Project Restart: behind the banners

As a football fan, I’d missed having any games to watch during lockdown.

The Bundesliga provided some early respite. Their matches, a good few weeks before the other main European leagues resumed, provided a taster of what was to come.

Eerily empty stadiums. Players yelling at each other as clear as day. The thwack of a fairly tame pass surprisingly dark and thunderous.

The grounds also provided a few visual stimuli to create more of a ‘match day’ experience.

I think Borussia Monchengladbach were the first to introduce cardboard cut-outs featuring the photos of their fans. And this caught on at a few grounds.

But it’s banners that have proved to be the main focus.

Now German fans are never shy to air their opinions in public, especially if they feel aggrieved about being treated unfairly. Or billionaire owners. Or multi-national energy drink companies high-jacking their league (Hallo, RasenBallsport Leipzig).

So it was little surprise to see such discontent displayed at Stuttgart.

“Football will live on, your business is sick!

But what is interesting, to me at least, is how the Premier League observed, put a plan in place for their own restart, and put it into action. All to protect the global performance of the brand.

That’s because the Premier League is very good at how it projects itself, to billions of people around the world. Any negativity, as seen in Germany, would be damaging – both to its image, and ability to make tons of hard cash.

So they set up a new Broadcast Enhancement Advisory (BEA) Group. And got in touch with the 20 clubs to advise on how they could ensure everything looked great, and more importantly, on-brand.

This was to be for the cameras – for the restart was to be one huge TV-fest.

It was about audio, too. Or so they claimed. Apparently the banners draped over seating blocks of the lower tiers would result in the sound bouncing back less.

From what I’ve watched (without fake crowd noise – it’s been weird enough, thanks), you can hear the same thwacks and shouts reverberating around, banners or not.

No, far me this was all about the visuals. A branding opportunity like never seen before.

The BEA Group had left some of their common sense behind (possibly in a champagne meeting). Proposing that each club was to display a banner featuring all 20 club badges – some them their fiercest and least respected rivals – was never going to wash.

But in football the Premier League is a money-making machine, bar none. So certain things would be concrete.

Each banner’s top 10% would be kept free for the Premier League and its logo. Each banner’s bottom 25% could be used to generate more revenue from a club’s sponsors. (Fill your boots.)

What was open for interpretation, though, was the middle part of the banners, the remaining 65%.

I’ve found this fascinating. Probably due to my background – a career in advertising and working on numerous branding projects. But also because of how each club has approached it.

Villa Park

I don’t doubt that the Premier League encouraged club crests and mottos. But alongside this we’ve seen song lyrics, shout outs and slogans.

From a design point of view, the quality and style of graphics have depended largely on the in-house team (or external partner), with some varying massively in their overall appearance.

Nearly all of the content has been great, though. As if fans who normally drape flags with their home town on the cross of St. George, were now representing graphic communication instead of geography.

I’ve learned chants that I didn’t know were sung until reading them.

West Ham’s “East, East, East London”, declaring their roots in the Capital. Bournemouth’s “Eddie had a dream, on minus 17”, on just how far they’ve come since joining the merry band who’ve gone into administration.

Spurs always like showing off their motto: ‘To dare is to do’. Arsenal’s I didn’t know. ‘Victory through harmony’, written in both Latin and plain English, for those who’ve not been to boarding school.

Man City’s decoration was very impressive, taking over not just the bottom tier but the whole stand. (Cue your own joke about empty seats.)

Most clubs proudly displayed the NHS logo, thanked key workers or gave welcome prominence to the Black Lives Matter campaign.

Crystal Palace’s fans were apparently consulted about what they wanted, and should be applauded for advertising a local food bank with details of how you could ‘Text: Dinner £5’.

It all added up to create a unique identity for each club that normally wouldn’t have seen the light of day. And helped to make some of the duller games a lot more enjoyable, it has to be said.

Don’t get me wrong, these decorations are not a patch on having real fans in the stadiums. Not just bums on seats, but jumping up and shouting loud.

But from the strange, somewhat surreal situation of Covid-19, something quite organic and beautiful has grown. A visual spectacle, borne from an artificial opportunity. A show of foresight from the Premier League, and the continued protectionism of its global brand.