Fan Engagement: They can hear you, but are they actually listening? 

I’m not the biggest fan of the term ‘fan engagement’. Of course in general it’s a laudable aim – welcome in fact – that one of the major stakeholders of football should be regarded as more than simply the attendee of a sporting event, or worse still, an inconvenience. However, what does concern me is the way it’s used as a term spanning mobile data mining, all the way up to engaging the fan as part of the governance structure of a club. It’s a bit like suggesting that coaching my son’s under five Saturday morning kickabout is the same as coaching Real Madrid. They are the intrinsically the same because they involve balls, bibs and occasional strops, but they are, clearly, very different, require different skills. Yet the term – which admittedly even I use effectively as a flag of convenience precisely because of those problems I’ve identified – is bandied about as a way of covering every base, whilst meaning very different things in different circumstances, and at different clubs. 

Take Blackburn Rovers as a current example. The supporters’ trust there has been in existence for some five years, and yet in that time, despite requesting it regularly, has never managed to have a meeting with the reclusive owners, Venky’s. Now in the position where the absence of leadership of the club is showing in attendances, its performance on the pitch and concerns about transfer activity, the Trust feels it has no choice but to call for the owners to sell up. Of course it’s the right of Venky’s to do what it wants with the company it owns, but given it owns a football club, they need to be a little more sensitive to the cultural mores. This applies to many other clubs, owners foreign & domestic, absent and present. And they won’t be able to do that by creating a ‘family friendly’ Ewood Park. They’ll do it because they engage in conversations about issues that matter. I know a bit about the situation at Blackburn from my time at Supporters Direct, and it does seem to be one that is exacerbated by the distance of ownership in this case. But it could I’m pretty certain be far better managed by the owners being prepared to explain what’s going on and why to a group of people, as is clear from the fact it’s taken five years to ask for a change of ownership, who are very, very patient. And there’s your difference: that isn’t the same as the EFL’s ‘Enjoy the Match‘ initiative, is it? 

Don’t get me wrong. Football has progressed from an incredibly low point. Even up to a few years ago the idea that most clubs and leagues would consider ‘engagement with fans’ a thing worth considering much beyond a ‘thanks for your support’ in the programme notes, was pretty laughable. And it has to be acknowledged that we have the likes of ex-League Chair Lord Mawhinney to thank for even making the idea seem important to clubs. 

That clubs and leagues now have supporter liaison officers, alongside the plethora of fan-friendly policies and various schemes, is great. But we’re not there yet. Not even close. Because it’s about knowing what ‘engagement’ means in each case, and very often it’s about ‘listening’, ‘understanding’ and, sometimes, admitting you’re wrong, and fixing the problem (witness Liverpool’s change of heart last season.) Maybe it needs a new term, though that’s not what I’m necessarily seeking here. 

Until we’ve properly separated out the elements that make up ‘fan engagement’, whilst appreciating that there can be overlap between them, we won’t be doing it properly. Today’s ‘Checkatrade Trophy’ tweet of the day is testament to that. 

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