I’ve known Duncan since the heady days of the Glazer takeover in 2005 (a day on which as I recall I spent several hours at Broadcasting House in London doing more than a dozen radio interviews back-to-back, such was the interest). The Glazer takeover was in many ways a bit of a watershed in English football. It was the first really big purchase of a football club as a financial ‘investment’, and it also exposed the use of ‘leveraged buyouts’ – where the debt used by the purchaser to buy the company becomes the responsibility of the company itself, not the purchaser). It also heralded the beginning of FC United of Manchester, a breakaway football club owned by its members.
Given Manchester United’s sheer size, its reach worldwide – it was without doubt a ‘global’ name well before the advent of The Premier League in 1992, and needed to generate income because of how and why it was bought (they now have an official ‘bedding partner’), I wanted to know what it was like for supporters who attend matches regularly, whose families have followed the club for generations.
A lot of our conversation centred on that with SoS’s Jay McKenna – on ‘customer’ versus ‘fan’. The sales pitch is often driving Manchester United, so I wanted to know what ‘fan engagement’ actually means to the head of United’s biggest and unarguably most representative fan organisation in this environment:
‘Genuine dialogue which is not essentially motivated by sales, if you like. It comes down to a problem with football clubs as they are now, that they see themselves as businesses like any other rather than clubs, and other businesses don’t have ‘fans’ (like football) or perhaps more appropriately let’s call them members (of a club) to more truly reflect the historic relationship and also the currently perceived relationship. Therefore it’s not appropriate to use the same ways of engaging with customers as a club would with members. Members don’t expect their Club to use exploitative techniques to try to sell them stuff. They want a relationship which is more meaningful, and is more reciprocal.’ This is the nub of the argument for a different form of ‘engagement’ by clubs with their fans: ‘reciprocity’. It is the way a true members’ club would treat its members after all. I wrote about it recently in respect of Charlton fans, who despite the latter attempts to employ the language of ‘engagement’, are rejecting the club’s belated advances after months – years – of mistakes and bad practice. He continued, ‘We’re gradually seeing this move from what was originally a club to an exploitative business, and that inevitably converts fans into customers eventually (as Liverpool were famously caught doing earlier this year). And that’s one of the reasons we’re losing passion in English football. We’re all trying to resist it, but we know that we’re all idiots for continuing to support football clubs who aren’t reciprocating and acting as genuine member clubs. They shouldn’t really be allowed to be called football clubs anymore. They should be football companies or business, if they wish to operate like that. More to the point though they shouldn’t be allowed to take over long established football clubs and convert them. They should start their own Football Businesses and see how many “fans” they attract rather than hijacking our football clubs which have built up their value (social capital?) over generations of selfless support only to see carpet baggers arrive to capture the value thus created and in doing so destroy the goose that laid the golden egg’
So where does the problem lie, I asked: ‘The problem is the structure – whether ownership (the club) or regulation (the league, The FA). If people are acting like it’s not a football club and it’s a business, and therefore they’ve got customers who they can exploit because effectively they’re a monopoly, then I don’t think the engagement can ever be truly authentic, because of their motivation? Whereas if you’ve got a club that’s owned or has a different ethos – in terms of larger clubs – they wouldn’t choose to put their ticket prices up because it’s important (to their model). The motivation behind it is right, it’s genuine; you need to look behind the façade to see the real motive driving it. Everything that happens at my club (and almost all in UK top divisions) is governed by what the owners want, the shareholders, in the end. So how can we trust any kind of ‘engagement’ as authentic if it’s only being done to silence dissent, or create a better marketing environment?’
One thing that fascinates me personally when it comes to clubs and their failure to properly treat fans as stakeholders, is that other sectors, whose ultimate goal is above all a return on investment, manage to adopt a proper stakeholder ‘model’ or ‘approach’. Take property developers: red in tooth and claw, yet ‘stakeholderism’ is important to them as it makes the ultimate goal more probable: carefully managing the expectations, needs, wants of local residents, councillors, other businesses, is central. Without it, developments don’t happen, and at a minimum, there’s reputational damage, which can be costly in itself. If a club actually managed their relationships with fans-as-stakeholders from the start – rather than as it is at the moment; fans being called stakeholders but being treated as customers – they would still be able to make money. And it’s good business. Not treating fans as what they are, whilst calling them ‘the lifeblood of the game’ is fundamentally a failure; it’s bad business, nothing less.
Duncan agreed wholeheartedly on the issue of reputation: ‘You’re right, yes. And the reputation issue is almost all that we’ve got. In many cases it’s the only thing which prevents more exploitative operation of our football clubs. Fortunately owners do care about reputation not least because it affects sponsorship, if you’ve got a terrible reputation – look at what’s happening with Mike Ashley at Sports Direct: Suddenly he’s having to deal with this issue, and he’s acting like he’s the most caring person in the country.’
But does the current approach never work? ‘Perhaps I was being overly cynical. Look, when we have talks at the moment at United, if it gets the outcome we want, then arguably it doesn’t matter. But the reason I’ve always looked at ownership and/or regulation – ownership in particular – is that’s how you cement any gains or changes that you make. You can negotiate deals, but the ownership (of the club) might change, or they might change their policies. That’s why I’m being a bit less enthusiastic about ‘engagement’, because it’s a temporary solution, but you can still have a positive effect.’
