Those who know me will know that my aim as someone who works in football is for clubs, fans and the authorities to understand each other better, and for them to be able to have much better and more productive dialogue, and more meaningful relationships.
As part of that, I decided to carry out interviews with a whole series of people that I believe have something to contribute to the discussion on a subject usually referred to as ‘fan engagement’ – a term that I’m not that keen on given its wide-ranging use (about which I have already discussed in a previous post.) In no particular order, I am interviewing officials from clubs, supporters’ trusts and other organisations, the football authorities, other experts on communications in the game, as well, I hope, as bringing an outsider’s perspective where I can (I certainly believe that football can learn from other industries and sectors, where there are perhaps more sophisticated ways of interaction with stakeholders.)
The first person up is Jay McKenna, the Chair of Liverpool’s Spirit of Shankly, a supporters’ trust and member of Supporters Direct, and FSF (Football Supporters Federation) affiliate. They were at the forefront of creating the campaign on ticket prices that eventually saw the FSF create their ‘Twenty’s Plenty’ campaign, working originally in particular with the Manchester United Supporters Trust, a partnership which, alongside active work and dialogue between the likes of Spurs and Chelsea Supporters Trusts, saw many of the off-pitch old enmities set aside to campaign jointly on issues that matter.
Jay McKenna – ‘Clubs don’t trust fans enough’
The organisation has come to particular prominence this year after it coordinated one of the most successful protests seen in some years in the top-flight, helping to create #walkouton77 a mass walkout organised with the Spion Kop 1906 group as part of a protest against ticket prices and match categorisation. But it has been representing the views of Liverpool fans for over eight years, following its creation during the fairly chaotic days of the ownership of the two US businessmen, Tom Hicks and George Gillett, who they helped campaign to remove as owner. It also outlasted an other initiative formed at almost the same time, Share Liverpool.
I asked Jay to explain his views on fan engagement, and some of his specific experiences of it, concerning amongst other things match categorisation, ticket prices, the actual running of the club and the issue of transparency in financial matters. We also covered how the collective ability of fans gets under-rated, and just how much greater trust between parties, and better access to the decision-makers would make all the difference…
The actual meaning of the term ‘fan engagement’, as I found with the response from any to my recent article on the subject, was one that concerns Jay greatly. He certainly sees the need for clubs to place a far greater distinction between ‘customer service’ and the more ‘stakeholder relations’ needs of supporters that are both covered by the catch-all term, saying ‘What it (‘fan engagement’) actually means in practice and what I believe it should mean are probably two very different things.’ he says.
A major drawback, whether it’s officials of the Premier League or the board of LFC, is, he says, ‘They hear you, but they probably don’t listen. They box-tick. They do it to be seen to be talking to supporters. They do it to say ‘We’ve listened, we’ve talked to supporters’ when in reality what they’ve done is heard what you’ve said, but haven’t even considered the idea that they might change their minds.’ So what does ‘engagement’ really mean, practised in the right way? ‘What it should mean is sitting down and having a meaningful conversation, where we as supporters challenge what they think and what their practices are and they provide an evidence base.’ He also believes that it works both ways: ‘They should also challenge us, and say ‘Here’s why your proposals, for example on ticket prices, shirt colour, don’t actually work: here’s the rationale.’’
Ultimately, managing that relationship between fans and clubs does mean recognising the very special relationship that supporters have, and making sure that the process is the right one for that. As Jay sums up well: ‘A proper dialogue between the two, where either might change some of what they do, but at the very least we’ll have informed each other about why we have the positions we have, which will probably improve relations, and improve football as a whole.’ For Jay, and many others, too much in this area concerns ‘customer service’ issues – products sold in the ground, food etc. As he says, ‘Most people come away from such meetings feeling ‘that was a bit of a waste of time’’.
‘Hearing’ rather than ‘listening’ is the subtle but important distinction. There is also a failure to recognise that as impressive as it may be to some fans and outsiders, when fans take collective, direct action, it points – quite clearly in my experience – to ‘fan engagement’ not working as it should. Whilst there may well be occasions where action is justified (see my recent piece on ‘the critical friend’), very often supporters’ organisations are incredibly patient and tend to be inclined to give their club a lot of space and time.
