Read my new FC Business Column

I’ve started a new column in FC Business Magazine. The first one can be read, for free, on Page 38 of the latest edition. This one is entitled ‘Getting your head around fan engagement’.

It’s out every six weeks, and you can find more about the magazine via their website

Fan Engagement interview: Duncan Drasdo, Manchester United Supporters Trust

For my latest chat, I decided to speak with Duncan Drasdo, the Chief Executive of the Manchester United Supporters Trust.

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.’

Charlton Athletic and the return of Comical Ali

Charlton Athletic is a club that once was admired: as a mass, they fought their way back from the brink, sharing at Selhurst Park, left to rot by a council that cared not one iota about the future of their borough’s football club, until that is their political position was threatened by the Valley Party and its 15,000+ votes. They undoubtedly inspired Brighton and Hove Albion and their battle to return; and I know from direct, personal experience that they provided inspiration to Wimbledon fans as we set about our mammoth task in 2001. They are rightly regarded as having helped tend the roots for the movement that now sees clubs run and part-owned by their fans, and tens of thousands of fans prepared to walk out of a match over the danger of high ticket prices.

But, blink and you might have missed the transformation: Charlton have become a different type of example: one of how to reduce a hard-earned reputation to ashes in a few years. Charlton’s ‘reputation’ was the thing most admired by the football-going public; their essence. Yet in a few short years, owner Roland Duchatelet and Chief Executive Katrien Meire have reduced them to a laughing stock. Ok. It’s not easy running a football club. I know that; it’s a tough place to operate because of the pressure – often self-generated I might add, but it is genuinely tough sometimes. And knowing how to deal and genuinely engage with your primary ‘customers’ – fans – isn’t like any other business (and arguably, few other sports). Most fans – especially the ‘organised’ ones, the activists –  don’t want to be sold stuff; they want something to love, and to be loved back by it. Even if that sounds silly, it’s true; ‘reciprocity’ is what it’s all about. And if the thing you love doesn’t reciprocate, that’s a broken relationship with your sweetheart.

And ok, Meire – and even Duchatelet – would admit to having made some silly, avoidable mistakes and curious judgement calls that could be forgiven: mysterious ‘experts’ on team selection; adverts banned by the ASA for ‘inappropriate content‘ (fwiw, it was a bit basic, but I suppose it was original).

But it’s not simply that; we all make mistakes, and I’d venture to suggest that it’s unfair to lay into them too much on that basis. It’s more the way they’re handling their errors that concerns me. They appear to either have decided, or been advised by a PR professional (which is worse, in my opinion), that the best way of mitigating the bad decisions, bringing the majority of people back onside, is to ‘batten down the hatches’.

It reminds me of ‘Comical Ali’ during the second Iraq War: whilst everything was collapsing around him, he was insisting that things were perfectly normal. I can tell you, as a professional both in football and PR & communications, that it’s not. What they’re doing isn’t working, and won’t work. It will fail. If it hasn’t already. And I don’t understand why they think this is a good approach.

Naturally, the lion’s share of my sympathy goes to the fans; I know how it feels to be in that situation personally, and professionally I’ve seen it and similar situations to it, too many times. But a bit of my heart goes out to Meire particularly, but also Richard Murray and especially to the people around the Club who I’m sure won’t be agreeing that the approach is productive. I’ve never met De Mere, but if I did, the first thing I’d do is sit her down and ask what on earth she’s expecting to gain from it.

So what is the solution? That’s a good question, and the first thing to say is that I’m not sure whether it’s rescuable, whether the ‘point of no return’ has been reached; where even the most patient of fans won’t listen anymore. Because that moment comes, and is all too often misread or ignored by owners and officials too embedded in their own way of doing things. And they pay for it. They always do.

But if it is – and it is a big if – rescuable, the second thing to do is be honest, and keep being honest. Go to fans forums, do phone-ins, and do loads of ‘mea culpa’, loads of ‘we’re sorry, and you’ve every right to be angry.’ Tony Blair used to use it and it made people less inclined to hate him, and took the pressure off the government. And quite frankly, it’s not what people would be expecting when you’ve made mistakes; big mistakes. Also, don’t talk about ‘fan engagement’ whilst you do this: no-one wants to hear that phrase. Saying sorry isn’t about ‘engaging’; it’s about apologising.

