‘Sanitising’ English football: who asked the fans?

‘Sanitising’ is an word often used to describe, in particular, Premier League football and the commercialisation that we’ve seen since its creation in 1992. A recent retweet from the Non League Paper featuring an interview with a Liverpool fan on this subject has prompted me to put down my thoughts on it. The actual tweet is below (though pedantically speaking, is ‘sanitation’ the right word?!):

For me the point of the complaints simply that they want it all to return to some kind of updated version of the 1970s or 1980s. I went to football then, and whilst it wasn’t half as dangerous as some people make out, and had its attractions, stadiums were dangerous and badly maintained for a start, and we were herded into ‘pens’ like animals at times (the fact that this was allowed to happen helps make the same point I’m about to make about supporters views on ‘sanitising’ of the game).

The point is that supporters, who get told by many people that they are the ‘lifeblood’, and various other versions of that phrase, don’t see that being demonstrated in practice. They see corporate hospitality taking precedence, matches being shifted, policing decisions being executed without any proper discussion, ownership chopping and changing over their heads, poor decisions being made, and because they are important, and told they are, want to know why. They don’t – most of them – necessarily want the entire thing stopped, or even most of it. They’re not a bunch of Luddites. Often, they simply want some things to be done to balance that out. A bit of give-and-take.

Supporters are the lifeblood, but in English football specifically, the actions of those running clubs tend to send the opposite message. Yes, ‘fan engagement’ initiatives have helped to improve some things. Some of the ‘supporter-as-customer’ initiatives by the EFL like ‘Enjoy the Match’ have been really important in simply ensuring that supporters are treated like they’re wanted, valued as a matchgoing fan, spending their hard-earned money.

But to deal with the real problem, and to ensure that supporters feel valued is to ensure that they are valued. It shouldn’t be relationship marketing. They don’t want loyalty points, club shop discounts, or social media engagement, however nice an addition all that is from a supporter-as-customer experience point of view. The key is dialogue, like I’ve said before on these pages. Vital to managing change in football is not to implement it and be damned. Nor to survey fans to find out that they don’t like what you’ve done after all. It’s to use your supporters to help to shape what you’re doing.

The key is for those at the top of the club to sit down with their supporters, their representatives, in an atmosphere of mutual respect and a desire to talk, to listen, and to engage in dialogue. And that means that sometimes, what you do might have to change.

If you want to talk to me about ‘structured dialogue’ and communicating more effectively with your supporters, drop me a line. You can even register for a free chat about the issues at your club.

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