So how about the practical side? Doesn’t the Supporter Liaison Officer improve the meaningful part of ‘fan engagement’? Jay points to what seems to be the norm: that the SLO role has been taken on at Liverpool – as with many others – within a marketing, sales and customer service context. (For me, dealing with one of your major stakeholders seems to me to be a very central issue to your business, and so absolutely logical to place it within the stakeholder and corporate communications functions; if I was the Chief Executive of a football club, fans, staff, community would be the three, very broad categories of stakeholder that would concern me. These are relationships that impact directly on a club’s reputation, but the relationship with fans gets confused because they are also sold and marketed to.) In the context of LFC, I very much doubt that redevelopment of the Anfield Road Stand would not have had a quite sophisticated level of engagement with local residents, councillors, businesses, as stakeholders, yet, as Jay points out, their SLO role – and much of the efforts of fan engagement – are directed towards customer and consumer issues. There is of course the ‘Liverpool Supporters Committee’, a body set up to represent supporters across the club, but Jay says, ‘a lot of the issues there are just products sold in the ground, food etc.’
So what are the issues that he feels need covering? Jay mentions the obvious: the actual price of football, who gets the tickets, and importantly, for a supporters’ trust whose role is in part to ensure ‘good governance’ of the club and the wider game, ‘What the club’s strategy is’. And it’s not that customer service issues don’t matter to him. They do: ‘Of course they need dealing with, they’re important – queues for pies, seating etc, but they’re not at the heart of my concerns as a supporter of Liverpool Football Club. Clubs confuse the two, merely to say that they’re doing it. If I complain, and this has happened, that Liverpool didn’t listen to us on ticket prices, the response is ‘They did; they had nine months of meetings with you’. But real fan engagement might result in them actually admitting they’re wrong. And that’s what’s missing. That’s where there’s a key distinction.’ I might add that LFC did admit they were wrong on this issue, but the point was that happened after the direct action, which could have been avoided.
Jay goes into more detail on the background cause of the #walkouton77 protest that resulted. ‘We sat with Liverpool, and said ‘let’s have a proper discussion about ticket prices, put all the data on the table’, and we set up a working group, and up to a point they cooperated, sharing information on prices, allocation, and for a period we got to have some very meaningful conversations, and some actual two-way dialogue – and they tabled some proposals – until the owners intervened and decided that their was an arbitrary, overall financial target to be achieved.’ The net result was that the discussions ended, and the net result, protest.
The issue of who actually makes the decisions appears to be at the heart of Jay’s problems with ‘fan engagement’ at LFC, and more generally: ‘An example was when we (the 14 Premier League supporters’ trusts working under the Supporters Direct banner) were talking to the Premier League, which led to the £30 cap on away prices. The Premier League said ‘the clubs aren’t in favour of it’, and we said ‘we’re talking to the clubs and they’re telling us it’s a Premier League issue’, and then the Premier League would say ‘it’s a club issue’. In the end, to break the logjam, we proposed coming to address their meeting. We said ‘Let us, supporter representatives, look in the whites of the eyes of the Chief Executives, the Chairs, of these football clubs, and say ‘here’s what we’re asking for and why’. They wouldn’t even agree to that.’ The issue of transparency, in that the voting records of clubs in the Premier League (and others) are not a matter of public record, makes the job of pushing for change even more difficult, and for Jay, trust even more of rare commodity: ‘The distrust leads to the attitude from fans that ‘we never believe anything you say, even when you’re telling the truth’. Football clubs don’t realise that. They like to say ‘trust us’, but when it comes to the decisions made, you never get a breakdown as to who voted what way.’ Does that matter? ‘Yes. I could spend six months lobbying our club to vote a certain way, and we would never, ever know if they’ve done that.’
The amount of information that clubs release is a matter of quite intense discussions amongst supporters’ organisations at times, even after sixteen years of Supporters Direct’s, often successful, campaigning on the issue. English football’s tradition of clubs being essentially the property of private companies and their shareholders has meant that the whole culture is shaped by company law, which is predictably largely geared towards privacy, and the rights of shareholders. McKenna adds that ‘trust’ is what informs many of the relational difficulties between clubs and their supporters – certainly at LFC: ‘The problem is that we can only make decisions using half the information, using intelligent guesses, or what’s in the paper. So when a new deal is signed, and we’ve seen all these deals with kit manufacturers and ‘timing partners’, players sold, we ask (the club) ‘so why can’t you cut this amount off ticket prices?’ They say ‘no, we won’t, or can’t’, but they don’t have the evidence, and our response is ‘well, we can’t trust you then’.’