I have a theory that tends to be borne out, which is that when people see someone who is quite clearly and genuinely asking to be forgiven for their mistakes, and who quite obviously wants to make amends, most of the population are at least amenable to that. The problem is that I’m not sure if Roland Duchatelet would be willing to do it, and I think he might have to be prepared to, along with Meire and the rest of those responsible on the board.

As for the rest of it, I’d be seeking forgiveness first, and then worry about the rest as that pans out.

So why do football clubs do this? I don’t know. So many disasters should tell any PR operating anywhere that managing a crisis in the way that Charlton are is doomed to failure: BP and David Cameron’s tax affairs are two that spring to mind. Crisis crisis management PR is hard, and there’s a tendency to advise that total control and highly selective, direct contact with the general public is all that matters, and for the initial stages in some crises, whilst you try to get a handle on what’s gone wrong, that might be necessary. I used it once on the appointment of a Chief Executive at Supporters Direct, and it was effective for a period whilst I established the necessary strategy to get on top of the issues.

But every bit of evidence that I’ve seen over the years, both within football and outside, tells me that Charlton – and whoever is advising them – are making a big mistake.

Corrected, as the Valley Party actually received more like 15,000 votes in the elections to Greenwich Council 

Coventry City: A solution

I’ve been talking a lot about Coventry City recently. It’s a case I’m very familiar with, having previously advised the Sky Blue Trust throughout the torturous period that the club was moved to Northampton, and then unceremoniously had their ground taken over by a cuckoo-esque move by Wasps.

Let’s face it, the case is about as hopeless as it gets. When you’re at the point where the Chairman attacks the supporters’ trust for trying to make an offer to buy the club and take it out of the seeming death spiral it’s in, you know it’s bad. Worse even that Blackpool? Quite probably, but only by a whisker.

I was asked again yesterday in an interview with a local station in the city, what the ‘solution’ is. The truth is, there is no immediate solution. Not one that presents itself readily anyway. A hedge fund that seems not to want to admit when its business plan hasn’t worked, a football club that looks basically broken, and fans and their representatives who are completely in the cold. It’s all pretty horrendous.

But maybe there a process that could lead to a way of resolving it. It would have to occur outside of the normal bounds of the rules of football. It could also point to a potential future structure for dealing with disputes between supporters and their clubs within the game.

The problem, which I’ve highlighted a great deal in recent weeks with several legal and football-rules brains I know, is that football, despite having made some decent advances in recent years on ‘fan engagement’, still doesn’t actually recognise fans as a formal part of the game along with players, referees, officials, etc. Despite the language of the ‘stakeholder’ regularly used by The FA, Premier League, EFL, it is really, in terms of substance, largely optional, and just that: language. Fans are mentioned in the rules, yes, but crucially, as effectively a side-issue. In fact, even football agents, after FIFA decided to disperse power on their regulation to national FAs, are included within the rules of The FA, and can use dispute resolution procedures. Long term, this in my view needs some serious thought. What would make it really work is the presence of a recognised supporters’ organisation at every club (which would invariably have to be a supporters’ trust, given their unique legal status), and a body providing oversight (which I would suggest would equally very naturally be Supporters Direct, given it already acts as a ‘guarantee’ or a ‘kite mark’ for its members). I will be writing more about this subject in the near future.

So back to Coventry City, the only way out seems to me to be some of form of binding arbitration, basically like the process ACAS use in industrial disputes. It requires a commitment from both sides to make it work, and there would have to be a period of radio silence on the issues so that the process can be undertaken. The EFL, whilst it says that it ‘It is not for the EFL to “force” a club to comply with the rules’ (which in itself is to me a very odd thing for body that aspires to be a regulator to say), could along with The FA place political pressure on SISU and the club to go down this path. There may also be some carrots and sticks I don’t know about. But if they do enter such a process, then it can be understood what a hedge fund £60m+ down on a bad investment want or need to walk away (and I am only speculating but I suspect that it’s financial); and what the fans might be prepared to accept so that they can start to see some kind of an end to this horrendously bad episode, which should be a source of shame for the whole game. Will it happen? It’s doubtful, but then nothing changes if we don’t at least try.

The Fan Engagement Interview: Kevin Boroduwicz, Blackpool Supporters Trust

As a term, ‘fan engagement’ is one that I’ve already explained my views on. It is a blanket term that is largely unsuited to the role of fans as a stakeholder in their clubs, and, in terms of the football authorities (largely The FA, but also the leagues), the wider game.

