Paris is Earning, Part 5

Free Market Football in the City of Light
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Photo by Moacir P. de Sá Pereira

Paris has never had a soccer team befitting its image of itself as the center of the world. For 40 years, Paris Saint-Germain Football Club has failed to live up to the lucrative standard of the rest of the city. Despite underperforming teams and a largely working-class fan base, the club has always seemed like it should give its owners a license to print money. The question then: can you gentrify a team? PSG did what unscrupulous developers have done for decades: They changed the rules, preyed on fears of crime, and cynically played for a newer, richer kind of fan. The fifth of a five-part series examining what happens to a football club when everyone’s eyes have turned to €€.

Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 - Part 5 - Single page

For at least a year, the US sports columnist who has most successfully leveraged the frustrations of the common sports fan has been hammering away at how the live experience of sports “sucks.” The ubiquity of “65-inch HDTVs” has made, in his opinion, fans less inclined to go see the real deal. The real deal costs money and involves dealing with negatives like traffic, strangers, bad sightlines, and a lack of statistical information on the fly.1 In short, he maintains, there’s a ton of value added in watching at home: it’s easier on the checkbook—er, credit card—but it’s also more comfortable. One has greater control over the environment, like the option to drink imported beers from glass bottles past the seventh inning if one feels eager to do so.

In October, Bill Simmons invited the CEO of Ticketmaster, Nathan Hubbard, to his podcast to talk about this growing disinterest on the part of fans to bother buying tickets to sports.2 “We have a fan experience problem,” Hubbard responded, saying that “casual fans” have “so many other options” these days that Ticketmaster, along with teams, has to “innovate on the experience.” The solution, for Hubbard, is to “personalize the experience for everyone,” to “sell the right experience” at the right price to the right person, thereby building “a lifelong fan” who remains loyal to the individual attention.3 In between jokes about domestic violence and nostalgia for Pearl Jam, Simmons and Hubbard speculated about how this “right experience” can be achieved.

Everything relating to the fans’ relationship to the team is now defined by the market. They don’t consider going to the live games worth it. Their time is better spent playing Angry Birds on the couch. Ticketmaster, in turn, looks to the market for an answer. The solution for them is to attract casual fans (not “football casual,” as in hooligan) by individually negotiating the sale of each ticket with them. In providing various add-ons and deals for other tickets, Tickemaster can give a sense of value individually designed for that specific casual fan. There is no such thing as a generic “season ticket holder” anymore, as each person has a different recorded buying history and set of incentives to which he or she responds—their “digital fingerprint,” in Hubbard’s words—that tips them to buy the tickets they do. At one point, Hubbard told Simmons that those running teams are now “brand managers,” and teams have to maximize their brand’s appeal to casual consumers. That is not at all new in the US. What he avoided mentioning was that, in a typical neoliberal turn, he is treating each individual customer as his or her own entrepreneurial brand manager as well. One individual consumer’s brand needs, say, a 50% discount on U2 and Disney on Ice tickets added to the Clippers season tickets in order to make the cost of the basketball season tickets worthwhile.

But things get complicated when you square this casual fan experience issue with the situation regarding PSG. Simmons and Hubbard tout hyper-individualization as a solution to crumbling ticket sales—as a way to get someone back to the stadium. But Parc des Princes had been posting a reasonable annual attendance average for over a decade. No huge collapses appeared over the past two years, as they had in the US. So PSG, with the Tous PSG ticket policy, willfully decided to henceforth attract only individual casual fans. Taking advantage of a public safety situation and sensationalist media coverage, they blew up a good thing and wiped the slate clean. The exiled former fans could only come back once they reregistered as casual fans, no longer eligible to be a part of the soul of the team.

The Tous PSG bet is that a sports team can be profitable catering only to casual fans, rendering history and association insignificant. Maybe it took an official stance against racism to lure back fans disgusted by the racist provocations at the stadium. But sweeping racism from the stadium did not require the radical makeover of telling 13,000 fans they were no longer wanted in the cheap seats. Further, all those fucking Pastore shirts suggest that, in a metropolitan area of 12m, it is not impossible to find 40,000 glory hunters every other weekend. Former Club President Leproux’s calling cheap tickets for children an investment sounds like Hubbard’s plan to commodify individual identities in order to build a “lifelong fan” with a sellable experience, or, another way, a lifelong casual fan who comes because it’s “worth it,” not be cause he or she feels the “need” to support the team. The team is not interested in keeping you, specifically you, around for life. They’ll find another you, if they need to. That other you will hopefully earn a bit more and be willing to pay a bit more for your ticket. But in the meantime, you’ll suffice. Luckily for the new owners, PSG does not yet have to worry about how it will sell most of its tickets for every match. On the cold, grey, drizzly day I walked into Parc des Princes to have my photograph taken and get my Tous PSG card, however, I gave them my digital fingerprint for when they will.

