Analysis: Football's appeal defies scandals

The scandals of the past month have given football's image a drubbing. Ian Hall asks the man at the eye of the storm, FA comms boss Paul Barber, what can be done to restore the beautiful game's tarnished reputation

Analysis: Football's appeal defies scandals
Analysis: Football's appeal defies scandals

The involvement of Premiership players in an alleged rape at a London hotel, and the failure of England and Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand to attend a drugs test have led to a swathe of bad press for England's national sport.

Legal issues surrounding the gang-rape case have lent an anonymous, and thus arguably sleazier, tone to coverage, with the alleged misbehaviour of a few individuals in many critics' eyes sucking the sport itself into a reputational quagmire.

Football Association director of marketing and comms Paul Barber has been at the centre of the media maelstrom over Ferdinand, whom the FA banned from representing England in this month's crucial game against Turkey. The move led to accusations from Professional Footballers' Association CEO Gordon Taylor that Ferdinand had been 'hung out to dry'.

Talking to PRWeek from Portugal, where he has been relationship-building in advance of Euro 2004, Barber concedes it has been a 'very, very difficult time' for football and admits that the FA's reputation 'has taken a hit'.

But when asked to what extent football's reputation has been damaged by recent events, Barber points to statistics on the game's ever-increasing popularity. 'TV audiences are higher than ever, participation in women's football is up, and the number of commercial partners is up,' he says.

One of the FA's five commercial partners is Nationwide, whose sponsorship media manager, Chris Hull, is likewise not overly concerned with the game's negative press.

Hull says: 'For every negative development there are thousands of positive experiences for supporters and players every weekend.'

He adds: 'Most reputable sponsors take a long-term view and think that association with the positive aspects of football outweighs the negatives '.

Sponsors are, it seems, usually more concerned by the reputation of individual players with whom they have deals.

Ian Monk, PR adviser to Proactive Sports Group, which has players such as Wayne Rooney on its books, says sponsors do 'get scared' when it comes to individual player behaviour. He believes various past clients have lost out on sponsorship deals because of wayward on- and off-field conduct.

While Barber admits that players need 'as much media training as possible', Monk points out the scale of the challenge by saying that, in terms of raw materials, 'you are often starting out with lads who can barely speak'.

Monk says professional media relations training for footballers now involves lessons as much on where to go on a night out as on how to dodge tricky questions from sports writers.

One Premiership club whose players are no strangers to off-field skirmishes is Newcastle United.

Striker Craig Bellamy was found guilty earlier this month of using threatening and abusive behaviour outside a nightclub, while midfielder Kieron Dyer booked the hotel room in which the alleged gang-rape took place (although Dyer himself has an alibi for the time of the alleged attack).

Luke Edwards, sports writer at Newcastle's The Journal, says: 'The club tends to shut up shop (in such situations), as it is often difficult (to talk), given legal considerations. But when you go quiet, things tend to snowball'.

In general, Edwards perceives PROs as 'tending to block interviews', saying he would 'like to see more pressure placed on players to do interviews'.

He compares Newcastle's PR with that of north-east rivals Sunderland, recently relegated from the top flight. 'Now Sunderland is relegated it is more press-friendly. If Newcastle was relegated, the club wouldn't be saying no to interviews,' he says.

Newcastle - and the reputation of English fans - faced further bad press last week, when Dutch police arrested around 80 English fans after fighting in Holland before a Newcastle UEFA Cup match.

On the subject of hooligans, Barber points out that England's recent away fixtures in Macedonia and Turkey passed off largely without trouble from England supporters.

Although this was mainly due to the FA's decision to decline ticket allocations for England fans, Barber says the FA's unprecedented PR campaign - which included personal involvement from coach Sven-Goran Eriksson and captain David Beckham - played a part in discouraging fans from travelling.

But Barber is keen to stress that England fans remain 'on trial', and the 'threat of sanctions (from UEFA) has not been lifted'.

But as the media's focus will no doubt move on, Barber concludes: 'This has been a bad couple of weeks and, if this triggers a trend, the sport should be concerned about its reputation'.

The implication is that one-off cases of bad behaviour will not give cause for major soul-searching within the game. Indeed, in Monk's words: 'We've had a few headline-grabbing cases, but it's not endemic'.

Unlike corporate brands, for whom one-off negative incidents can lead to boycotts and plummeting share-price, history suggests that football's overall popularity with fans - and sponsors - will remain undiminished by recent unsavoury incidents.

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