The Student
Sport
TalkSPORT: a self-sustaining economy for the 21st century
by Ewan Freeman, 16/08/20

TalkSPORT, ‘the world’s biggest sports radio station’, will rope you in with a meandering recipe. Ask a nebulous question; provide a fantastically obscene opinion from someone regarded as knowledgable; question whether they’re ‘having a laugh’; await hysterical rebuttals from the public; hark back to the argument the next day for yet more disagreement and then repeat.

It is a business model that sustains on controversy, seeking it to drum up clicks and interactions. Since its inception in January 2000, TalkSPORT has redefined the phone-in element of radio to focus on a wider range of subjects and moved away from simple match day reaction. This past week has been indicative of the way TalkSPORT is able to manipulate an audience and capture traction despite the ridiculousness of the opinions.

Jamie O’Hara, former Premier League midfielder and TalkSPORT co-host, suggested that Rangers manager Steven Gerrard should leave Rangers to take the recently vacated role at relegated Bournemouth. O’Hara stated that ‘It’s a bigger job [at Bournemouth].’ Firstly, to prove the futility of this argument, Bournemouth are a club that have historically been a third tier fixture and their highest finish in their 121-year existence has been 9th in the Premier League. Rangers, on the other hand, have just the small matter of 54 Scottish titles, 33 Scottish Cups and a European Cup Winners’ Cup. Not really much of an argument, historically.

O’Hara, to attempt to find some meaning in his argument, could well have been referring to times more recent. Bournemouth, thanks largely to the might of the Premier League’s global broadcasting deals, ranked 28th in Deloitte’s Football Money League last year. Rangers haven’t been anywhere near the top thirty since 2007. Thus, O’Hara could have posited that Bournemouth are a bigger commercial entity and should, in the age of ‘super-clubs’, be credited for such wealth.

The argument, of course, begs questions around the stature of the Scottish game. Scotland rank 14th in UEFA’s country coefficients, only marginally above Czech Republic, whereas England are second. In the club rankings, England has six of the top 14, whereas you have to go to 45th place to find Celtic – below FC Krasnodar. Whilst these rankings only take into account the eminent clubs in these countries, they reflect the respective standards in the league. To his credit, O’Hara succeeded in stimulating conversation and opening up further avenues of contention, particularly around how we view the quality of the Scottish game alongside the English game.

Rangers legend Ally McCoist led an impassioned defence of his former club the following morning. It was his response that drew a further line of enquiry, one that is implicitly at the heart of all football-related discourse. He started listing teams that he believed Rangers to be ‘bigger’ than. In a clip viewed by over 100,000 people on Twitter, McCoist exercised the judgement that Leeds United, Arsenal, Tottenham, Everton and Chelsea are all beneath the stature of Rangers. While that is absurd to some, it is defensible to others. This is exactly the sweet spot TalkSPORT so often aim for.

Therefore, we are left asking how we view football clubs: do we hark back to the glory days of one team to prove their worth whilst ignoring another’s, or are we guilty of overlooking historical glories in favour of recent achievements?

This question speaks directly to how we see football, the basis of our biases and how they stoke the tribalism that TalkSPORT acutely targets. Leeds United, for example, will return to the Premier League next season after a 16-year absence. They have won three English league titles, reached the 1975 European Cup Final and the Champions League semi-finals in 2001. They are undoubtedly an historical giant whose achievements deserve consideration alongside Rangers, if not for any reason other than their European pedigree.

Everton, too, are nine-time English league champions and may well have won European Cups had it not been for England’s European ban in the late 1980s. Tottenham have contributed enormously to world football through Arthur Rowe’s ‘push and run’, which Vic Buckingham adapted and took to Ajax, and then Barcelona, starting the Total Football revolution. Both clubs are Premier League ‘ever-presents’, and in the past ten years have ranked comfortably in the world’s top twenty richest clubs despite countless seasons without silverware.

So do we accept Rangers’ historical significance but ignore Tottenham’s? Do we focus on Leeds’ 16-year exodus but forget about Rangers’s previous twelve years since losing to Zenit Saint Petersburg in the UEFA Cup Final? Are we all just hypocrites in pursuit of defending our tribe (see Ally McCoist)? TalkSPORT relies on the latter. Their model requires one hypocrite to entice another into debate – not to say that debate is unwanted. The latter was provoked by O’Hara’s initial assertion, then by McCoist’s defence, and now by rival fans of clubs not even mentioned. It would be odd not to see a Celtic fan rile against Rangers, a Manchester United fan or a Liverpool fan assert that it is unequivocally true that Everton or Manchester City are smaller clubs than Rangers. This performative nature of fandom has aided TalkSPORT no-end.

TalkSPORT are able to show advertisers the interactions and traction they create and the cycle continues. This is not to say that TalkSPORT is uniquely evil – this is a problem across every form of media – but they are the most crude example. They remain a microcosm for a much wider issue, as I’m sure we’ve all noticed similar trends in our political discourse in the past decade.

Some would disagree with it even being a problem, however. Instead they see the debates they create as worthy and accepting of differing viewpoints. But the fact that the model relies on the continual disagreement of fans, as one caller leads to the next, means we can at least question its productivity.

Are fans supposed to agree? Is there any common ground for fans? Is there scope for fans to acknowledge rival viewpoints whilst remaining a fan? TalkSPORT really would prefer it if you could answer ‘no’ to these questions – and then someone will come on and disagree with you.

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