In a difficult week that included the England team being booed for taking the knee, Tuesday the 8th of June saw England manager Gareth Southgate’s Letter to England published on The Players’ Tribune website.
Players’ Tribune is an author-driven publisher of daily sports stories consisting of first-person articles originating from professional sportsmen and women. Neither an English, British or even a European website, it is an American sports orientated site founded by baseball star Derek Jeter and owned by Minute Media of Tel Aviv, Israel.
Founded in 2015, original investors in the start-up included sports stars such as Kobe Bryant and a consortium of athletes represented by the investment company GenTrust.
TPT’s early years were fraught with by 2019, according to the New York Post, the company having ‘gone through’ $80 million dollars and Jeter looking to sell.
A November 2019 Digiday article revealed the site’s reach was small with too much emphasis upon quality and not enough upon quantity. TPT was publishing a mere five pieces of content a week, only 47 posts appeared on Facebook a month, 18 on Instagram, YouTube only ten. Despite the publication’s forty strong editorial team, sports fans had little reason to engage.
TPT had been too relaxed about the quantity of its content as, rather than relying for revenue upon advertising, they were selling branded content campaigns. Those campaigns revolved around articles said to be penned by top-class athletes. However, features in the New York Times and Adweek informed us the pieces were written by uncredited staff writers in cooperation with the players.
Hold on a minute. What’s a branded content campaign?
A branded content campaign is where an athlete or team is associated with a particular brand. For instance the England team and Nike. You may not realise this. That is deliberate. In a hyper-competitive marketing environment, branded content is effective by being subtle.
According to Laia Cardona, a marketing strategist at Cyberclick, some key characteristics of branded content are:
- Focus on the values of the brand, not its products or services
- Seeking to generate conversation and notableness around the brand
- Appeals to emotions
- Use of storytelling
She goes on to illustrate five advantages of such marketing:
- It is non-invasive
- Generates an emotional connection
- Has the potential to go viral
- Improves the position of the brand
- Generates engagement and loyalty
In November 2019, Bloomberg reported TPT had been acquired by Minute Media since when, through acquisitions of other media and tech companies, the Minute group has pursued the same business strategy as TPT but has become better at it. In its own advertising spiel, Minute Media now feels able to promise:
Our deep connection to athletes and fans allows us to organically interweave your brand’s purpose into the sports and cultural discussion – and we’re able to build meaningful programs for you through our process, which is grounded in trust and powered by technology
This is what Gareth Southgate’s Dear England letter is all about.
Minute’s corporate partners include Nike who are, surprise, surprise, the main sponsors of the FA Group who are both the custodians of the England team and Gareth Southgate’s bosses.
Nike became England kit suppliers in 2013 in a five-year contract thought to be worth £20 million a year. In 2016 the deal was extended by 12 years (to 2030) in a £400 million pound contract, making it the second biggest kit deal in the world after the German national team’s with Adidas.
If we examine the latest version of the kit, the three lions have been replaced by a daddy and a mummy lion with a smaller baby lion beneath them. On the first team top, the FA badge and Nike tick are on separate sides of the chest (because of rules) whereas on the replica shirts the association between the two brands is much closer. They are both central to the jersey, with the Nike logo as close as being part of the FA logo as possible without them becoming one.
If we type ‘Nike’s marketing strategy’ into Google we learn the following:
The Nike marketing strategy, in summary, is, invest heavily in marketing, use emotional advertising that every human being can identify with, offer premium products at premium prices and sell their products primarily through 3rd party retails stores.
Looking through Gareth Southgate’s letter, can we detect the leaden hand of the corporate sponsors, staff writers and a branded content campaign? Yes, we can.
When ghostwriting, many things are to be avoided. For instance, fluffy and unnecessary words such as ‘just’, ‘really’, ‘that’ and ‘that’s’. Parts of Letter to England avoid the pitfalls, other parts wallow in them. About two-thirds of the content comes from Southgate, either written by him or transcribed in conversation with him, and about one third, the following four passages, is carefully constructed branded style content.
For me, personally, my sense of identity and values is closely tied to my family and particularly my granddad. He was a fierce patriot and a proud military man, who served during World War II.
The idea of representing “Queen and country” has always been important to me. We do pageantry so well in Britain, and, growing up, things like the Queen’s silver jubilee and royal weddings had an impact on me.
Because of my granddad, I’ve always had an affinity for the military and service in the name of your country – though the consequence of my failure in representing England will never be as high as his. My granddad’s values were instilled in me from a young age and I couldn’t help but think of him when I lined up to sing the national anthem before my first international caps.
Here we have ‘identity’, ‘values’ and ‘story telling’ with an emotional connection to granddad, the appropriation of the military and a call to patriotism which provides a counterbalance to the counterclaim that the millionaire man-boys who play for England couldn’t give a toss.