It seems like an almost completely pointless terms in any case when the club is so divided that officials, executives and owners have even ceased speaking to fans, and particularly where one has unilaterally decided to shut off relations.

This attitude, usually but not exclusively coming from the owners (as they tend to wield most of the power at a club, understandably) is deeply unhelpful, and renders the notion of engagement with fans as merely a tick box exercise, designed to fulfill the limited requirements in the rules.

It’s essentially happening at Coventry, Blackburn, and Charlton Athletic. One of the most prominent cases is Blackpool, where ever since the club was relegated following a brief spell in the Premier League, the Chairman Karl Oyston, has been in the news repeatedly, as relations with supporters have soured, resulting in legal action and relationships even failing between shareholders. The club has tumbled down the divisions, to the point where it is now 17th out of 24 in League Two, and only three points off the second relegation spot.

I spoke to Kevin Boroduwicz, Secretary of the Blackpool Supporters Trust, and asked him about what’s happening now. ‘We’re at an impasse. The club, in the shape of Karl Oyston, won’t speak with the Trust, though the chair of the trust has met with the actual owner, Owen Oyston (Karl’s father) a couple of times. He met fans at a special general meeting, but was booed off the stage – though deserves credit for turning up. The gap between how the owners and our members and fans see the club is probably as wide as it’s ever been, in truth. Karl Oyston has said he’s happy to leave the rest of the fanbase behind.

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BST’s Kevin Boroduwicz – ‘relations at an impasse’

This all seems to be an arena in which ‘fan engagement’ fails to be relevant. Kevin agrees ‘All it [the club] does is to satisfy the miniscule requirements that the governing bodies have for clubs. I think they’re failing, and we’re just a small part of that. It has, in the end, no material impact.’

Kevin went on to explain more about the Blackpool Supporters Association (BSA), which used to speak independently for fans ‘It gave up its independence and didn’t represent the supporters at all and had become a cosy club. It still did some excellent things like providing away transport. That’s what led to the creation of the Seasiders Independent Supporters Association (and subsequently the supporters’ trust), to create more balance where there was only imbalance [in the relationship between fans and club].’

I wanted to know more about how the normal channels of ‘fan engagement’ failed Blackpool fans. Kevin outlined the first problem; ‘Firstly, the club charter had been written to say that they’d only speak to BSA, and that no other fans group would be addressed. Eventually, the club stopped speaking to the BSA itself, and the chairman said he’d never speak to the BST (the trust). So we did our research on the Supporter Liaison Officer (SLO) regulations, and although the club continued to refuse to appoint one, eventually, they had to because it was an EFL rule. But they appointed the club’s media person. This is typical when it comes to SLOs at other clubs, but the SLO at Blackpool refused to speak with us, answer emails, etc. We even copied in the Football League. Then we asked the League to intervene to enforce it, and in response, the chairman formed the ‘Fans Progress Group’, and appointed people like Trevor Sinclair and Jimmy Armfield and other individuals related to the football club to oversee its formation. It turned out that some – including both Armfield and Sinclair – refused to take part, partly because the system wasn’t appropriate. Jimmy Armfield is a doyen of the club. But that’s now the group that is used to satisfy the regulation.’ Intriguingly, at the time Karl Oyston was refusing to implement the rules of the League, he was actually a member of its board.

At this stage, I’d ordinarily be asking how Kevin rated ‘fan engagement’ at his club, but understandably, I didn’t pursue this point.

We then moved onto transparency – did he think that trust between fans and clubs is damaged because of the lack of it in football? ‘Yes. Clubs get run as ‘business first’, whereas our [BST’s] view has always been ‘football first’. For our clubs to make every penny they can, they must exploit the loyalty we have, which you see in the Premier League taken to an extreme degree.’ It was here that, as I often do, I pointed out that the notion of football clubs being ‘businesses’ wasn’t the controversy in my eyes; they should seek to balance their books, invest and spend wisely. It is, however, a business that is very specific, and a ‘football business’ needs to understand who its main ‘customers’ are – in this case supporters – and engage with them appropriately – as stakeholders, not merely purchasers of a product like any other. The biggest complaint should actually be that a lot of those who own or run football clubs don’t actually seem to realise what their business is. Good, efficient, or appropriate business practice doesn’t make the kinds of repeated decision that leave it in the state that Blackpool, Blackburn or Coventry are in – heading resolutely downwards on the pitch.