Duncan moved swiftly onto the Supporter Liaison Officer role, championed across European football by engagement & ownership experts Supporters Direct/SD Europe (but delivered in England by the FSF), ‘A hell of a lot of them are marketing people in clubs. But we don’t want them to simply use the engagement to sell us more stuff. It’s the misunderstanding of that relationship which is the problem. I went to an SLO conference hosted by the Premier League, and many of them were in marketing or customer service, and it was a bit depressing because they were talking about it in that sense.’
This is where a bit of professional difference comes into play for me: with marketing, it’s too often related to the sale, and not to the DNA, the ‘purpose’ of the business and its reputation for its own sake: that a good reputation is a good thing, a beneficial thing. That above all is the foundation of any good business. What I personally think is that they need ‘stakeholder managers’ in clubs. If they’re not going to have people like Tommy Guthrie (the highly rated former SLO at Fulham and now at the Premier League), then they at least need people trained in stakeholder management, and who understand how to deal with a ‘stakeholder’ as a person, as often very distinct from the customer. To me it’s such an easy win, and it’ll mean that you have less headaches. Look at what happened with the #walkouton77 at Liverpool: you had long conversations, where everything was put on the table, everyone was being grown up about it, respecting each other, and then the owner says ‘no. We’re not changing it (ticketing policy)’. Then the fans walk out, and then the Liverpool owners what their executives were probably going to do anyway, which was to abolish categorisation etc. That’s why I believe that you need to get to the owners, the leagues, the regulators, to see the value of doing it this way. The executives usually just reflect the culture of ownership in the club, and ‘how things are done’ in football, and often have their hands tied in that respect anyway.
Duncan agreed, expanding on his point about ‘the big sell’: ‘They think ‘Look at the opportunity here with all these rabid customers; that means we can sell them more, and at higher prices – optimise (short-term) return.’ This happens because it’s a monopoly, and they don’t understand it or don’t care. And if you know that the money isn’t going to the club (instead to shareholders etc.), then as fans you don’t enjoy giving them your money. Football doesn’t mean anything if you don’t have any passion for it, and we are all increasingly being confronted with this unpalatable reality. The Premier League is concerned about it we’re seeing the advent of artificial singing sections to address the symptoms rather than the cause. Atmosphere should be spontaneous; it is if you feel it’s truly your club.
So how does he rate Manchester United in terms of the ‘fan engagement’ we mean – fans as stakeholders, and in the customer service sense, out of ten?
‘It’s difficult. There are people at the club who are very good at it, and who care about it and care about the club, when it comes to ticketing and allocations and all that, and they’re excellent (it’s often said frontline about ticketing staff, especially when those people’s roles are explained to the matchgoing fan), and I rate them very highly although they are horrendously under-resourced and this creates its own problems. On the whole club basis, it’s very difficult because it’s got this ‘global support’ and has to talk to everyone. So in that case it’s inevitably inauthentic for matchgoing fans. So when I’m dealing with individuals in specific roles, I still say I get good engagement that means something, but the big face of the club is completely meaningless in terms of fan engagement because they have to try to be all things to all people including the hundreds of millions globally. For that reason I’d say it’s recently risen to perhaps an eight on some fans issues, and on the ‘stakeholder’ thing it’s maybe a one-or-two.’
So you think football has made progress, or is it all a bit surface? ‘A lot of it is ticking boxes. The problem is that the SLO is not the role it was meant to be. Again, we’re regarded as customers as far as the owners are concerned.’
If you could do anything tomorrow to improve how fans are dealt with – not including making Man United fan owned – what would you do? ‘I would have a single independently accredited democratic organisation representing fans at each club (something pressed for over a number of years). The thing is, if all you want to do is to quieten dissent, long term it doesn’t work. At United, they have a fans forum where they pull a name out of a hat so it is pure luck whether they are good reps and whether they listen to supporters or just represent their own views. Not surprisingly, given the structure, there are few dissenters. When a new singing section was created at Old Trafford, they didn’t consult the democratic supporters organisation, and so those who were consulted didn’t feel a sense of responsibility, or accountability – to any membership. I think this led to a too readily accepted proposal which , meant many long standing season ticket holders were forced to move out of their seats in order to create space for the singing section. In the end we got involved to help deal with the problems and came up with some solutions. That demonstrates the importance of the group the club consults with being truly independent and democratic. The more members the groups has the stronger it’s voice and the more representative it can be.
The trend towards ‘focus grouping’ in this way, looks for all the world like football searching for, but failing with, a solution; it needs to grasp the nettle. If it wants to call fans ‘the lifeblood’, or term them ‘stakeholders’, then it really does need to grasp the nettle and instigate a system where they’re treated that way; not an awkward, hybrid model that is neither one nor the other. Duncan had the last word: ‘If you want proper ‘engagement’, you can’t have a situation where you allow supporters to have some of a say but not too much. Clubs have got to be genuine rather than fear groups may become extreme. By definition only small, minority groups can be extreme. The larger a democratic organisation becomes the more representative and moderate it becomes so clubs should embrace their Trusts and help them to grow rather than fear the challenge and try to stifle their growth and credibility.’