about it to say. Do we get the IT systems that we need? Often, I think, we do not and the interests of the vendors determine what we get. Is there a way to escape from our commercial chains? What do you think? Tell us by posting a Reader Comment below ** Martin Brampton is a director and founder of Black Sheep Research (www.black-sheep-research.co.uk ), an independent consultancy providing research, writing and speaking services on a wide range of business and technology subjects. Martin was previously a director at Bloor Research, and has worked with IT as a user and analyst for over 20 years. He is a frequent contributor to silicon.com's Behind the Headlines TV programme and can be contacted at silicon@black-sheep-research.co.uk.