If the heart of Americana is found on Route 66, then the soul of English football lies not far from the A66.
Here, on a wintry Saturday afternoon, parents and children can be found strolling along the streets of the smallest town ever to house a Premiership club. Here, passing close to the Lancashire lane where the club’s owner was born, fans flock to watch a team managed by an Englishman and dominated by Home Nations players. A team that is determinedly unfashionable.
Burnley FC like it that way. Local.
Dave and “Tricky” Trev are two friends who met 40 years ago after pledging their troth to their team. Trev Slack’s Nissan Micra, with its personallsed “BFC” plates, has racked up thousands of miles over the years as these devoted disciples of Burnley travelled the country. Dave’s allegiance goes further. He changed his surname by deed poll from Beeston to Burnley, and boasts of not missing a game in 43 years.
But these two “old timers” have noticed a wind of change blowing through their beloved game.
“Football has changed,” Dave declares as we wait for a half-time pie. “It used to be a sport for working class people. Now it’s become very middle class.”
He believes the enormous sums available to clubs and players from TV rights – sold to broadcast English games around the world – have usurped the value of live fans.
In a world where Premier League scheduling is as likely to be influenced by Asian time zones as the last train home, it’s no wonder Dave and Trev worry they are being neglected.
Indeed, much has been written in recent years about a growing divide between the demands and rights of fans who turn up week in, week out, and those governing bodies, clubs and administrators who call the shots. From rising ticket prices to players on weekly wages higher than fans’ salaries, there are plenty of reasons why today’s sports fans are increasingly disillusioned with the games they once loved.
But, as with everything in sport, it’s not as simple as that.
“No matter how much the money changes things, you still want to be part of it”, says Mr Burnley. He smiles:
“There is always more heart in the small clubs and the working-class clubs. It’s small-town mentality, big heart.
You can see from the local people what it means to be playing at this level. This is a tiny town of 73,000 people. It’s an amazing achievement.”
In other words, change has not dimmed the passion, nor the pride of a community that comes together every weekend with one shared endeavour – cheering their boys to victory.
That community spirit is evident in a packed working men’s club before the game, where fans put the world to rights over a pint of bitter from the local Moorhouse brewery. Global beers face the same disdain as global football stars here, in an electorate where almost 66% of voters voted Leave.
“It’s this kind of loyalty that saw Mr Burnley catch pneumonia three times”
Dave describes the word community as meaning “commitment and loyalty.” In a transient, globalised world, it’s this kind of loyalty that saw him catch pneumonia three times after sleeping outside because he’d missed the last train after watching Burnley play.
Strange behaviour, but then that’s sport.
Almost 4,000 miles away, the same loyalty is just as prized in another small northern town closely linked to its sporting franchise. Green Bay, population of just 100,000 in the unglamorous northern state of Wisconsin, is a town famous for being the world’s toilet paper capital. That, and having an NFL team which has punched above its weight for generations.
Just like the Brexiteers of Burnley, the residents of Green Bay are ambivalent to their big city cousins. After seven elections of voting for a Democrat, their state-wide turn-out for Trump last year shocked experts. But that result pales in comparison to the turn-out for their local team. The current waiting list for season tickets to watch “their team”, the Green Bay Packers, is 96,000 names long, or a wait of 30 years. It means supporters hand down their spots on the list in their wills.
“That loyalty is reinforced by one other crucial factor – the fans own the team”
“This is a team from a small town that grew into a big dynasty,” says Green Bay Packers fan, Mark Pietras, who runs Packer City antiques in the town. “All the players live in the town and could even be your neighbours.
“The games are very family-oriented. Both my wife and daughter go to the games and tailgaters often start arriving at 8am in the morning to enjoy the game,” he says.
For Packers supporters that loyalty is reinforced by one other crucial factor – the fans own the team.
Uniquely for the NFL, the Packers are a publicly- owned non-profit with an estimated 360,000 stockholders – the vast majority of whom are local supporters. The team uses this structure to do things differently, from keeping ticket prices as low as possible to maintaining a stadium relatively free of corporate advertising.
“People probably identify even more with the team, because the Green Bay Packers isn’t owned by any individual, it’s owned by the town”, Mark says.
“We’re not underdogs, but we keep that feeling of togetherness because of our size and our population. People love to go to the game, just as their fathers and grandfathers did.”
The connection between players and fans has played a key role in the Packers being one of the NFL’s all-time most successful franchises, currently ranking third of the 32 teams.
You might suppose that Green Bay offers a shining example for sports teams across the world searching for that elusive combination: commercial and on-field success, but without the alienation of supporters and loosening of community bonds?
Well it won’t be replicated in the NFL. The organisation formally banned any further Green Bay Packers-type ownership structures, changing the NFL constitution back in 1960 to prevent another franchise from going to the “Green Bay model”.
“Charitable organisations and/or corporations not organised for profit and not now a member of the league may not hold membership in the National Football League.”
In a world where “purpose” and “authenticity” are never far from a spokesperson’s lips, this rule might seem crazy. But then again, that’s sport for you.