Professional sports is a business. That is not the problem here. Unlike many soccer teams that emerged organically from, say, railroad workers kicking the ball around after hours (Manchester United) or young rich men who hoped that having their own team would impress local high society women (Flamengo), PSG was, always, first and foremost, a business proposition with a side trade in civic pride.4 Dissolving the fan associations and creating 40,000 individual consumers at Parc des Princes, however, shows us what happens when everything becomes a business, when our entire lives are lived within the logic of the market.

Against those 40,000 individual consumers buying tickets for each match and the money pouring into Qatari wallets from those ticket receipts, the passionate pride of the boycotting ex-viragiste as the “soul” of the team is simply out of joint. In one sense, it’s quaint in its naïve old-fashioned way. But it maybe also holds a share of a promise for those of us who refuse to accept that the current state of affairs is also the only possible state of affairs. If one believes that “another world is possible,” to borrow a phrase, then realizing the other world benefits from studying social structures, like supporter groups, that resist the neoliberal paradigm.

In holding out the boycott, the ex-viragistes maintain their unwillingness to become individual consumers, even though every successful season for PSG along the lines of this one (so far) will further marginalize the former members of the Kop of Boulogne and Virage Auteuil. At the same time, fans get more accustomed to the invasions of privacy and lockdown mentality demanded by Tous PSG. The market has become universal and normal—other forms of engagement, like a romantic one, have become relics.

Fans leave early, anticipating a home defeat to Nancy

Paris has never had big-time soccer, at least not on a level befitting its greatness as a city. While teams from Marseille, Lyon, and even highway rest stop Saint-Étienne have found glory on the international stage, Paris has always been a bit of a joke. Writing in 2002, Patrick Mignon gives several reasons for this hiccup. First, in countries like Spain and Italy, you have intercity rivalries with socio-economic consequences that get played out by proxy on the soccer field; Madrid’s efforts to dominate Barcelona, and the Catalan resistance to those efforts gets played out in the economy, in politics, and on the soccer field. In France, Paris is a city simply without peer, and the other cities must remain content jousting for domination of their small regions.5 As a result, Paris becomes synonymous with France in the republican imagination, leaving the city without much of a specifically “Parisian,” as opposed to “French,” identity.6 Further, until the late 1970s, Paris did not have a central, popularly elected mayor, which, Mignon suggests, limited civic schemes that could unify the city in terms of leisure pursuits.

Finally, “Paris is not a city made of real Parisians.” Very few people who live in the capital have roots that run as deep as they do elsewhere. The Arabic word “bled” has come to mean, in French slang, both a useless place in the boonies as well as the ancestral hometown, and it seems that Paris attracts people who are willing to leave behind their bled, be it in West Africa, Maghreb, Brittany and the rest of France, the overseas departments of France like Guadeloupe, or Spain, Portugal, Italy, Eastern Europe, or every corner of Asia. The world, in brief. Those who arrive here do so expecting to advance socially or economically—not necessarily plant new roots. Mom and Dad don’t live here, so neither should their soccer team play here. As a result, Mignon concludes, there is no history of “passionate or loyal” support for Parisian soccer teams. “There is only the attraction of the spectacle and of the excursion that is going to Parc des Princes, but more in the style of the ironic flâneur than in that of the loyal supporter.”

In the end, of course, it’s the ironic flâneur/flâneuse and his or her earning potential and disdain for sentimental, sanguine fervor who is courted by PSG. Screw the real fans, as long as the fucking Pastore shirts keep leaping off the shelves.7 Onwards to the future with this new fanbase, 40,000 armies of one.8

All autumn, a rumor kept bubbling up that, though now almost certain not to come true, provides a clean way to close this occasion for thinking through the problem of sports without fans in a world without society. In mid-September, the story broke that newly installed Sporting Director Leonardo was interested in signing 36-year-old David Beckham once his contract with the Los Angeles Galaxy expired on New Year’s Day. Leonardo told the BBC that Beckham “is more than a football player—he’s a brand, a pop star. I would always consider him.” The story continued to pop up from time to time, with other people offering their opinions on the dream move for PSG.

