Occasionally, as the players of Manchester City and Everton strode through the tunnel on their way back to their changing rooms, one would glance out of the corner of his eye at the walls of glass flanking them. For a second, he looked puzzled, before staring straight ahead again.
Most were too distracted to bother. They had just fought to a pulsating, contentious 1-1 draw. The inquests were already beginning. Pep Guardiola, the Manchester City coach, his arms whirring, was bounding ahead of Bobby Madley, the referee, offering an impromptu performance review.
A few of the players, though, noticed they were being watched. They are used to being studied, of course: by thousands inside the Premier League’s stadiums and by millions more around the world on television. But that kind of scrutiny is normally distant, detached. Here in the tunnel it is closer, more intimate, somehow more real.
On Monday night, Manchester City unveiled its Tunnel Club, a first of its kind in European soccer. The clue is in the name: For prices starting at 299 pounds per game (about $385), and rising to £15,000 (about $19,240) per season for so-called premium access, fans can buy access to the area around the tunnel that leads from the Etihad Stadium’s dressing rooms to the pitch itself.
For their money, they are rewarded with the chance to see the players from each team as they enter the stadium. They can watch them file from their changing rooms before the start of each half, and see them return at halftime and full time. They get to see Guardiola remonstrating with the match officials. They get a glimpse behind the curtain.
At AT&T Stadium, the players walk through the bars and the cheering crowds on their way to the field. That is anathema here; in soccer, the tunnel, like the dressing room, has always qualified as sacred space, the exclusive preserve of players and coaches. Instead, in Manchester, the players are viewed, as if in an aquarium, through walls of two-way glass.
The viewers, meanwhile, are ensconced in a sophisticated lounge on either side of the tunnel. Omar Berrada, City’s chief operating officer, and his team said that the goal was to create the feel of an exclusive membership club, and what resulted is a space with an air of relaxed opulence. There is a circular bar, fine food, private table service, an extensive wine list and, on Monday night, a gin-tasting station.
The introduction of the Tunnel Club has met resistance in some quarters — not just from those fans who were displaced to make room for a new bank of plush leather seats, directly behind the two substitutes’ benches, to allow club members to view the game, but also from sections of the broader City fan base, who see it as yet further proof of the creep of gentrification in the Premier League.
It is a familiar complaint. Clubs that exist because of the constancy of their longstanding, sometimes long-suffering fans are now sidelining them in favor of corporate clients, chasing what Adrian Pettett, the chief executive of the sports marketing agency Cake, referred to as “big eventers.” These are the people who see sports not as a tribal identification but as just another form of entertainment, and the same grievances about them will be aired next year, when Tottenham’s new stadium opens. It, too, will be outfitted with a tunnel club.
Those concerns are valid, of course, but the Tunnel Club’s key selling point is not luxury. A similar standard of hospitality is already available at the Etihad Stadium, for those who can afford premium tickets, and in some form at most Premier League arenas.
No, what the Tunnel Club offers is something quite different, something that has echoes in the way we engage with sports on social media and watch it on television, something that speaks to our desire as fans not simply to be at an event, but to be in it.
“It is not just observing,” said James Cook, a commercial director at Stadia Solutions, a consultancy that works with a host of Premier League clubs. This is an age of partaking.
In a 2014 paper in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, Thomas Gilovich, a professor of psychology at Cornell, and his co-authors Amit Kumar and Lily Jampol found a significant difference in the amount of pleasure obtained in the purchasing of a thing — a material good — or an experience.
They found that “experiential purchases are more gratifying, on average, than material purchases.” Experiences, rather than things, “facilitate more social connections, are more tied to the self, and are experienced more on their own terms.” In other words, doing rather than buying things makes you happier.
The logic behind the Tunnel Club, what makes it valuable, is that it heightens the experience of going to see a soccer game. It is not simply “turning up to your seat 10 seconds before kickoff, and leaving just as quickly afterwards,” as Cook said. It is more than that.
City did not just transplant the idea it found in Arlington, Tex., the home of the Cowboys, straight into England. Berrada and his team tried to tweak it, taking ideas from Formula One — where a V.I.P. tour of the paddock, as the drivers and cars are getting ready for the race, is a tradition — and from concerts, where backstage access is sold as an additional benefit.
Those paying the premium fees for City’s Tunnel Club, then, are not only offered a tactical briefing before the game — delivered by two Manchester City analysts — but a question-and-answer session with Brian Kidd, one of Guardiola’s coaches. There is a private area, by the side of the field, from which they can watch the teams warm up. During those moments, they not only have the best view in the house, they can also place their feet on the same artificial turf that lines the side of the field. It is a sensory nod to the overall impression: You are part of the action, you see what the players see, you feel what the players feel.
After the game, they can see Guardiola and his Everton counterpart, Ronald Koeman, give their postgame interviews to the news media. And after initial resistance from Guardiola, Tunnel Club members at future games will be able to watch an additional interview with a player before anyone else.
“Fans love getting inside, seeing behind the scenes,” Cook said. “Some of the most popular stuff we have done with clubs is on wobbly cameras at training grounds. That’s the stuff that people do not get to see.”
Tracey Hughes, the chief executive of Silicon Valley Sports Ventures and a veteran of the AT&T Stadium project, said she saw parallels in consumer relationships with other brands. “It is an ongoing conversation between customer and brand,” she said. “We want to be in the know as to what that brand is doing, whether it is a company or a person. We want to know what they are wearing, what their day is like. We want to see a picture of what they are eating. It makes us feel closer to them, more connected. Access has been redefined.”
That is what has led clubs, and players, to devote more and more time and resources to their social media output. It is what led them a couple of years ago to allow television cameras inside tunnels — another move that had City in its vanguard — and to release training footage. It is what explains the popularity, at certain stadiums, of the so-called spider camera, whizzing along close to the heads of the players on kickoff corners and free kicks.