No-one knows us: Millwall’s untold success story with supporters | Case Study

Working in the field of supporter communications and structured dialogue, the stories of failure aren’t hard to find, and writers like David Conn have told those better than I ever could. So I want to get out and find the good stories, the best practice. What’s good and what works, so that I can share that amongst those I advise and work with.

But Millwall? Am I serious? They’re widely known in the game for their excellence in community work, but fans? Yes. Millwall are in fact, and have been for some years, one of the untold success stories when it comes to Supporter Communications and Structured Dialogue. Where does it come from, how does it work, and why?

I first came across Millwall in this context about ten years ago, when they established the role of an elected director from the Millwall Supporters Club (MSC) on the board of the Millwall Holdings PLC – the company that owns and controls the club. It wasn’t long after US businessman John Berylson took control. Berylson is a Boston businessman, philanthropist and Red Sox baseball nut, and yes, a curious person to come to own what has been referred to as one of London’s ‘last working class’ football clubs. But in his ten years, although based on the other side of the Pond, he’s been a very present Chairman – always making a point of being seen around the ground when at matches, talking to supporters, not hidden away behind the glass front of the directors box. He’s been supportive financially of the club, only late last year converting another ten million pounds of loans to the club into shares. In recent years this has all happened when the club’s well publicised battle with the London Borough of Lewisham over the development of land around The New Den has been raging. It’s not as though they’ve spent their way to success either – they’ve spent more time in League One than not, and have patiently stuck by former Millwall hero, Neil Harris, who took them up last season.

Whilst of course Berylson clearly has a huge amount to do with the way they interact with supporters – having a majority owner and chairman who takes his role very seriously is very important – the team which oversees things day-to-day is critical. In that respect he and his board have appointed well. Both former CEO Andy Ambler – now Head of Professional Game Relations at The FA (who I interviewed last year for my Diploma in PR), and Steve Kavanagh, who I met for this feature, are thoughtful, knowledgeable, and experienced. Kavanagh worked for 11 years at Charlton, four at Southend United and has been at Millwall for a year. At Charlton, Kavanagh worked with the supporter director the club had for a number of years too, and he valued that role. He’s passionate about football, but most importantly, understands what the people and processes behind the noise and the numbers actually mean. It’s not simply about the bottom line, and it’s not solely about the eleven on the pitch. It’s about all the things that make it possible, and supporters are a central cog in that wheel.

For those not involved in running clubs themselves, it can often be forgotten that football can be rather breathless at times – sometimes an effective state of mild panic can dominate during the nine-month slog that is the football season, and calm can be hard to find. When a team hasn’t won in a few matches, regardless of what the state of the budget or the injury list, some fans go into ‘blame’ mode, and it’s then that a calm hand helps. As Kavanagh said, “It’s a sport where two people watching the same game can emerge with a completely different view of what happened’. He knows that the fans care, knows they want the best, but sometimes he needs to arbitrate between the different points of view, ameliorate, calm nerves. It’s clear that the ‘fan on the board’ role is one of the ways he helps to manage that, but it’s also about personal contact with supporters. As with some of the best practitioners – Paul Barber at Brighton, Alistair Mackintosh at Fulham, and former Sheffield Wednesday Chairman Lee Strafford, and like his Chairman – he seeks that contact.

Millwall are one of the untold success stories when it comes to supporter-communications and structured dialogue.

Clubs can also sometimes eschew having to deal with one or other supporters’ group, but it’s always better to be prepared to talk – even if the relationship isn’t as formalised as that at Millwall. One thing that can be a problem at clubs however is the sheer politics of it all (something which I’ll be dealing with in another post later this week). A big problem for voluntary committees is becoming unfocused, and for there to be people who seem to like being involved for its own sake, and little else. Indeed, a common complaint from many committee and board members of groups I know is too many people not contributing to the work of the organisation. But in that respect the MSC appear quite mature. In November last year, the committee opted to dissolve itself and reform, in part also to assert a greater financial independence from the club as well as refresh things. In terms of a structured relationship, the onus, understandably, is often on the club, but it’s also important for the most organised, largest (and usually, the most representative) group of supporters to be self-aware, and prepared to do things to remain relevant and energised.

Knowing the inner-workings of football clubs, what makes them tick, the pressures, the pinch-points, is necessary if you’re going to create the best solutions for other clubs. Football clubs are inherently fascinating organisations, with so many moving parts, so many people to keep happy, involved, content.

What Millwall are showing when it comes to how supporters are integrated into the life of the club are key, basic building blocks: respect for the role of the supporter as one of the most important interactions they have, and some patience and time for what they need to do.

Many have made their mind up what Millwall is, but under the bonnet, there’s a lot of good work going on to ensure that, when times are good, bad or just a bit mid-table, the supporters feel part of the club, and find it responsive. When Steve Kavanagh talks of the club belonging to the fans, regardless of who owns it, I sense that he – and his team – really mean it.

Lessons from Millwall

Commitment – recognising time and effort has to be put into the relationship(s) with supporters to make them work. Supporters appreciate this.

Structure – being prepared to tweak or change the structure to make it work for the supporters and the club.

Stable ownership – This can matter a lot. It’s less about whether there is a constant stream of success, but more about whether things are – or are perceived to be – stable.

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