Terrace Cool

How the World’s Biggest Sport went Niche


Football is having a moment.

Long gone are the days of the WAGs of Baden-Baden, pink Bentleys and TV anchors like Richard Keys. Sir Bert’s blazer is a distant memory.

Cult football is here. Full of 90s irony, the tracksuit is a key look again, Big Nev and Pat Nevin are the movement’s heroes and going down to your local non-league club is now a sought after social occasion.

The sport is genuinely cool again*.

It is always hard to pin down the exact ingredients and sprinklings of magic that deliver a cultural tipping point, but fuelled by a number of factors, football has become cultural currency ahead of one of the most controversial World Cups in living memory. So why is that the case?

Firstly, football has long been dominated by the tabloid media and big broadcasters, with both sides feeding off each other to create mass hysteria and dominate its narrative.

However, the past few years has seen an explosion of ‘niche’ football outlets as the proliferation of digital media and surge in social media has catered to hitherto unloved audiences.

MundialCopa 90David Squires’ weekly cartoons in The Guardian and podcasts such as Quickly Kevin Will He Score? and James Richardson’s witty The Totally Football Show offer a different take on the game, for a more refined, discerning palate.

Secondly, the retro 90s trend plays to a very specific-type of football fan.

As brands such as Reebok Classic (client), Tommy Hilfiger and Supreme fuel a return to the roots of 90s pop culture, so too has the cultural relevance of football.

Alongside the emergence of acid house and rave culture, football was a big part of the 90s culture of letting go and enjoying yourself after a decade of unemployment, strikes and widespread depression.

Images of a sepia-toned Italia 90, with rich moments such as New Order’s ‘World in Motion’ and Paul Gascoigne’s tear-soaked shirt, combined with some glorious kit designs – as showcased at the recent Fabric of Football exhibition – has put football at the heart of the wider 90s revival.

Thirdly, style leaders have ensured that the beautiful game is now a fixture with the beautiful people of the fashion world.

Beyond David Beckham, who at 43 years old and 5 years into retirement still remains at the core of the football x style x culture venn diagram, the big fashion houses are turning to football.

Trend-setters such as Balenciaga, Gucci and Comme des Garcons have all created football-inspired products, tapping into the subcultures of the terraces and taking it to the catwalks of Milan, Paris, New York and London.

Next up, the expanding middle class has ensured that, while the game still has plenty of issues to resolve, it is now generally safer, more welcoming and not purely the preserve of the working man, not least because of the significantly increased costs of getting involved.

John Williams, a senior lecturer in the sociology of football at the University of Leicester commented that, ‘young, middle-class people are also looking for a way to experience football that isn’t a theme-park version of the game.’

Football is now on the cultural agenda like never before with the most influential consumer demographic, yet there remains enough of an edge for it to feel exciting, tribal and a place where middle class teens can indulge their ‘common people’ dreams.

Finally, there is a new, rarely seen creative quality to a lot of the cultural content revolving around football. It now boasts a thriving underground scene of artists helping to fuel a more beautiful version of the beautiful game through art, video, street art, GIFs and music.

From the likes of Kamp Seedorf to Osvaldo Cassanovo; the BBC’s beautifully animated tapestry theme for Russia 2018 by Blinkink to Nigeria’s dazzling, sell-out shirt; and even the unlikely candidate of Texan indie band Parquet Courts’ ode to the Panini sticker album phenomenon in their single ‘Total Football’ – football has proliferated the creative world like never before.

So how do brands navigate a football environment where valuable audiences are more likely to be into the type of niche outlets outlined above than they are to be engaged by a break bumper sponsorship on ITV?

It’s all about understanding nuance and acting on it.

The more you as a brand demonstrate that you understand the evolving football audience, the more likely you are to connect with it.

Keep marketing like it’s 1998 and you’ll pay the penalty.

*according to this 30-something football fan in South West London

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