Shaun Harvey presents an open goal to reformers

Shaun Harvey has put it on record that the League is prepared to discuss a more interventionist approach at The EFL in an interview with the London Evening Standard, saying, ‘We want to see good owners of football clubs running stable clubs where fans are able to enjoy the football. We are never going to achieve that across 72 clubs at the same time. What we have got to is get the majority to that position.’

The League has been beset by problems at Leyton Orient, Blackpool, Blackburn, Charlton and Coventry of late – though most of the problems aren’t recent: Blackburn, Blackpool and Coventry were cases I was advising on as far back as about 2012/2013.

There are of course plenty of people who will respond cynically to Harvey’s words, spoken as they are when the season is now over, and the most problematic problem child – Bechetti – is about to rock up at the door of the National League (interestingly, who are actually subject to the kind of licensing system advocated over a number of years by reform group Supporters Direct).

francesco-becchetti

However, the importance of his words shouldn’t be underestimated, as the League itself, despite currently being powerless to act on the specifics of these cases because of the way it’s set up, recognises that they aren’t just unhelpful on some kind of quasi-branding level, but in terms of that all important word: integrity.

All competitions need it. It might be better termed ‘Trust’, and the EFL in particular has to have it. It’s the very reason that Lord Mawhinney embarked on the major reforms he did from 2004. He knew that without a shift towards more formal rules on spending, ownership and debt – in the light of the collapse of ITV Digital – that the League was only headed one way.

His oversight and leadership reinvigorated a competition that was on its knees, with canny appointments such as Gavin Megaw as a sort of roaming ambassador to clubs, ensuring that they were engaged in the process.

Whether-or-not you liked the rebranding of the League last summer, or you’re one of the many supporters who doesn’t like the Checkatrade Trophy format, the EFL is the junior partner in the league pyramid. It’s a fact that if the EFL doesn’t remain nimble, responsive, sometimes innovative, but crucially, able to anticipate the pivots – the moments where it needs to make a strategic shift, as with Mawhinney – then it risks just being adequate, and it will struggle to make its offering distinct, with all the potential ramifications of that in terms of exposure, sponsorship, broadcasting and other income. You can argue that doesn’t matter, but you’ve got to have an answer as to where the money will come from to operate such a vast competition.

I would argue that reform of the type where owners will be more closely monitored, perhaps signing enforceable ‘behavioural agreements’, with punitive sanctions if they’re broken, might be one such pivot. Whether Harvey is thinking that, such a move could – would, I believe – genuinely help to restore some faith in the system, whether that’s seen as ‘regulation’, or just the rules of a private club of 72 members. The words aren’t that important. The principle is.

The pace of reform is slow in English football, partly because it’s a bit lazy sometimes: it’s the most popular sport in the country, and doesn’t have to work for it. However, if you look at the game from when I fought my first campaign in 2001/2002, to now, it’s almost unrecognisable in regulatory terms. There are pages and pages of rules on spending, tax monitoring, debt and other areas, where once there was, as I recall, one – concerning the payment of monies owed to the League itself. That’s some achievement.

The problem however, when it comes to the current ‘campaign’ on reform, is that a lot of it is shouting into the void: parliamentary debates and motions are useful in publicising the views of people, and tweeting that the EFL is incompetent might get you applause from the echo-chamber, or a few more readers, but it doesn’t equal reform. Reform only comes – came – because those arguing for it organised themselves, showed leadership, and did it from a position of strength and certainty.

Shaun Harvey has just poked the door open a little: it’s up to all of those out there, particularly in my view, Supporters Direct – long-term promoters of club licensing and reform, but also their sister organisation The FSF, to undertake a renewed campaign to bring in more effective checks on owners, and with it cease the kind of avoidable merry-go-round that many of us had thought we’d seen the back of years ago.

You can read Harvey’s interview here: http://www.standard.co.uk/sport/football/football-league-to-consider-new-rules-for-incompetent-owners-after-leyton-orient-crisis-a3533996.html

Port Vale: Time to invest in the supporters (updated) 

Earlier on today I did an interview on BBC Radio Stoke, talking about how Port Vale has been put up for sale by owner Norman Smurthwaite (if you’re interested it’s 14:50 min in on Sport at Six http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p04zr3d2)

There’s a tendency when these things happen to talk about ‘investors’, and how the club should be an ‘attractive proposition’ for potential owners.