However, a tight knit group of sports enthusiasts need not own a franchise to feel that shared sense of community which makes sport so important.
In the Yorkshire town of Thirsk, cycling fan Judith Worrall prefers a more dynamic relationship with her favourite sport of cycling. At a time when she
was struggling with weight issues, Judith’s life was transformed when she saw an advert in Slimming World magazine for a cycling trip through India in 2011. It was the start of a passionate love affair with cycling that has since seen her peddling around Cuba, Tanzania, Cambodia and Vietnam. Enthusiastically, she returned to her beloved Yorkshire to set up a local women’s cycling club, the Yorkshire Lasses.
The membership has quickly risen to 100 members, who all ride in an annual sportive, with a dedicated cycling forum on Facebook that recruited another 300 contributors in less than five years.
“I am fitter than I ever have been, I sleep so much better and my skin is better. I feel stronger mentally and physically. Socially, I have a lot more friends”, Judith says. “My confidence and mental attitude have improved considerably. It has kept my weight down too.”
“As a group of women, we all talk about things together that might not be possible anywhere else and we support each other. The rule for our Yorkshire Lasses Sportive is that no one leaves the race until everyone has finished.”
This description of the joys of sporting participation rings true – shared enjoyment; excitement; a sense of belonging. The way Judith engages with sport is very different from Mr Burnley, but on this principle they would surely agree.
Like Dave Burnley, Judith knows her sport is changing. Cycling has been harder hit than most over recent years by scandal and speculation, with heroes like Lance Armstrong dragged down from the pantheon of sporting legends and into the gutter.
However, Judith insists her love of cycling will not waiver. “Reputation will go up and down over time, like any sport. I’m a very optimistic person. None of the people in our cycling group will be overly worried. It will be spoken about amongst the people I cycle with, but it’s nothing that will stop people connecting with the sport.”
This is yet another demonstration of sport’s unique character. We know that trust in professional sport is declining, yet the impact of that shift is far from predictable and very difficult to gauge.
Fans today may not like elements of the sports they love – whether it be the impact of money, reputational scandals or the behaviour of players – but the prospect of leaving it behind entirely is just too drastic to comprehend. The reality is that sport brings people together in a way that almost nothing else can.
Take the “Barmy Army”: the group of hardy, vocal, passionate fans who follow the England cricket team across the world through thick and thin. Many fans who join the ‘Army’ for each tour have little in common, save a love of cricket (probably) and a desire to spend weeks with their fellow Brits having fun in the sun.
“Fans are not ‘customers’, Teams are not ‘brands’, Sports are not ‘products’”
Paul Burnham, who set up the group in 1994 at the nadir of England’s cricketing performance, says: “For a big overseas tour like the Ashes in Australia about half of the 3,000 fans who travel will be first timers.”
“Quite often the people who come might not normally be part of a group, or be outgoing, but they enjoy the company of other like-minded people. A few years ago, the atmosphere might not have been right for women and children but now it is.”
The organisation has blossomed as fans join the ranks and head off on tour: fueled by that espirit du corps that comes with cheering on your team, as well as a few beers of course.
Interestingly, Paul attributes much of the Barmy Army’s enduring popularity and commercial success with a clear understanding of the experience a fan craves when following their team.
“We have been very successful as a fan group, but it’s still massively important that sports treat their supporters like fans and not simply customers,” he says.
Time and again this point cropped up in our conversations with fans. Fans are not “customers”. Teams are not “brands”. Sports are not “products”.
Of course, this differentiation is not grounded in fact. Even Mr Burnley is, by any measure, a “consumer” of products from Burnley FC – whether that be match tickets, replica shirts or even club pies.
But to confuse the commercial reality with fan perception is to risk ridicule or worse. Pity the stadium announcer who uses the word “customer” instead
of “supporter”, or the club press release that eulogises “brand values”.
The joy of sport for so many fans is that it’s so different to anything else in their lives. It belongs in a category all by itself, with a unique terminology and mindset to match.
At its best, watching sport is the chance to forget everyday worries. To come together with your fellow fan and be transformed. Whether it’s a Federer backhand winner at Roland Garros or a scruffy 93rd minute equaliser in Grimsby, the effect is the same. Anyone involved in sport forgets that at their peril.
Back up the A66, agony waits for Dave and Tricky Trev. Just a week after achieving a precious draw with Premiership top dogs Chelsea, their beloved Burnley is about to be humiliatingly dumped out of the FA Cup by Lincoln City, a team outside the top four tiers of English football league. Burnley, a town that prides itself on overturning the odds, has itself been undone by a posse of underdogs.
“It’s chalk and cheese this game sometimes,” says Dave looking on. “That lad playing up front for them, Rhead, was playing for the Butcher’s Arms in my town four years ago.”
He stares across the pitch, where the opposition fans have begun a delirious party and his own team are walking off disconsolately. He shakes his head with disbelief. “The Butchers Arms,” he mutters, and turns towards the exit.
That’s sport for you.