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Letters from London: The Most Talked About Team in Britain

Aug 21, 2012, 9:02 AM EDT

Rangers' Little celebrates scoring his third goal against East Stirlingshire during their Scottish Football League division three soccer match in Glasgow Reuters

LONDON – “Did you see the attendance,” a man calls to another table at the Sussex Arms, a pub in Westminster. As Gary Neville analyzes the round’s results for Sky Sports, the two tables have started their own weekend review, with the most talked about team in Britain stealing the group’s attentions from the Premier League.

“They’re in the fourth tier,” a middle-aged man tells a group of young men from Manchester. Of course, he’s talking about Glasgow Rangers. “Normally, second and third tier, you get a 200, 300 people. Rangers got 44,000.”

The number was actually larger. Rangers got 49,118 to their Saturday match at Ibrox against East Stirlingshire, the third-highest attended match in Britain (only Arsenal and Newcastle drew more). The weekend’s four other fourth division matches drew a combined 2,402 people, with Elgin City’s 631 the largest non-Rangers crowd.

With such an ardent fanbase, it’s easy to see why Britain remains fascinated with the Glaswegians. The team was a prominent part of Football Focus (BBC’s traditional match day lead in), with Mark Lawrenson and Peter Reid still expressing shock at the circumstances, even though the club’s application to rejoin Scotland’s Premier League was rejected at the beginning of July. Throughout the weekend, most of Britain’s review shows echoed Football Focus’s attentions, Rangers’ first home match since relegation clearly a story to be pushed.

Reid, 56, and Lawrenson, 55, are from a time when Rangers were a huge and significant club. As evidenced by their attendance, they remain huge, but embodying the wane Scottish soccer has experienced in recent years, Rangers are hardly significant. Last season, the club failed to play their way into both Champions and Europa League. In a season of turmoil (entering administration in February), Rangers failed to win any of Scotland’s three trophies for the first time since 2007. Combined with the pitfall in the Scottish league’s prestige, Rangers’ significance outside Scotland may have never bene lower.

All of which makes this weekend’s coverage curious. Among younger soccer fans, you see Rangers’ waning significance (just as one example, the man quoting Rangers’ attendance numbers at Sussex Arms appeared twice the age of his target audience), but on television, nearly every show treated Rangers as if it were a story fit to put on a pedestal just below the Premier League’s opening weekend.

And perhaps it was. After all, the club did draw just under 50,000 people to a fourth-tier Scottish league match. That, independent of Rangers’ financial problems, is huge news. But if Rangers F.C. wasn’t one of the teams involved, 50,000 fans at a Third Division match would have been treated as final segment curiosity, like Ron Burgundy’s waterskiing squirrel in Anchorman. Instead, it was a top of the show issue that drew panel analysis.

When we see coverage like this – disproportionate attention given to a story that was more attractive to a preceding generation of fans – it’s important to know how media works. The people who make the final call on the big stories are usually ones that come from Ried and Lawrenson’s generation. They’ve worked their entire careers to become managing editors and editors in chief, levels they’ve reached because they’ve been successful at their jobs. That success was garnered by their coverage of big stories, and while those editors (in Britain) were coming up, Rangers would have been a big story. Once you’re on top of the pile, you’ve developed habits, routines, instincts, all of which lead to Rangers continuing to get headline coverage even though the person who’ll eventually take your seat is already focusing on other, more relevant stories.

In the United States, we see this with the Kentucky Derby. Do you see today’s major media consumers (the 18-35 demographic) consumed with horse racing? Neither do I. Same goes for golf, tennis, and to a certain extent, baseball. The people who are coming into their money now (the people who advertisers want to cultivate) still love their football and basketball, but they also love Mixed Martial Arts and soccer. If your major sports network doesn’t cover those, in 10 years, it’s not going to be covering anything.

Rangers coverage is a product of that cycle. In media, people spend their entire careers working to get the big chair only to find a cold water irony once they recede into its leather: Their knowledge is already outdated. The first thing most successful people in sports media must do is change.

But old habits die hard, which is why the Kentucky Derby is still huge in the States, baseball is still insecurely touted as the national pastime, and Rangers F.C. got disproportionate media coverage in Britain this weekend.

Which, for three days, has made them the most talked about team in Britain.

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