When European football was having conniptions last year over plans for a breakaway Super League, a key theme in the row was the concept of the "real fan". The term was deployed to bludgeon the dozen football clubs that had signed up for the enriching elopement to a new league at the expense of traditional domestic competitions.
Their decision was, said critics, one that appeared to declare the cold supremacy of commercial interests and the quest for new fans over the will of the "real" supporters, who showed their devotion by protesting outside their teams' stadiums.
The broader implication was that the globalised base of fans that these big clubs were chasing, most explicitly in Asia, might well be lucrative, but would never earn the same influence or consideration of "real fans" — no matter how fervent the love of Liverpool in Lahore, or for Barcelona in Beijing.
The Super League faltered then, but technology is about to give this debate an intriguing new dimension. The metaverse is still some distance from a comprehensive definition; one fairly basic, but as yet unanswered question is whether the main point of entry will be via immersive VR headsets, augmented reality mobile phones, lightweight glasses or a host of other speculative hardwares.
There is, however, more agreement that the metaverse will push us towards a situation where certain "realities" are defined by experience rather than physicality. As millions of fans flock to virtual "concerts" in games such as Fortnite, it's clear that the reality lines are already blurring.
Which brings us to the recent announcement by Manchester City FC and Sony that they are working towards rendering an accurate metaverse version of the Premier League champions' home stadium, the Etihad, which could be visited by fans around the world through their avatars.
Sony, which describes the project as a proof-of-concept, is already significantly embedded in sport, and with huge interests in music, games and entertainment, is attempting to plant flags in the spaces that it believes consumers will eventually arrive at en masse.
Even so, the company is still supremely cautious over where this joint project is heading and what the implications for football fandom might be. Given the highly complex nature of football screening rights, for example, Sony cannot yet comfortably talk about whether the digital twin Etihad could eventually become a venue for huge numbers of global fans. Everything about the company's approach, though, suggests it is setting things up for precisely that outcome.
For now, let's assume that something along these lines is indeed what Sony, Manchester City and many other sports clubs (not just in football) have in mind.
The virtual stadium, which looks likely to be free for now, is an exercise in the elusive "fan engagement" that clubs so desperately want to get right out of fear that the old guarantees of an audience are gone.
These clubs are obsessed with enlarging their fanbases and gaining loyalty (and income) from a younger generation that spends a lot of time watching stuff, but in small, self-curated chunks in which a 90-minute football match must compete for a spot. Sony itself says it is aiming to bring the "club and its global fans closer together".
It is in this space that future friction may occur. The idea of the Super League is dormant, rather than dead. It was forced into retreat last time because those protesting in Liverpool, Manchester and Madrid were the fans "closest" to the clubs.
In a new and perhaps not terribly distant world, where every major club also has a virtual twin stadium, the global fan base will not only feel closer, but also be regarded as such by the game's decision-makers.
The potential migration into metaverse stadiums is beginning at a time when increasing numbers of consumers are less bothered about the distinction between super-realistic digitised experience and hard (and perhaps dangerous or inaccessible) reality.
Somewhere down that line, an individual's physical presence in a real stadium becomes a much lower-value testament of their fandom than it is at present. They may see the real thing as infinitely more fulfilling, but when reality stops being quite so easily defined, who, at that point, are the "real fans" and will they be able to make as effective a stand against change they do not like?
For now, the tribal language of sport ensures that "real fans" conjugates as an irregular verb: we are, you might be, they aren't.
The metaverse may, among its many promises to transform life as we know it, be poised to end that grammatical quirk.
Written by: Leo Lewis
© Financial Times