I did talk about those issues, and how difficult it might be to sell a club where Smurthwaite has apparently split the ownership of the club and the stadium (not something I would personally recommend – see: too many examples to mention), but I made the point that in the end you’re buying a football club with supporters, and those supporters need understanding, listening to, and their worries and concerns taken seriously.

Speaking to Paul Camillin, head of communications at Brighton and Hove Albion as I did earlier today, reinforced to me the point that each club has its own unique culture, and its fans, their own experiences that make them what they are. They’re a club that has been almost literally rebuilt by supporters and people who care about it, and that includes rebuilding respect and relationships between those owning, running and supporting it.

It concerns me that in the last 15 plus years Port Vale supporters have had it up and down more than most rollercoasters, with owner-after-owner, consortium after consortium, sometimes trying their best, maybe sometimes making mistakes, some of them avoidable. Ultimately they’ve all sold up and moved on, but the supporters have been left behind to deal with the fallout.

Whoever is thinking of bidding, make the supporters the first people you plan to meet. You won’t regret that investment.

How do you solve a problem like Bechetti?

There are crises and there are crises. Football is all too often expert in generating its own, and there is no more exemplar of this currently than Leyton Orient.

The sight of a club falling to pieces before your eyes is sad in any circumstance. When it’s a club which, just a few years ago was nearly in the Championship, there’s something extra tragic about it. A needless waste of everyone’s time.

But the big question here for everyone, as is often the case, is why can’t ‘they’ (in this case The EFL) just do something about it?! After all, what’s its purpose? The answer is actually quite simple: it’s a competition organiser, because that’s basically how the clubs like it, and the executives who oversee it, have to work in that context.

In the case of Leyton Orient, you have an owner who isn’t really there because of their love of the club, but because they want to own one and have the means to do it. Although it appears in the case of Orient that a few recent avoidable errors have been made in how they’ve has approached the issue, the fundamentals remain the same: if the club is in disarray, there is very little that The EFL can do unless and until the club actually breaks a rule, or asks for help. So far it appears that neither Orient nor Franco Bechetti has actually broken the rules. He’s just behaving badly. That makes it difficult.

On that basis, how should The EFL deal with it, and what should the Orient fans do – particularly the Leyton Orient Fans Trust (LOFT)?

The first point, is neither should get dragged into conducting relations using a media relations strategy. Now that includes Twitter and your own channels, as well as other activity like press releases, it’s even more important to choose your words carefully.

From my experience of previous, similar cases, what The EFL can do is to ensure that they keep communicating directly with the supporters and their representatives, which I am sure they are. What they also need to do is to make sure that, despite the limitations on what they can and cannot say (because The EFL remains a private concern controlled by the clubs remember), they are seen as open handed, reasonable and fair at all stages. They are the ones that people will view as being the ‘competent authority’ at a time like this, and they need to unphold that.

Eventually, as things do, this situation will change, but this is where the overused word ‘dialogue’ comes in: both The EFL and LOFT need to try to understand each others position, show flexibility and movement where they can. There might not be a solution that readily presents itself at the moment, and it’s not easy to see one as yet, but if things are going to change, that’s all you can do.

Charlton Athletic – Comical Ali in retreat?

Just six months ago, I wrote a post that outlined how those in charge at Charlton Athletic could begin to at least stop the rot, though I did lean towards the idea that it might just be too far gone, so badly had relations deteriorated.

When it was subsequently republished on the When Saturday Comes website, I received a fair amount of criticism from some Charlton fans, I believe largely on the basis that the thrust of my piece had been misunderstood. Some read it as me saying that by saying sorry, owner Roland Duchatelet and right-hand woman, CEO Katrien Miere, could have a free pass to carry on. To be honest, my view was then and still is now, that however the two Belgians want things to end up – whether they stay or go – they needed to calm things down, and at least neutralise and manage the opposition that they had essentially created themselves. If nothing else, they needed an exit strategy, and being in the middle of fight with your fans won’t make it easy to offload a club that seems to struggle not to lose money.