And it’s frustrating, according to McKenna, because much progress has been made over the years: ‘On fan engagement, we have gone in, and had very meaningful conversations on how supporters’ are stewarded, on ticket prices, where even if we didn’t get everything we wanted. What seems to happen is that they almost seem to get to a point where they think ‘we’ve listened to these people too much’, and they then just shut off. The problem with fan engagement is that they just don’t trust you; that you’re not going to misuse it (information). They’ll just use the reason that it’s ‘commercially sensitive’, which is a catch-all phrase. We’ll be happy to sign a confidentiality agreement. Let’s do all of this properly. But I’m actually convinced that it’ll be shown that they can afford to lower ticket prices, that they can do this.’
And transparency and trust does work, and breaks down barriers between club and fans. ‘Take the ticketing at Liverpool: I didn’t realise how hard it is to run the ticketing at the club until we had some information about it shared with us. I have a new-found respect for the people who do that job, and the difficulties in achieving certain targets.’
On the other hand, ‘there are so many supporters who are intelligent that the clubs just see as ‘turnstile fodder’, who could probably do their jobs, who probably aren’t as wealthy, or who don’t work in the same industry, but who can say ‘we know what all this means, we know there’s different way you can do it’. But clubs just think they’ve got this big secret that everyone knows.’ How about publishing wage bills? ‘Yes’, he says. ‘What’s wrong with saying ‘here’s our wage bill’? You don’t need to know who earns what.’ I agree that it might reduce a lot of pressure on the club, and lead to a greater understanding of and reality about, football clubs and what makes them tick, without it being in any sense ‘showing their hand’ – particularly as from my experience the information is fairly widely known informally anyway. Jay also adds by way of an example, ‘A lot of Liverpool supporters have this idea that the strategy of the club is to sign them cheap, sign them young, pay them less, sell them for big bucks. The club insists that this isn’t true, and so I think ‘prove it’. It would destroy that (misunderstanding). I think that lack of trust in sharing data hamstrings them from having meaningful conversations with supporters.’
He raises another example involving other clubs and the Premier League: ‘I actually think it’s behavioural.’ he says, continuing, ‘I asked the PL about the conversations they have on categorisation. When we were having those conversations on categorisation last season, before the owners intervened, the officials at LFC were coming back with some interesting models that actually removed categorisation, and said that it was something they had wanted to do for a while. In the October the owners came over, and at the same time had a meeting with the PL, with some of the other big clubs – Spurs, Arsenal, Man City, Man United, Chelsea. That constitutes a block of six votes, and you only need one more to stop the Premier League passing any rule – and I actually think that the owners were told by the others at the meeting ‘don’t do that (on categorisation) because we’ll all have to follow. If you can hold out, it’ll make it easier for us (to resist).’ And the club came back to us, and all the new plans had categorisation on them, and they wouldn’t explain why to us. Until #walkouton77 and then they removed it again.’.
So is there one thing that would improve fan engagement and communication between the club and supporters at Liverpool? ‘Yes. Put a supporter on the board of the football club. I don’t think there aren’t any problems that couldn’t be dealt with by doing this. Ticket pricing, governance, stewarding, policing. All of it would be improved by having supporters involved in the decision making. The real practical first step though is that the SLO should be a supporter of the club (as the original, German model was intended to be) and my idea is that Liverpool should actually elect a supporter, from its supporter base, supported, staffed, assisted by the club, but elected by supporters, and holding regular surgeries, public meetings. I think that would show that the club actually take fan engagement seriously. Imagine Liverpool being able to go to that person and say ‘what do you think the supporters think of this?’ Actually asking supporters important things, instead of getting surveys asking if we would pay more to travel on the team bus, or fly with the players. Let’s ask them about things that actually matter.’
‘Fans want to be seen as fans, and not as customers, even if there is a customer service element to it. I just don’t think they (owners and directors) understand supporters sometimes, and I don’t think they’re willing to learn, to the extent that they don’t even think they have to tell you why, even when they think you’re wrong. They just think you should accept it.’