Ordinarily, patriotism (beyond showing a flag-draped tinged individual with a gold medal) would be avoided but Brexit, Red Wall and the demographic of the booing community have forced the marketing department into choppy waters.
Our second passage:
Undoubtedly, we’re in a different era now, where footballers aren’t as accessible to fans as they once were. They don’t ride the same bus home from games, or meet in the pub for a pint and a post-match analysis.
But, despite all the changes in modern football, what cannot be questioned about the current generation of England players is their pride in representing this country.
The first paragraph contains a connective truism repeating an oft mentioned observation suggesting it was better in the old days and, more recently, the millionaire man-boys live in a fan hating bubble. There is also mention of pride motivating England players, rather than money or status. This theme continues in our third section:
You only need to see what I see when an under-15 comes into St. George’s Park for the first time, or when a senior player arrives on their first call-up. The pride for them, their families and their communities back home is huge.
The journey to earn an England cap is an incredibly difficult one, regardless of background or circumstance.
Only around 1,200 players have represented England at senior men’s level. Ever.
It’s a profound privilege. Don’t forget, many of our lads started out at Football League clubs like Barnsley, MK Dons and Sheffield United. Their backgrounds are humble. For them to make it to this point as one of the chosen few in England’s history … well, it simply doesn’t happen without pride.
This is a special group. Humble, proud and liberated in being their true selves.
Here the storytelling relates to ‘the journey’. Note words such as ‘community’ and ‘family’. Note also the heroic triumph over adversity: leaving home, being only 15, having lived in Barnsley, being part of the ‘chosen few’. The players aren’t spoilt millionaire man-boys who couldn’t give a toss, they are classical heroes.
‘Humble, proud and liberated in being their true selves’, shows the ghostwriter taking the mick by referencing an American Apparel clothing campaign manned by trannies (if you see what I mean) where the ‘girls’ were strap-lined (strap-on lined? *snarf*) as becoming their true selves through gender transition.
Likewise, the line ‘Only around 1,200 players’ is familiar. It is from a previous Nike promotion by the Wonderland Studios agency entitled ‘And all who follow.‘
The full reference being, ‘In the history of the men’s national team, only 93 out of 1,244 players have been black.’
Note the use of ‘national’ instead of England. Are they ashamed of us? Yes, plus they want the campaign to appeal to a broader audience than the English.
For the event, at Wembley during England’s 1000th international match, the stadium was made over with perimeter boards showing black footballers. One of the giant posters was of Viv Anderson, the first black player to play for England, passing the ball to Tyrone Mings who was the most recent. At the bottom middle of the poster sat the Nike swish and the FA’s three lions logo.
It’s worth pointing out, given for the majority of the history of the FA only a minutely small number of black people lived in England, 93 is a massive overrepresentation.
Mings was later spotted at a Black Lives Matter march.
While we’re on the subject, in Southgate’s letter there is no mention of ‘black, ‘Black Lives Matter’, ‘knee’, ‘race’ or ‘racism’. The sell is about nicey feelings, not specifics.
The fourth ghostwritten passage is this:
Reading abusive comments on Twitter or Instagram is never going to help performance.
There are genuine risks for our players online and I will always want to protect them, but I would never put rules on how or when they use their accounts while on England duty. I trust them and know they are mature enough to make their own decisions, to do what’s right for their mental health and to keep being a force for good as we strive for a better society.
In our final carefully crafted paragraph, poor performance is blamed on being criticised by the booing community on Twitter, rather than players not being good enough or not trying hard enough. Gareth is portrayed emotionally as a protective parent but one who allows the children performance reducing social media.
Remember, we need social media ‘reach’ for our branded content campaign. The last thing we want is for fewer people to use Instagram, YouTube and Facebook. Another consideration, mobile phone company EE sponsor Wembley stadium and telecoms giant BT are the FA’s second-biggest partner after Nike.
‘Mental health’, ‘Force for good’, ‘Strive for a better society’, by buying a £70 football jersey made for pennies by near-slaves in the third world. Great.
After being published, Gareth Southgate trended 2nd on Twitter for a while but soon dropped to about 9th. The next morning he was down to 19th and had taken incoming in the form of a kiss of death endorsement from Kier Starmer.
On the newspaper websites, the story was halfway was down the pages, with little more than a brief introduction, a rehash of the contents of the letter and a few moderated comments below the line. The next day, the sections filled up with comments, nearly all of which were hostile to Saint Gareth.
Why did it fall flat?
It was too cheesy, too obviously driven by a big corporation’s woke marketing strategy was and carried by a rival to mainstream media that the papers and TV channels would hesitate to give publicity to.
To get more attention, it would have been better to have read it out, Ollie Robinson in an Iranian jail style, in front of a press conference. But it’s not about Gareth or England or the fans or the British media. The goal is for Nike’s swish on the football jersey to continue to be seen on global TV kneeling down before the Black Lives Matter agenda, boos or no boos.
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file