Monetising the word ‘Liverpool’: A spectacular own goal

By Jeff Goulding

Liverpool Football club have made what The Independent refers to as a ‘bold move’ at the Intellectual Property Office. They are seeking to trademark the word ‘Liverpool.’ Sounds absurd doesn’t it? It is.

However, the club are not alone. Southampton and Chelsea have also successfully monetised – or monopolised – a word that predated their existence. To be fair, Liverpool FC have claimed that the move has been made to protect the club’s profits and supporters wallets, as no longer will we be ripped off by ‘inauthentic products,’ they say.

You know the ones they’re talking about, right? The ones that are cheaper than those on offer at the official club store. So, the club is seeking to protect us from having access to cheaper and independently designed products from places like Hat, Scarf or a Badge, and instead we will be free to pay much higher prices for official merchandise.

There is so much that is wrong with this idea, I barely know where to start. The response to it from supporters groups, like Spirit of Shankly, echoes the views of many grassroots followers of the club and mine. They have issued a statement saying:

‘After a magnificent summer of optimism and celebration for LFC – it is hard to contemplate such an ill-thought out move by FSG. It is one that will alienate the entire fan base.’

With the club’s owners about to enter their tenth year in charge at Anfield, hopes were high that they had overcome their earlier mistakes. The most notable of which was a ticket price hike that provoked a mass walk out during a Premier League game, against Sunderland in 2015.

FSG hardly need the cash either. In recent weeks, the newly crowned champions of Europe have entered the top 50 in a list of the most affluent sporting organisations in the world, having been valued at $2.5 billion. A string of lucrative new sponsorship deals have been announced and the club has earned vast sums of prize money from both UEFA and the Premier League.

FSG are investing heavily in training facilities at Kirkby. And, just this week, there has been talk of an improved and enlarged planning application to the city council, for the expansion of the Anfield Road end of the stadium. This will undoubtedly drive up revenues further.

In short, the club is in rude health. So, you may ask, with so much revenue flowing into the club, why do FSG need to embark on such a highly controversial course of action?

It has always struck me that for all its talk of free trade and apparent love of competition, business does love a monopoly. Football is no different. Consider our club’s history. For that matter, consider any club’s history. Once a community sport, played by people on a park and watched for free, the game has now grown into a multi-national operation fine-tuned to extract as much profit as possible.

From the moment local businessmen enclosed those pitches, erected stands and began charging admittance, they had succeeded in monopolising a community pass-time. Of course that has brought benefits, such as modern stadiums and, for some, the chance to see world-class talent playing live each week.

However, it has also brought sky-high prices, exorbitant merchandising and the gouging of supporters by travel operators and hoteliers during away trips. Those handing over sponsorship cash to clubs then mop up tickets that could easily go to ordinary supporters, which creates scarcity and drives up the price of tickets made available through unofficial sources.

I’m reminded of Robert Noonan’s book, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. The book is over a century old, and is a critique of capitalism and something of a bible to socialists everywhere. In it, the author, writing under the name Robert Tressell, describes how the owners of capital are driven to monopolise everything in order to maximise profit. One line in particular comes to mind,

‘The only reason they have not monopolized the daylight and the air is that it is not possible to do it. If it were possible to construct huge gasometers and to draw together and compress within them the whole of the atmosphere, it would have been done long ago, ‘

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Robert Noonan

Well, we haven’t quite reached those extremes yet. But, we are now presented with the the monopolisation of words. The club’s attempts to portray this as being about protecting supporters from unscrupulous traders aside, who really benefits from this move?

It’s certainly not the independent traders who have been the lifeblood of the streets around the ground, or their customers. It is not yet clear what impact this will have on amateur football teams, like City of Liverpool FC.

What we can be absolutely certain of, is the fact that the club will benefit from this massively. Some supporters may well argue that it is in our interests for Liverpool FC to maximise revenue. It will allow them to invest in the playing side and the club’s infrastructure, they might say.

That’s true, of course. But I come back to my earlier point, do they really need this. Is it so necessary to bleed yet more money from the ‘brand’ that the owners are prepared to alienate current and future supporters by attempting to claim the word ‘Liverpool’ as their intellectual property?

I’d argue that it simply isn’t. It’s a foolhardy and completely unnecessary move. It’s one that stems from businesses misunderstanding of the nature of football and its connection with the people.

The owners may well want us to win. I’m willing to accept that. And, I can see that they have done a lot of good at the club. But, their problem continues to be that they cannot see that Liverpool FC is a community asset.

Clearly, it is possible to monopolise it. That is self evidently true. FSG have managed this to great effect at two sporting clubs either side of the Atlantic. However, in the process, they risk killing the goose and depriving themselves of future golden eggs – to torture a metaphor.

It is the community of independent thinkers, creators and, yes, entrepreneurs, who gravitate to Liverpool FC, who generate the unique vibe around the club. ‘This means more,‘ the club says, and it is true. It does.

Liverpool FC, in fact the word ‘Liverpool’ itself, means far more to its people than pounds, shillings and pence. We don’t sing our songs or create our banners in order to increase the power of the brand. We do all of that because we believe the club is something special, different – exceptional even.

Think of Jamie Webster and the Boss Night movement. Consider the wonderful songs containing the word Liverpool and recorded onto CDs by supporters, the edgy designs on t-shirts created by unofficial outlets and loved by supporters. Will all of that now fall under the intellectual property of Liverpool Football Club?

If the efforts of supporters to be different and always authentic become just another revenue stream for the club’s commercial department, then FSG risks killing the originality and creativity that has become synonymous with our supporters. ‘Liverpool’ is the intellectual property of its people. The owners must rethink.

After our historic win against Barcelona, at Anfield last season, Arsene Wenger described Liverpool as ‘the city of music, the working class and football.’ He continued, ‘That is why they keep creating miracles.’ It is an astute and insightful observation. And, it is one our club needs to take to heart.

Many supporters share these concerns. So it is a shame that the club didn’t engage with them more before embarking on this scheme. If they had we could have saved them from scoring what is a quite spectacular own goal.