As a term, ‘fan engagement’ is one that I’ve already explained my views on. It is a blanket term that is largely unsuited to the role of fans as a stakeholder in their clubs, and, in terms of the football authorities (largely The FA, but also the leagues), the wider game.
It seems like an almost completely pointless terms in any case when the club is so divided that officials, executives and owners have even ceased speaking to fans, and particularly where one has unilaterally decided to shut off relations.
This attitude, usually but not exclusively coming from the owners (as they tend to wield most of the power at a club, understandably) is deeply unhelpful, and renders the notion of engagement with fans as merely a tick box exercise, designed to fulfill the limited requirements in the rules.
It’s essentially happening at Coventry, Blackburn, and Charlton Athletic. One of the most prominent cases is Blackpool, where ever since the club was relegated following a brief spell in the Premier League, the Chairman Karl Oyston, has been in the news repeatedly, as relations with supporters have soured, resulting in legal action and relationships even failing between shareholders. The club has tumbled down the divisions, to the point where it is now 17th out of 24 in League Two, and only three points off the second relegation spot.
I spoke to Kevin Boroduwicz, Secretary of the Blackpool Supporters Trust, and asked him about what’s happening now. ‘We’re at an impasse. The club, in the shape of Karl Oyston, won’t speak with the Trust, though the chair of the trust has met with the actual owner, Owen Oyston (Karl’s father) a couple of times. He met fans at a special general meeting, but was booed off the stage – though deserves credit for turning up. The gap between how the owners and our members and fans see the club is probably as wide as it’s ever been, in truth. Karl Oyston has said he’s happy to leave the rest of the fanbase behind.
BST’s Kevin Boroduwicz – ‘relations at an impasse’
This all seems to be an arena in which ‘fan engagement’ fails to be relevant. Kevin agrees ‘All it [the club] does is to satisfy the miniscule requirements that the governing bodies have for clubs. I think they’re failing, and we’re just a small part of that. It has, in the end, no material impact.’
Kevin went on to explain more about the Blackpool Supporters Association (BSA), which used to speak independently for fans ‘It gave up its independence and didn’t represent the supporters at all and had become a cosy club. It still did some excellent things like providing away transport. That’s what led to the creation of the Seasiders Independent Supporters Association (and subsequently the supporters’ trust), to create more balance where there was only imbalance [in the relationship between fans and club].’
I wanted to know more about how the normal channels of ‘fan engagement’ failed Blackpool fans. Kevin outlined the first problem; ‘Firstly, the club charter had been written to say that they’d only speak to BSA, and that no other fans group would be addressed. Eventually, the club stopped speaking to the BSA itself, and the chairman said he’d never speak to the BST (the trust). So we did our research on the Supporter Liaison Officer (SLO) regulations, and although the club continued to refuse to appoint one, eventually, they had to because it was an EFL rule. But they appointed the club’s media person. This is typical when it comes to SLOs at other clubs, but the SLO at Blackpool refused to speak with us, answer emails, etc. We even copied in the Football League. Then we asked the League to intervene to enforce it, and in response, the chairman formed the ‘Fans Progress Group’, and appointed people like Trevor Sinclair and Jimmy Armfield and other individuals related to the football club to oversee its formation. It turned out that some – including both Armfield and Sinclair – refused to take part, partly because the system wasn’t appropriate. Jimmy Armfield is a doyen of the club. But that’s now the group that is used to satisfy the regulation.’ Intriguingly, at the time Karl Oyston was refusing to implement the rules of the League, he was actually a member of its board.
At this stage, I’d ordinarily be asking how Kevin rated ‘fan engagement’ at his club, but understandably, I didn’t pursue this point.
We then moved onto transparency – did he think that trust between fans and clubs is damaged because of the lack of it in football? ‘Yes. Clubs get run as ‘business first’, whereas our [BST’s] view has always been ‘football first’. For our clubs to make every penny they can, they must exploit the loyalty we have, which you see in the Premier League taken to an extreme degree.’ It was here that, as I often do, I pointed out that the notion of football clubs being ‘businesses’ wasn’t the controversy in my eyes; they should seek to balance their books, invest and spend wisely. It is, however, a business that is very specific, and a ‘football business’ needs to understand who its main ‘customers’ are – in this case supporters – and engage with them appropriately – as stakeholders, not merely purchasers of a product like any other. The biggest complaint should actually be that a lot of those who own or run football clubs don’t actually seem to realise what their business is. Good, efficient, or appropriate business practice doesn’t make the kinds of repeated decision that leave it in the state that Blackpool, Blackburn or Coventry are in – heading resolutely downwards on the pitch.
So has football made progress when you’re talking about real fan engagement, club’s relationships with fans – if you look away from Blackpool? ‘Look. It took the working group [the Government Expert Working Group] two years to come out with something that was just watered down. I’m not discounting the efforts of the people on that working group, who did their best in the circumstances, but what they came up with was barely anything at all. When I read what was required, they were just recommendations. Karl Oyston doesn’t have to meet with the supporters’ trust twice a year if he doesn’t want to. I understand that the EFL exists for the benefit of the clubs; it’s why they were set up, they are not there for the supporters, but they pretend to some degree that they are.’ So where’s the gap? ‘We need supporters on the EFL board, the Premier League board, the FA board. We need people at the top of the game who know it, and that includes supporters. We know about the game; it’s not some esoteric business that only specialists know about. The game is huge; it isn’t just the Premier League or EFL. The money in football comes because of supporters: because we are prepared to pay to watch it. None of that money exists if we’re not prepared to watch the game.’
So is there one thing that would improve the experience of the fans at Blackpool, one that doesn’t involve ownership or similar? ‘We need to have a requirement where action comes from discussion; anything that happens needs to be enforced. We’d have to binding arbitration.’ The idea of binding arbitration isn’t new to football; it is something that is used in disputes between clubs, authorities, and those in the game, under FA rules. Most notoriously, the process was utilised to try to resolve the dispute between the Norwegian millionaire who owned the old Wimbledon Football Club and The Football League in 2002, but didn’t include fans as they’re not a formally recognised part of the game when it comes to the rules (like players, officials – even agents these days) but which ended up giving birth to the later ‘Independent Commission’, and the effective franchising of the club. Arbitration is a common principle in industrial relations for example, ACAS often playing the role in disputes. Indeed, Sports Resolutions was set by a number of sports governing bodies (not football) to do similar things. Key to any process such as ‘arbitration’ being possible, of course, would be the recognition of football supporters as an actual part of the game – a stakeholder – for the purposes of the rules of The FA, and therefore the leagues and clubs.
Given the regular acknowledgement of fans as part of the ‘lifeblood’ of the game, this absence seems to me to be one of the biggest impediments to fans being accepted, truly, as ‘stakeholders’ in our national sport. This definitely an issue I’ll be coming back to in the future.
This is part of an occasional series of interviews with those people I regard as interesting and important figures in fan organisations, and in football more widely, on the subject of ‘fan engagement’.