So it’s with great interest that since their new head of communications Tom Rubashow has entered the fray, he’s clearly stopped the ill-thought-out public statements from officials that invariably made things worse, and just a few days ago, obviously persuaded Miere to take a Q&A from the supporters – including the Charlton Athletic Supporters Trust, during which they admitted that they have been the source of some of the problems, including the substantial number of stay-away fans. If nothing else, perhaps the appearance of an arrogant Chief Executive and owner will recede. (This story today indicates the exit strategy idea might have some legs.) 

Great minds clearly think alike. 

The state of ‘Supporter Engagement’ in English football

I’ve been doing a lot of work lately on supporters as ‘stakeholders’. Alongside terms like ‘engagement’, ‘dialogue’ and ‘structured relationships’ it’s become a term that is used a lot, and sadly, abused.

I’ve done some recent work on this area for the Liverpool supporters’ trust Spirit of Shankly (more on that soon), but what really provoked my interest was interviewing a series of chief executives, officials and journalists for the final piece of work for my Diploma in Public Relations, focusing on ‘dialogue’ and two-way communication at English football clubs.

The full cast list was The FA’s Andy Ambler (ex Fulham and most recently, Millwall Chief Executive), current chief executives Paul Barber (Brighton), Alistair Mackintosh (Fulham), Mark Catlin (Portsmouth), Erik Samuelson (Wimbledon), ex-Sheffield Wednesday Chair Lee Strafford, Jonathan Waite, Head of Supporter Services at Spurs, the new Supporters Direct CEO Ashley Brown and Matt Slater from the Press Association, who I interviewed to get a slightly more detached view of the issues.

I won’t be digging into the content of their interviews (as it was a piece of academic work, I’m not permitted to), but as someone who advises on stakeholder relations, as well as more traditional strategic communications and PR, the overall lessons were twofold: First, there are some genuinely encouraging trends. All of those I interviewed who work (or worked) at clubs practice varying types of genuine dialogue: they don’t just operate in broadcast mode. They are prepared to – and do – change their own point of view, and sometimes, actual plans, on the basis of discussing, understanding and accommodating supporters. More importantly, every one of them actually practised proper dialogue with supporters and their representatives in a way that meant that their decisions on sometimes contentious issues were usually right. I don’t really want to single anyone out as all of them had great examples, but though they seem to hide their light under a bushel a bit, Spurs should get some recognition for their relationship building, particularly through Jonathan Waite; and Millwall was particularly interesting, given they have for some years had an elected fan on the board, with full rights as a director. A lot of credit has to go to those directors who made this happen, chief executives and officials who have engaged constructively with this, and particularly US-based Chairman John Berylson for continuing to see the value in it. Millwall often get a bad press, but on this they should get full plaudits. And they’re reaping their rewards now, with the extraordinary campaign over The Den fought by fans, standing alongside the club.

The second, less pleasing part that football still has something of a problem with putting words about engagement into action – something that everyone recognised. It’s certainly been my experience – and the interviews bore it out – that although there are people who try to make genuine dialogue work, too many clubs are held back by fear, perhaps naivety, and need more help in this area. I also strongly believe that clubs also need to be careful not to use initiatives like fans forums or parliaments, as ways of sidelining or ‘managing’ supporters – particularly organised groups. I’ve seen it in a few cases recently, and my experience is it’s unhelpful and unhealthy for everyone.

The headline of this article was changed because of its similarity to one from a previous article. 

