Premier League TV deals: To boycott – or not to boycott?

The Premier League, currently looking at the next set of TV contracts, have let it be known that they’re considering 11:00 kick-offs as part of an attempt to expand into Asian markets. Given that Charlie Sale reported it, there’s a very decent chance it’s got substance to it (he’s been for many years been one of the prime sources for PL stories.)

Anyway, on my twitter feed, one of the responses has been to talk about the way in which supporters might deal with the threat of this, one of which is boycotts. Boycotts are always the most controversial of tactics for a campaign, particularly in English football. Indeed, even at the height of the protests against the Norwegian owners of Wimbledon, we almost unanimously agreed that such a route would be difficult if not impossible to follow.

For what it’s worth, I think the reason for this is largely to do with that fact that football is very much solely a leisure pursuit for English fans. In many other countries I’ve worked in, football clubs – and indeed individual groups within the fanbase – have often had some kind of a broader political root. In fact in more general terms, the way that civil society itself operates means that demonstrations, direct action and boycotts are often quite different in England and most of the UK too (the exception I have in mind is Northern Ireland.)

Yet – and this is now often used as a justification for considering boycotts and walkouts – there was an extraordinarily successful action in early 2016 when over 10,000 Liverpool supporters did the #Walkouton77 that forced the hand of Liverpool FC – and indeed led to co-organisers Spirit of Shankly commissioning my report on the relationship between the club and supporters. Indeed, as a result some supporters groups as a result were talking about mass boycotts to force the hands of the authorities on ticket prices.

The problem with that idea was that it assumed that every other club and its fanbase was in the same position as LFC, and they weren’t (as this interview with SOS’s Jay McKenna should probably help to show.) Another club where it happened for most of last season was Blackpool – including of course the playoff final. And you might of course sometimes get joint action like that between the Blackpool and Blackburn Rovers supporters, where both advocated a fairly successful boycott of their FA Cup tie, but aside from joint marches, such action is itself not something we see much of. The point is that even at clubs where there are crises, not all the root causes are the same. Some people put two-and-two together and get the wrong answer.

Having advised supporters on campaigns of all types, it is often the case that people view tactics as the first consideration: that is, doing something that demonstrates what fans feel about the issue. But that’s almost always the wrong course of action. What should be the first concern for supporters’ trusts and other organisations is understanding the issues, collaboration and building a consensus. It’s what I used to spend a lot of time facilitating at Supporters Direct both locally, nationally and internationally, and now through very much more drawn out, long term campaigns like the very successful Olympic Stadium Coalition (OSC).

The second important area should be strategy. I’ve written a piece on this already a few weeks back in relation to campaigning for change at a national level in English football. Strategy is quite simply a guide as to what, who, why, where and how, a campaign will be run. It also crucially means you don’t go running off doing things that are either irrelevant or which could damage the cause you espouse – like calling for boycotts or walkouts at the wrong time. By way of example, it’s the very reason that when I took on the OSC campaign involving 14 supporters’ trusts and groups, I made it a central plank of the strategy that whatever anyone thought of those running or owning West Ham United, that wasn’t really relevant when it came to the issue at hand: that the club had been granted a very, very generous deal as a result of poor decisions and negotiating approach made at the Mayoral level in the Greater London Authority, by the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC), and by historic mistakes by central government over a number of years. If as a result there had to be relevant criticism of the actions of those running and owning West Ham, that was entirely different to focusing the campaign on the actions of the club as somehow being largely responsible for such a bad deal.

Coming back to the subject in hand, to boycott or not to boycott shouldn’t really be the question: The question(s) should be: have you spoken to other, relevant people about the issues at hand; and have you coordinated a plan of how the campaign will and should develop? Only then can you start to think about how you actually execute it.

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