Cardiff City: What’s in a colour?

A few weeks ago I was flicking through the channels on my TV and came across Sky News. They were showing brief highlights of a game from earlier in the day and I didn’t initially recognise who the teams were. It wasn’t until I’d seen a team score a couple of goals that I realised that I was watching Cardiff City. Not being able to quickly identify a club that I had supported for almost twenty years was strange and it made me feel more correct in my decision to cancel my season ticket this summer after the football club scrapped its century old tradition of wearing blue shirts.

Identity is important to football and Cardiff City appear to agree as they ordered the change to red not only as a mechanism of looking more like Liverpool and Manchester United (as they sell shirts in Asia) but also to:

“..actively grow the brand and drive the brand in all its aspects…. Vincent Tan can see the red brand as driving the awareness of Cardiff City and he can use it to open a series of internet cafes or sell Cardiff City products through his retail outlets then great.” – Alan Whitely CEO Cardiff City

Cardiff City turn their back on south Wales based supporters in favour of advertising to Malaysian insomniacs.
Cardiff City turn their back on south Wales based supporters in favour of advertising to Malaysian insomniacs.

What is baffling for many is that the re-brand has been so poorly implemented. If a football club were to take the unprecedented move of re-branding after wearing colours for over a century then surely the new kit would be a brave design, something to set it apart from other teams in their division and country. Instead the club chose a standard red Puma template and created a badge using free clip-art images on-line. The stadium seats remain blue in colour. Cardiff City in their new red guise are not even the most famous red sporting team to play in the city. That honour goes to the Wales rugby union side who remain the biggest draw in the capital. The new badge of a Welsh dragon is equally as baffling. The motif taken directly from the flag of Wales is unsurprisingly ubiquitous in the country and can be found on many products from biscuits, to tea-towels to t-shirts. Rather than the re-brand setting Cardiff City apart as something special or something new, the club has effectively faded itself into football’s background.

After the club announced it’s intention to re-brand as a red club many journalists and football fans have been quite surprised at just how little opposition their appears to have been to the change. There are a few reasons why I believe fans have been so acquiescent:

Promises  – The owners have promised that alongside the change of kit colour they will invest £100m into the football club. It’s irrelevant as to whether the owners are being truthful or not. We’ve all seen enough evidence over these past few weeks that football fans often leave their brain at the door when the subject of their football club arises. Despite having both Sam Hammam and Peter Ridsdale in charge over the past few years, many Cardiff City supporters are still willing to believe any snake oil merchant who promises the earth.

Status – The Premier League being viewed as the “promised land” is a theme that is familiar to most involved with football. But with Cardiff City it is goes far, far deeper than that. It’s an obsession. There are three reasons for this:

  1. The football club hasn’t played in the top flight for over fifty years. There are few clubs of the size of Cardiff City that have spent that long in exile.
  2. The elephant (swan?) in the room is the club’s local rivals Swansea City who have not only won promotion to the Premier League but have also been praised for the way they’ve played once there. Status envy is prevalent within football and merely supporting a football team isn’t enough. It has to be a Premier League team. In addition to the desire for a Premier League team a culture of entitlement reigns in Cardiff, a city that has been gifted (amongst other things) the Welsh assembly, FA Cup Finals, Cardiff Bay, the Millennium Stadium and Doctor Who. Yet what many Cardiff City fans crave most is what their poorer cousins have, the golden goose: Premier League football.
  3. With the club losing £1m a month and being over £50m in debt it appears that the gravy train of Sky subsidised top flight football is the only way that the money can ever be recouped. What is most terrifying about this is that it’s probable that even the riches of Premier League football will not be enough to pay back the vast amount of money owed. Swansea City, a supposed shining example of how to run a football club, “only” made a profit of £14m in their first season in the top flight. To put that into context at a club like Cardiff City it would take them five years of excellent financial management and prudence in the top flight to just break even, never mind make a profit.

Silent opposition – Just as the zombies head to the mall in Dawn of the Dead because that’s what they always used to do, so Cardiff City fans head to the stadium every other weekend. Many people who attend games are very unhappy with the change to red (certainly no one has ever mentioned it as a good idea in the past!). However, following a football team is a habit that can be hard to break, especially when it’s a primary route to spend time with your father, your brother, your son or your friends. And it’s also unfair to expect people to do so.

 

One of the most fascinating aspects of the re-brand is Cardiff City effectively turning their entire supporter base from fans to customers. Despite the club spending over £10m in the summer (including signing local hero Craig Bellamy) and winning their first seven home league fixtures, attendances are down on last season. That’s despite most of those attending fixtures having already bought their season ticket before the re-brand took place. The walk up crowd to Cardiff games has been very low so far this term (though this might have something to do with the £32 match ticket prices – but that’s another issue altogether). Additionally offers such as guaranteeing FA Cup Final or League Cup Final tickets have led to the club having an artificially high number of season ticket holders over the past few years and a failure to get promotion will inevitably lead to significantly lower crowds next season. The club is at a crossroads like no other in its entire history.

There are a few possible outcomes, amongst them:

  1. Club succeeds on the pitch – It’s almost certain that Vincent Tan (Cardiff’s Malaysian owner) has no intention of making money from Cardiff City, you can’t make money from a club like Cardiff,  instead it’s a tool for his self promotion in Malaysia. The club has to be successful or it reflects badly on him. If the club do well it can market the change to red as justified (the local press are already perfectly happy to bang the drum in support of red) . After promotion Cardiff City increases its links with Malaysia and the Far East and attempts to become the first club to play in a “Game 39”. Tellingly when asked over the summer whether or not the club has plans to change the club’s name, to Cardiff Malaysia or Malaysia FC the answer hasn’t been “We’ve absolutely no plans to.” but rather “The FA wouldn’t allow it.”..
  2. Club fails on the pitch  – If the club fail to get promotion and Vincent Tan loses interest, the club fails to pay back its debt, goes into administration and ultimately liquidation. I believe that the likelihood of a phoenix club emerging from the ashes of the current club is very unlikely. The fan-base is riven with discord – the Keep Cardiff Blue meeting that was scheduled to organise a protest about a change of kit was disrupted by other Cardiff City supporters threatening to “bury” any fans who protested against the colour change in the stadium. If the club do go bust then I think Cardiff may be the first liquidated club in British history that opts not to re-emerge as another entity. There’s certainly demand for a Premier League club in Cardiff, but not a non-league one, especially not within a supporter base that’s so split in its feelings.
Unfortunately I don’t foresee a happy ending at Cardiff, if the club is successful then the owners will complete the re-brand into an entity for Malaysia, if the club fails then it’ll drop into oblivion. Even promotion to the Premier League (which seems very likely) won’t be enough to repair the damage that the re-brand has caused to this football club.

 

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