Featured image by user:Jazza5 at en.wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Twenty isn’t plenty in The EFL…

Virgin Media are in the middle of an advertising blitz, promoting their ‘Twenty’s Plenty’ offering with The Football Supporters Federation. The first thing you’d think about such a campaign is ‘everyone’s a winner’, right? Well, no. And this is why:

First things first: I think the campaign to reduce the price of tickets is absolutely bang-on. For years The Premier League talked about ‘stretch pricing’ (having different levels of pricing all over the stadium – pushing up prices in some areas, using them to offset prices in others) – a way of avoiding the real issue, which was that tickets were too expensive full stop, especially given that amount of money clubs were receiving from broadcasting rights was hitting around £8bn for three years. It was also an issue that groups like MUST and SOS were beginning to organise on themselves, and so in terms of responsiveness, it’s good that the FSF has gone big on it. And great that a commercial partner has made this possible. The fact it’s Virgin Media is even better: they have just about enough of the right brand chutzpah to pull of backing a campaign like this. But…

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Source: BBC Price of Football Survey 2016 

The problem is The EFL. As a division, the Championship is basically half a division of ex/wannabe Premier League clubs, with the rest trying to keep up, or keep their heads above water. That means that the money isn’t anything like as even as in the PL: Some clubs receive multi-millions from PL parachute payments; another group have additional money from their owners/investors; whilst the rest try their best with the money they earn themselves, or get from the EFL (80% of the income received by the League – about £6m a season). When you finally get to League Two, you might say that cutting an average £1.80 off a ticket should be easy, but tell that to the manager, whose budget would be very likely hit. And that does matter, because a football club’s first team and its performance on the pitch, week-in-week-out, matters: it’s what all the other activity relies upon, when push comes to shove.

We should all stand back and be thankful that a national campaign like Twenty’s Plenty has hit the headlines, and that supporters are benefiting. It’s to be applauded.

But the elephant in the room is the price of football across the EFL, and crucially, the reasons for it. That can’t be easily addressed with a relatively short-term sponsorship deal. For these clubs, Twenty isn’t Plenty.

Recycled vox-pops: Back to the Future with Fan TV

We’re witnessing a gear-shift in how fans are seen, and heard. Something has arrived that finally gives fans a voice at their clubs, that gives them the right to be heard, and the tools to do it.

Apparently, that’s ‘Fan TV’. Particularly, Arsenal Fan TV, whose founder declares little short of a revolution in the rights of fans – and only a rhetorical flourish shy of employing the epithet ‘hardworking’. And we didn’t realise that, all along, it was almost literally staring us in the face. He’s got a mic, and he’s not afraid to use it.

Whenever I hear of revolutions, or radical new ideas declared in the world of football fans and ‘engagement’ declared, I’m always sceptical. When I was at Supporters Direct, I had a steady stream of approaches from people declaring that they had found the the tool, the format, the idea, the campaign, that wasn’t just going to change the world, but in many cases, make them a living. And looking back at these ideas – creating a groundbreaking platform for fans to organise and engage, or provide an opportunity for fans to get their voice heard, pretty much every single one of them died a death. A handful of them at least exist, but none of them have represented the gear-shift that they first declared. Many of them never got past that first conversation, I think because the majority expected me to help them to do a load of the heavy lifting (and provide access to our database of contacts into the bargain).

Arsenal Fan TV is clearly doing well. Accordingly, its founder now does it as a full-time job, and I think that’s great. It’s a tough ask, working for yourself, pitching to clients, looking for new opportunities, and if you can strike, well, oil I suppose, then bully for you.

But this is basically vox-pops, and there’s nothing new in that. And Web 2.0 is quite hat old now, and fans have loads of opportunities to do shouty pieces into their own mics. The idea that Robbie Lyle, Arsenal Fan TV’s founder, has hit on an idea that frees the fan-slave from their shackles, and allows them, once more, to speak freely, is just him trying to sell his product. Take this: “When I started it off you would never ever hear from fans. You’d hear from pundits, ex-players, you guys in the media. You’d never hear from the guys who spend their hard-earned money, emotions and time going to see games.” (From The Guardian

The idea that Fan TV in any sense is a radical departure from anything is a very large piece of marketing speak, and Arsenal Fan TV has become a micro-media company that needs to flog its content. This is perfectly normal these days. In the same way that people can be ‘citizen journalists’. creating their own platforms to parade their opinions, he needs people to consume what he’s doing – he needs viewers, and he uses the copywriter’s flourish to draw them in.