So has football made progress when you’re talking about real fan engagement, club’s relationships with fans – if you look away from Blackpool? ‘Look. It took the working group [the Government Expert Working Group] two years to come out with something that was just watered down. I’m not discounting the efforts of the people on that working group, who did their best in the circumstances, but what they came up with was barely anything at all. When I read what was required, they were just recommendations. Karl Oyston doesn’t have to meet with the supporters’ trust twice a year if he doesn’t want to. I understand that the EFL exists for the benefit of the clubs; it’s why they were set up, they are not there for the supporters, but they pretend to some degree that they are.’ So where’s the gap? ‘We need supporters on the EFL board, the Premier League board, the FA board. We need people at the top of the game who know it, and that includes supporters. We know about the game; it’s not some esoteric business that only specialists know about. The game is huge; it isn’t just the Premier League or EFL. The money in football comes because of supporters: because we are prepared to pay to watch it. None of that money exists if we’re not prepared to watch the game.’

So is there one thing that would improve the experience of the fans at Blackpool, one that doesn’t involve ownership or similar? ‘We need to have a requirement where action comes from discussion; anything that happens needs to be enforced. We’d have to binding arbitration.’ The idea of binding arbitration isn’t new to football; it is something that is used in disputes between clubs, authorities, and those in the game, under FA rules. Most notoriously, the process was utilised to try to resolve the dispute between the Norwegian millionaire who owned the old Wimbledon Football Club and The Football League in 2002, but didn’t include fans as they’re not a formally recognised part of the game when it comes to the rules (like players, officials – even agents these days) but which ended up giving birth to the later ‘Independent Commission’, and the effective franchising of the club. Arbitration is a common principle in industrial relations for example, ACAS often playing the role in disputes. Indeed, Sports Resolutions was set by a number of sports governing bodies (not football) to do similar things. Key to any process such as ‘arbitration’ being possible, of course, would be the recognition of football supporters as an actual part of the game – a stakeholder – for the purposes of the rules of The FA, and therefore the leagues and clubs.

Given the regular acknowledgement of fans as part of the ‘lifeblood’ of the game, this absence seems to me to be one of the biggest impediments to fans being accepted, truly, as ‘stakeholders’ in our national sport. This definitely an issue I’ll be coming back to in the future.

This is part of an occasional series of interviews with those people I regard as interesting and important figures in fan organisations, and in football more widely, on the subject of ‘fan engagement’.

The Fan Engagement interview: Jay McKenna, Spirit of Shankly

Those who know me will know that my aim as someone who works in football is for clubs, fans and the authorities to understand each other better, and for them to be able to have much better and more productive dialogue, and more meaningful relationships.

As part of that, I decided to carry out interviews with a whole series of people that I believe have something to contribute to the discussion on a subject usually referred to as ‘fan engagement’ – a term that I’m not that keen on given its wide-ranging use (about which I have already discussed in a previous post.) In no particular order, I am interviewing officials from clubs, supporters’ trusts and other organisations, the football authorities, other experts on communications in the game, as well, I hope, as bringing an outsider’s perspective where I can (I certainly believe that football can learn from other industries and sectors, where there are perhaps more sophisticated ways of interaction with stakeholders.)

The first person up is Jay McKenna, the Chair of Liverpool’s Spirit of Shankly, a supporters’ trust and member of Supporters Direct, and FSF (Football Supporters Federation) affiliate. They were at the forefront of creating the campaign on ticket prices that eventually saw the FSF create their ‘Twenty’s Plenty’ campaign, working originally in particular with the Manchester United Supporters Trust, a partnership which, alongside active work and dialogue between the likes of Spurs and Chelsea Supporters Trusts, saw many of the off-pitch old enmities set aside to campaign jointly on issues that matter.

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Jay McKenna – ‘Clubs don’t trust fans enough’

The organisation has come to particular prominence this year after it coordinated one of the most successful protests seen in some years in the top-flight, helping to create #walkouton77 a mass walkout organised with the Spion Kop 1906 group as part of a protest against ticket prices and match categorisation. But it has been representing the views of Liverpool fans for over eight years, following its creation during the fairly chaotic days of the ownership of the two US businessmen, Tom Hicks and George Gillett, who they helped campaign to remove as owner. It also outlasted an other initiative formed at almost the same time, Share Liverpool.

