Sunday, 22 September 2013

Good Noise

Queens Park Rangers 0 Brighton 0

Yeovil 0 Queens Park Rangers 1

During my weekend away I went to bed on Sunday night having seen Joey Barton's late night tweet in support of Stonewall's campaign Right Behind Gay Footballers. A wave of excitement hit me as I knew we were in for a week that would be full of debate and conversation on three subjects that are pretty dear to me: gay equality, advertising and QPR. Let me just say outright, that this hasn't suddenly made me love Mr Barton but it has increased my respect for him a significant little. It's hard for it not to as I'm hardly made of stone and these are subjects so close to my heart.

My brother tells me I am more of a gay rights activist than he is. Hardly. There are thousands in the UK who are truly fighting for the cause. I am only guilty of writing a little piece  on the subject in relation to football some time ago when that documentary with Barton (who was still our captain) opening up about his gay uncle came out. I also wrote about the Football v Homophobia campaign that QPR signed up to - an important initiative that tackles homophobia specifically in football. 

Was it pre-planned that the first match QPR would play after the launch of the campaign would be against Brighton? Whether it was or not, the campaign provided me with an element of distraction during what was in all honesty, a drab football affair. This time, the score line didn't even give me one goal to cheer for. But if it had, I may have missed it as I was admittedly spending a lot of time staring at players' feet to see if they had been wearing their laces. I had no idea there were so many different coloured boots, and so many different coloured laces. One could be forgiven for thinking that footballers were extremely fashion conscious even on the pitch! Despite the drab affair, the draw gave us a point and a move one point adrift at the top of the table. And it was still wonderful to be back at Loftus Road under the floodlights and hearing the noise of the crowd.

I have been undecided for a while, but now I am leaning towards Stonewall's view on this one. Why? Ever since that documentary that was aired in February 2012, one English league player (Robbie Rogers) came out, retired and appeared again to play in the US. And Football v Homophobia's facebook page has increased to just 655 likes. @tpasichelle reminded me today that 32 of 92 league clubs in the UK have signed up to Football v Homophobia, as well as the managers of England men's and women's team as well as the FA and that there has been 'lots of global action'. Sounds good doesn't it? But how many of you heard about anything that they have been doing until you read my blog? Have you seen more than one Football v Homophobia support tweet from QPR? Have you seen numerous press articles around their campaign since that football documentary which Fashanu's niece presented in such a heartfelt way? Did you see any advertising? In contrast, Paddy Power has so far this week run two 24 hour #RBGF sponsored tweet campaigns on twitter (each would cost approximately £20K) which led to millions of twitter impressions. Barton's support has meant that most of his 2.3m followers are likely to have seen his campaign tweets throughout the week. There is also plenty of advertising in print across the UK - reaching millions of adults, and not just those who are interested in football (again likely to be costing at least a few hundred thousand pounds). In addition, every Paddy Power store is holding those rainbow laces. I went to my local shop today in Willesden Green and the guy at the counter said they were running out. This, don't forget, is another space for visibility. While Barton's support is likely to come at no cost, Paddy Power's support provides leverage and scale a campaign like this would otherwise never have achieved. And, like it or not for being a bookies with cheeky advertising, scale still drives awareness. And it sure does drive conversation.

I have no doubt that these partnerships were completely intentional, and the negative response from other campaigners, whilst unfortunate, will not be considered as a failure for the campaign. Stonewall would have thought long and hard about whether these were the right partners and one of their goals would have been to ensure the campaign had a good share of conversation within the social space on the premise that all noise in this instance, is good noise. 

For me, this goes back to one key point about football as compared with other sport, or other organisations in this day and age. The fact is football is a tough nut to crack. Many consider it to be the last bastion of male, heterosexual,  beer swilling, pub drinking, macho behaviour, although I would argue that is is also extremely corporate, and much more family and female friendly these days. It is, however, run by an FA and a FIFA that doesn't really consider homophobia a key priority. Not one player is out in the UK and only two professional players in the world are, so it's not like they are even visible in the same way that players of different ethnic groups are. In addition, no one really talks about gay footballers amongst fan groups and people are so uncomfortable with the subject they don't even know how to have a sense of humour about it. In fact, most of the time the subject swept under the carpet and forgotten. How the hell are we going to fight equality in such a resistant environment? While I respect all campaign groups, and have great respect for Football v Homophobia, cutting through isn't going to happen through campaigns that aren't just a little bit disruptive. 

Evidence that this campaign is, I believe, a tipping point, is that there were announcements from the Premier League and some individual Premier League Clubs defending their position for not officially supporting the RBGF campaign. Both groups claiming that had they had more time they would have been able to support it - marketing deals and sponsorships being impacted by the initiative. It is probably somewhat true, but I do find it amusing because by defending their position it has generated PR for the campaign yet again. And it has made fans ask questions of their own clubs which they may well want answered more fully in the long-term. 

What does this mean for QPR? Probably not a huge amount in the short-term. My hope is that one day when gay footballers are able to safely come out and be visible, QPR will go down in history as a club that supported the cause. For now, it is most QPR fans' hope that Barton continues to focus primarily on his game. But I for one am proud to see a QPR player having the guts to make a point by wearing the laces, during that match on Wednesday night against Brighton. Who cares if Barton loves the attention? He's got 2.3m people who read his tweets every day. And yeah, so what if Paddy Power wants to leverage the campaign to get more people in to its shops? Betting isn't illegal here, and it isn't illegal for them to advertise either. If they've got money to spend, why shouldn't Stonewall leverage this? Call me a marketing cynic, but this is the reality of the world that we live in. And consumers are pretty clever, they can make informed decisions for themselves about brands and advertising. They also understand Paddy Power's tone and style is part of its advertising identity. If they did something that wasn't controversial it wouldn't seem right would it? That's like asking website companies to start using opera singers in their ads (oh, wait a minute...). 

And so we came to Saturday, the day when we were meant to see many players wear the rainbow laces. I sadly could not make it to Yeovil and had to contend with old school radio-listening while at the same time writing the beginnings of this blog post. I also have not yet seen MOTD, and am about to start watching the League Show. Another 1-0 win for the Rs is great news, but like many fans I am worried about the plethora of injuries (Nedum, Johnson, Hoilett). The recent score lines reflect their loss and resulting lack of of a strike force as well as creativity. 

Nevertheless, we have 20 points and sit at the top of the table, which says a lot for the importance of momentum for positive results. The RBGF campaign is creating momentum - and I have hopes it will outlive and outlast the Paddy Power and the Barton brand given that we live in an age where people own brands and brands themselves are merely their own guardians. And surely, any noise about a good cause is good noise? Just like a win is a win is a win. Right?

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