I remember I used to bemoan the vox pops as the principal was that fans got heard: the infant Premier League coverage on Sky Sports – with the BBC usually not far behind – would trawl the streets before or after a match to get the views of fans about whatever the issue of the day was. Fair enough, and sometimes there was the odd nugget. Butit was basically the same, on Five Live or wherever. These days it’s also obsessively reading out tweets.

And all that Lyle – and others – have done, is to hit upon the idea that there’s a market for fans who want to watch other fans sound off, or that fans want to watch stuff related to their club. I’ll watch anything Wimbledon related. Even people sounding off about the left-back. (Largely so I can get annoyed with them in some sort of superior act of self-righteousness.)

Maybe what was important was supporters not being satisfied with vox-pops, and realising they didn’t have to be the beginning and the end of it. Maybe vox-pops –  originally – helped to expose that. That the lone voice in the crowd, weeping and gnashing in despair about the state of their club as it they felt it was sold down the river, wasn’t actually a lone voice, but in fact was joined by a chorus of tens, hundreds, thousands of others.

In fact, whisper it quietly, but the real radical departure was a gentleman in Northamptonshire in 1992, by name of Brian Lomax, who told the world of fans that shouting about the result, or demanding the head of the manager, wasn’t all it needed to be about. And this was when the Web 1.0 was still a tool for academics alone! ‘Radical’ was the idea that you could as fans, speak to your club, and the club would listen, and might be prepared to do something differently as a result. And in fact, these days, it’s actually something that is beginning to happen, and it’s not just about the price of pies.

That’s the radical, brave new world we now live in, and a lot of it is happening before our very eyes, without us even noticing it. And it doesn’t take a shiny new You Tube channel to make it happen.

Where do fans fit?

I’m looking at communications practice at English football clubs as part of my CIPR PR Diploma personal project. Specifically, I’m looking at whether we see much two-way ‘symmetrical’ communications (where both sides are prepared to change their positions as a result of the relationship and conversations attached to it), why clubs (and sometimes fans too) are often so poor at it, and how concepts of ‘dialogue’ as a PR tool could help to realise better communications. (If you want to read more about how it isn’t just football that doesn’t always do it well, this paper from Jim Macnamara from the University of Technology Sydney is a good starter.)

One thing I am looking at is where supporters are placed in terms of their strategic position in the club. I’ve often seen the supporter-services/fan engagement relationship placed within a marketing, customer-relations function. At one Premier League club I know of, the role was within the Digital Marketing side of the business, which doesn’t really add up either, as it seems to me to be a sub-section of marketing itself.

So what’s the problem, and as long as fans are being ‘engaged with’, does it even matter? Yes. It matters. A lot. The reason it matters is the same reason that when I used to deal with, for example, The Football League/EFL, I would talk directly to John Nagle – their (now former) head of communications. Someone more likely to be concerned with the public image, perception, reputation etc of the organisation was far more likely to be able to understand where the relationship between, in this case Supporters Direct (SD) and the EFL should sit. At the best companies and organisations, you need those who understand the key relationships, scan the horizon for potential problems, and solve them – before they come up, preferably.

If your relationships with fans are all placed within a marketing or customer context to deal with everything, you’re too busy looking at them as units of consumption, who at best need consistent messaging, quality product launches and clean toilets. Marketing as a function simply isn’t set up to carefully negotiate the ‘political’ problems that occur between stakeholders (in this case, supporters), their representatives, and clubs, and I don’t know anyone concerned with marketing who would claim they are. That doesn’t mean that fans shouldn’t be marketed or sold to: I’m talking about how fans are positioned, and whether they’re demonstrably more ‘customers’ or ‘stakeholders’.

Even where the structure is right, it’s often about the culture too. Although I was fortunate enough to work for SD and learned a huge amount about the importance of structure, formality, rules, I also learned that culture matters too: how does the CEO regard fans? Does the head of communications use the relationships with them as intelligence gathering exercises, or are they too busy gathering intelligence on them, regarding them as a tricky group to be managed, not to be embraced and with whom to have dialogue? But structure must be observed, as all that is for nothing if it can be changed with the owner, CEO, or head of comms. Preferably it should be underpinned by formal agreement. There’s nothing to fear with formality – it just means we all know where we stand.