Beckham is precisely the sort of player PSG would be trying to sign, now that they have a pretty good team on the field, because his main attraction—his value—lies off the field. Journalist Tony Karon brings up Beckham when writing about the growing popularity of soccer in East Asia, where fans are more attracted to teams with global brands, like Manchester United and Karon’s own Liverpool, than to their local leagues or teams. For Karon, Real Madrid’s 2003 signing of Beckham was a sign of the Spanish front office’s interest in growing in this market. Beckham’s “real appeal is as an icon, the handsome, soft-spoken, family man… with a global pop-idol appeal… To put it unkindly, while Beckham’s contribution to Real Madrid’s performances on the field will always be eclipsed by the likes of Zidane… he has no peer when it comes to selling the club’s shirts to teenagers in Asia.”9

Though Beckham, for family reasons, decided not to bring his brand expansion show to France, the interest shown by the PSG front office in courting him showed, yet again, how willing PSG was to turn its back on the soul of the team. The soul can keep on marching, protesting, and boycotting as a mass. This mass, refusing to split up individual consumers and eager to remain a part of something bigger, remains important only to the police hired to make sure they do not get too rowdy outside the stadium. Only when they are willing to start buying tickets again, at inflated prices and with Tous PSG cards in hand, will they be welcomed back. Until then, the neoliberals in the PSG front office, believing in the permanence of the market, will sneer at the protestors, confident that nothing will ever change except the bottom line.

  1. I haven’t lived in the US for a while, but I have trouble believing that US fans are staying away from $20 tickets to baseball because they have “65-inch” televisions hung on the walls of their modest homes. I’ve never even seen a television that big in a residence, but the Sports Guy is the voice of the Joe the Supporter, so I’ll defer to his measurements. ↩

  2. Beyond talking about 65-inch HDTVs, this episode of the BS Report has an especially 1% vibe to it, including an out-of-touch failure of a joke about Occupy Wall Street. ↩

  3. “Experience” is a good warning word that one is about to be dealing with the apotheosis of the focus on the individual. It no longer matters what a thing is (or what a thing means) in comparison to how someone experiences it. Who cares if the Clippers lost? If the fan’s experience of the loss was good, another ticket will be bought. ↩

  4. OK, Flamengo’s first team was a rowing team, and soccer only came in later with the arrival of disgruntled ex-Fluminense players, but, Hollywood! Its origin story sits ready-made for the silver screen! Late 19th-century high society location shoots in Rio! Rowing practice montages with the Sugar Loaf Mountain in the background! Act now and you can have it in theaters by the Rio Olympics! ↩

  5. London might consider itself without peer in England, but Mignon points out that it is also much larger as an urban entity than Paris is, and, as a result, can support many, many professional teams. The Premier League is currently 25% London teams, for example, and there are London-based professional teams throughout the various lower divisions. ↩

  6. I have been criticized by Parisians for saying that Paris is in the “northern” part of France. Nonsense, they tell me. It’s in the center! I give up, mumbling to myself that feeling again trumps cartography. ↩

  7. I am, of course, precisely this kind of consumer of PSG. They’re not my team in France, but I don’t hate them—the only French team I hate is Arsenal. I don’t go to a match unless I find someone also eager to go, which has been surprisingly difficult within my social circle. I’m not sure that the team wants to attract fans other than those like me, however, and that’s the fear here. Just because I don’t breathe soul into PSG doesn’t mean others shouldn’t have the opportunity to do so under more egalitarian terms. ↩

  8. Mignon elsewhere rightly points out that it is interesting that PSG has never had a sell-out season, suggesting that the project of big-time Parisian soccer is incomplete. Parc des Princes is small, considering the market it serves, but the tickets just don’t move. If PSG win the league this year, though, next year may be a sell-out. I know I am considering season tickets just to have guaranteed spots for the Champions League. ↩

  9. Michel Platini repeats this sentiment when critiquing the proposed move to PSG, saying Beckham is not the player he once was and that the transfer is merely one to sell more shirts. ↩

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