I asked Jay to explain his views on fan engagement, and some of his specific experiences of it, concerning amongst other things match categorisation, ticket prices, the actual running of the club and the issue of transparency in financial matters. We also covered how the collective ability of fans gets under-rated, and just how much greater trust between parties, and better access to the decision-makers would make all the difference…

The actual meaning of the term ‘fan engagement’, as I found with the response from any to my recent article on the subject, was one that concerns Jay greatly. He certainly sees the need for clubs to place a far greater distinction between ‘customer service’ and the more ‘stakeholder relations’ needs of supporters that are both covered by the catch-all term, saying ‘What it (‘fan engagement’) actually means in practice and what I believe it should mean are probably two very different things.’ he says. 

A major drawback, whether it’s officials of the Premier League or the board of LFC, is, he says, ‘They hear you, but they probably don’t listen. They box-tick. They do it to be seen to be talking to supporters. They do it to say ‘We’ve listened, we’ve talked to supporters’ when in reality what they’ve done is heard what you’ve said, but haven’t even considered the idea that they might change their minds.’ So what does ‘engagement’ really mean, practised in the right way? ‘What it should mean is sitting down and having a meaningful conversation, where we as supporters challenge what they think and what their practices are and they provide an evidence base.’ He also believes that it works both ways: ‘They should also challenge us, and say ‘Here’s why your proposals, for example on ticket prices, shirt colour, don’t actually work: here’s the rationale.’’

Ultimately, managing that relationship between fans and clubs does mean recognising the very special relationship that supporters have, and making sure that the process is the right one for that. As Jay sums up well: ‘A proper dialogue between the two, where either might change some of what they do, but at the very least we’ll have informed each other about why we have the positions we have, which will probably improve relations, and improve football as a whole.’ For Jay, and many others, too much in this area concerns ‘customer service’ issues – products sold in the ground, food etc. As he says, ‘Most people come away from such meetings feeling ‘that was a bit of a waste of time’’.

‘Hearing’ rather than ‘listening’ is the subtle but important distinction. There is also a failure to recognise that as impressive as it may be to some fans and outsiders, when fans take collective, direct action, it points – quite clearly in my experience – to ‘fan engagement’ not working as it should. Whilst there may well be occasions where action is justified (see my recent piece on ‘the critical friend’), very often supporters’ organisations are incredibly patient and tend to be inclined to give their club a lot of space and time.

So how about the practical side? Doesn’t the Supporter Liaison Officer improve the meaningful part of ‘fan engagement’? Jay points to what seems to be the norm: that the SLO role has been taken on at Liverpool – as with many others – within a marketing, sales and customer service context. (For me, dealing with one of your major stakeholders seems to me to be a very central issue to your business, and so absolutely logical to place it within the stakeholder and corporate communications functions; if I was the Chief Executive of a football club, fans, staff, community would be the three, very broad categories of stakeholder that would concern me. These are relationships that impact directly on a club’s reputation, but the relationship with fans gets confused because they are also sold and marketed to.)  In the context of LFC, I very much doubt that redevelopment of the Anfield Road Stand would not have had a quite sophisticated level of engagement with local residents, councillors, businesses, as stakeholders, yet, as Jay points out, their SLO role – and much of the efforts of fan engagement – are directed towards customer and consumer issues. There is of course the ‘Liverpool Supporters Committee’, a body set up to represent supporters across the club, but Jay says, ‘a lot of the issues there are just products sold in the ground, food etc.’

So what are the issues that he feels need covering? Jay mentions the obvious: the actual price of football, who gets the tickets, and importantly, for a supporters’ trust whose role is in part to ensure ‘good governance’ of the club and the wider game, ‘What the club’s strategy is’. And it’s not that customer service issues don’t matter to him. They do: ‘Of course they need dealing with, they’re important – queues for pies, seating etc, but they’re not at the heart of my concerns as a supporter of Liverpool Football Club. Clubs confuse the two, merely to say that they’re doing it. If I complain, and this has happened, that Liverpool didn’t listen to us on ticket prices, the response is ‘They did; they had nine months of meetings with you’. But real fan engagement might result in them actually admitting they’re wrong. And that’s what’s missing. That’s where there’s a key distinction.’ I might add that LFC did admit they were wrong on this issue, but the point was that happened after the direct action, which could have been avoided.

