Mid-table League Two outfit Torquay United will unveil Plainmoor’s new “big screen” this weekend in the Devon derby clash with Exeter City, and its success could influence the future monetization of England’s lower leagues.
United last progressed beyond the English fourth tier when they won promotion in the 2003-04 season; they are one of the Football League’s smallest clubs in terms of budget and crowds. Considering Premier League giants Liverpool – who regularly enjoy home attendances of over 15 times that of Torquay – do not have a big screen at their Anfield stadium, you could be forgiven for wondering why a club on the bottom rung of professional football is investing in such a high-profile addition.
Like any lower-league club, Torquay are keen to maximize revenue in order to be able to compete and even tread water. As long as millionaire investors remain elusive, managers at this level are often pressured to sell before they buy, and Martin Ling, United chief since the start of the 2011-12 campaign, fits this image perfectly. The ex-Leyton Orient manager has operated successfully in the transfer market without spending a penny on transfer fees, yet has still managed to earn a hefty profit for his club: goalkeeper Bobby Olejnik was recruited for free in summer 2011 but sold for £300,000 a year later, while Ling also cashed in on previous manager Paul Buckle’s signings Eunan O’Kane and Mark Ellis, who both departed for League One for a joint total of around £230,000.
Despite this, Ling’s transfer kitty remains small, and major dealings in the January window remain unlikely. Much of the money made from selling the aforementioned key players went towards paying for Bristow’s Bench, Plainmoor’s new grandstand. Although the new stand makes Plainmoor “a stadium, rather than a ground” (in the words of chairman Simon Baker), attendances have not increased from last season; if anything, atmosphere has been diluted as home supporters are now spread across three stands, rather than two.
The club has consequently turned to other avenues in an attempt to manufacture extra revenue streams. While the idea of the big screen, first mooted during the 2011-12 season but only put into action a few weeks ago, was met positively by supporters dreaming of high-definition highlights and Sky Sports round-ups during half-time, the club’s later announcement of what the screen would entail left fans decidedly disappointed.
Earlier this month an article on the club’s official website attempted to sell the idea of the screen to potential investors: hailing the addition as a “sensational advertising tool” that would allow investors to see their business “emblazoned across this digital investment at Torquay United”, the club revealed its rates for the big screen. The sheer volume of sponsorship opportunities sadly show that the screen is more for the benefit of the club than its supporters – United are looking for a wide range of cash investments, ranging from the predictable “Goal sponsorship” (£2000) to the bizarre “Clock sponsor” and desperate “Throw-in sponsorship” and “Injury sponsorship.”
Given that an advert for the corresponding business is shown every time the match witnesses a goal, penalty, yellow card, red card, throw-in, injury, or a shot against the woodwork, it is fair to say that fans are likely to soon grow tired of watching the same tedious adverts pop up hundreds of times in a match, and this advert overload is also potentially impractical. As one United fan humourously put it, “there won’t be time for anything other than adverts…Imagine the advert overkill if a throw in *advert* goes just inside the box *advert*, where the player fouls and a penalty is given *advert*, he is red-carded *advert*, the penalty-winning player is injured *advert*, the resultant penalty is saved *advert* by the keeper who tips it onto the post *advert* and it rolls across the line before being bundled in for a goal *advert*!”
Much of the screen’s fate will depend on the circumstances in which it is launched: United’s derby clash with Exeter could potentially make or break their season going into the busy Christmas period. The extreme closeness of the chasing pack in League Two – just six points separate fifth-placed Bradford from fifteenth-placed Rochdale – means that wins are crucial if either side is to mount a serious promotion challenge. Torquay are without long-term injured midfielders Ian Morris and Lloyd Macklin, while winger Billy Bodin is also a doubt, but the biggest loss to United’s starting line-up is centre-back and vice-captain Brian Saah, suspended for the Christmas period following a straight red card received in the loss at Bradford last weekend.
In short, the result against Exeter could be just as important to the screen’s fate as its own performance; a humiliating defeat on home turf to their bitter rivals may cause some fans to reject the screen, associating it with defeat and embarrassment, while a comfortable, morale-boosting victory would provide the perfect conditions for it to be accepted as a worthwhile instalment to the ground.
The introduction of the screen follows increased sponsorship and monetization of the lower leagues; several stadiums in League One and Two have recently been renamed, such as Huddersfie ld’s John Smith Stadium, so named by Heineken after the alcohol giant bought the rights to the ground’s name. Chesterfield’s b2net Stadium, opened in 2009, was renamed the Proact Stadium in August after the original sponsors were acquired by Proact. Needless to say, the Swedish company has no relation whatsoever to Chesterfield or its team.
However, perhaps the most extreme example of sponsorship in the Football League is that of Cardiff City, who saw their club colours changed to red and black in June by the club’s Malaysian investors. Bizarrely, the owners’ justification for Cardiff’s kits after over 100 years of playing in blue was that the club needed to rebrand itself in order to appeal to the Asian market, and that they believed blue to be an unlucky colour; only in football could organisations be more concerned about potential, unlikely supporters than long-serving existing ones. That such a radical move has been largely accepted, however, shows that sponsorship is only likely to increase in severity in the coming years as wealthy backers continue to stretch the limits of what is acceptable. Likewise, the owners’ ability to subdue angry Cardiff supporters by offering large cash investments to assist the club’s transfer policy demonstrates sponsorship’s worrying ability to triumph over tradition.
The monetization of the lower leagues is, for many, removing the appeal of supporting lower-league clubs; though the situation is still controllable at present, the viral greed of the Premier League is beginning to seep into England’s lower professional divisions. Plainmoor may have retained its original name since 1910, but if present trends continue, it may be in a minority among clubs in Leagues One and Two by the end of the decade.
Images: Torquay Big Screen – Lee Mansell (Twitter); Cardiff Shirts – http://www.walesonline.co.uk