Yesterday I interviewed with Jonathan Waite, Head of Supporter Services at Spurs. I can’t go into the detail for the same reason as with my interview with Paul Barber last week (coincidentally, a former executive director at Spurs too) – it was done as an academic exercise, but an important detail for me is they have the relationship structurally correct, placing Jonathan’s role within communications. That makes a big difference, and this sort of structure should I believe be encouraged.

I’m sure Spurs fans have reasons to complain about some of the things that their club do, and I’m not here to address that. What I do believe however we should do if we care about making football clubs more communicative, more attuned to dialogue instead of broadcasting or propaganda, is to praise when they get it right.

Brighton & Hove Albion’s visible man: Paul Barber

I’ve just spent 45 mins-or-so in the company of Brighton and Hove Albion Chief Executive, Paul Barber, who I was interviewing for the ‘personal project’ that brings my Diploma in Public Relations to a close. I’m also interviewing supporters’ representatives, journalists, officials and other CEOs.

The subject I’m looking at concerns two-way communications between English football clubs and their ‘stakeholders’ – ostensibly supporters. One of the things I’m curious to understand is why so many clubs appear to have difficulties with concepts of openness and particularly of ‘dialogue’ – two way communications where both supporters and the club seek to understand each others positions, and are prepared to adapt and change as a result. I’ve seen far too many cases where discussion is closed down when times get tough, the issues are difficult, or what’s being said not to your liking. I’ve always advised an open approach – both when advising clubs and fans. Even if you can’t answer the question, ducking it should never be an option.

Brighton & Hove Albion have since the 1990s fascinated me, partly because I was a student at Sussex University and Brighton resident for a period too (I voted in the Falmer referendum too), and partly because I always felt an affinity with them as a fellow club in crisis: being a Wimbledon fan it’s something I was all too familiar with.

As with all academic interviews, the specific contents are strictly for my project (although I suspect a lot of what Paul talked about wouldn’t be off record anyway, given his general approach.) The thinking of his that I am prepared to impart is this: at a football club, when things get tough, or times are hard, that’s when you need to be visible, and that’s when dialogue with fans counts the most; and also that you might have rules and processes underpinning what you do, but culture counts at least equally.

To have the Chief Executive of a club vying for a spot in the top flight of English football – and someone who has been in a number of high-profile roles in both clubs and the governing bodies – echo the same views I’ve been espousing for many years is as pleasing as anything I’ve ever heard from someone in the game.

Women at the Game: You can take part

I’m diverting from the usual focus of this website to publicise an important new initiative established by my friend and former colleague, Jacqui Forster. It’ll only take a few minutes of your time, so please, read on…

Football clubs around the country are invited to join in with the Women at the Game initiative as International Women’s Day approaches (March 8th).

The brainchild of Jacqui Forster, the idea is to give women their first taste of live football in a supportive environment or to create a friends’ group for women to be together who are seasoned match-goers who are not comfortable in the usual male dominated crowd – going in an all-female group that’s supportive and welcoming.

Forster, an Altrincham FC fan, was diagnosed with terminal cancer in February 2015 – and is using some money that friends raised for her to get this project up and running.

“I simply want to enable more women to feel happy going to watch sport, particularly men’s football,” says Jacqui. “I think that meeting other women before the game in a non-threatening venue, like a café, entering the ground together and wherever possible spending the match with their new found friends and even travelling home together will make more women of all backgrounds, ethnicity and religion more likely to give Going to the Footie a go. This is really about making friends with other women who support the same club.”

The first Women at the Game event was at Forster’s home club when they played Gloucester at the start of January – and now other clubs are keen to join in to mark International Women’s Day, which falls on Wednesday 8th March.

Jacqui’s story can be heard on BBC World Service’s Sportshour this Saturday from 10am – and on the iPlayer now (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p04pt68y)

To find out more about Women at the Game or to sign your club up for an event, contact Jacqui at womenatthegame@gmail.com or go to the Facebook group for more: http://facebook.com/groups/1178445935584034

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