Jay goes into more detail on the background cause of the #walkouton77 protest that resulted. ‘We sat with Liverpool, and said ‘let’s have a proper discussion about ticket prices, put all the data on the table’, and we set up a working group, and up to a point they cooperated, sharing information on prices, allocation, and for a period we got to have some very meaningful conversations, and some actual two-way dialogue – and they tabled some proposals – until the owners intervened and decided that their was an arbitrary, overall financial target to be achieved.’ The net result was that the discussions ended, and the net result, protest.

The issue of who actually makes the decisions appears to be at the heart of Jay’s problems with ‘fan engagement’ at LFC, and more generally: ‘An example was when we (the 14 Premier League supporters’ trusts working under the Supporters Direct banner) were talking to the Premier League, which led to the £30 cap on away prices. The Premier League said ‘the clubs aren’t in favour of it’, and we said ‘we’re talking to the clubs and they’re telling us it’s a Premier League issue’, and then the Premier League would say ‘it’s a club issue’. In the end, to break the logjam, we proposed coming to address their meeting. We said ‘Let us, supporter representatives, look in the whites of the eyes of the Chief Executives, the Chairs, of these football clubs, and say ‘here’s what we’re asking for and why’. They wouldn’t even agree to that.’ The issue of transparency, in that the voting records of clubs in the Premier League (and others) are not a matter of public record, makes the job of pushing for change even more difficult, and for Jay, trust even more of rare commodity: ‘The distrust leads to the attitude from fans that ‘we never believe anything you say, even when you’re telling the truth’. Football clubs don’t realise that. They like to say ‘trust us’, but when it comes to the decisions made, you never get a breakdown as to who voted what way.’ Does that matter? ‘Yes. I could spend six months lobbying our club to vote a certain way, and we would never, ever know if they’ve done that.’

The amount of information that clubs release is a matter of quite intense discussions amongst supporters’ organisations at times, even after sixteen years of Supporters Direct’s, often successful, campaigning on the issue. English football’s tradition of clubs being essentially the property of private companies and their shareholders has meant that the whole culture is shaped by company law, which is predictably largely geared towards privacy, and the rights of shareholders. McKenna adds that ‘trust’ is what informs many of the relational difficulties between clubs and their supporters – certainly at LFC: ‘The problem is that we can only make decisions using half the information, using intelligent guesses, or what’s in the paper. So when a new deal is signed, and we’ve seen all these deals with kit manufacturers and ‘timing partners’, players sold, we ask (the club) ‘so why can’t you cut this amount off ticket prices?’ They say ‘no, we won’t, or can’t’, but they don’t have the evidence, and our response is ‘well, we can’t trust you then’.’

And it’s frustrating, according to McKenna, because much progress has been made over the years: ‘On fan engagement, we have gone in, and had very meaningful conversations on how supporters’ are stewarded, on ticket prices, where even if we didn’t get everything we wanted. What seems to happen is that they almost seem to get to a point where they think ‘we’ve listened to these people too much’, and they then just shut off. The problem with fan engagement is that they just don’t trust you; that you’re not going to misuse it (information). They’ll just use the reason that it’s ‘commercially sensitive’, which is a catch-all phrase. We’ll be happy to sign a confidentiality agreement. Let’s do all of this properly. But I’m actually convinced that it’ll be shown that they can afford to lower ticket prices, that they can do this.’

And transparency and trust does work, and breaks down barriers between club and fans. ‘Take the ticketing at Liverpool: I didn’t realise how hard it is to run the ticketing at the club until we had some information about it shared with us. I have a new-found respect for the people who do that job, and the difficulties in achieving certain targets.’

On the other hand, ‘there are so many supporters who are intelligent that the clubs just see as ‘turnstile fodder’, who could probably do their jobs, who probably aren’t as wealthy, or who don’t work in the same industry, but who can say ‘we know what all this means, we know there’s different way you can do it’. But clubs just think they’ve got this big secret that everyone knows.’ How about publishing wage bills? ‘Yes’, he says. ‘What’s wrong with saying ‘here’s our wage bill’? You don’t need to know who earns what.’ I agree that it might reduce a lot of pressure on the club, and lead to a greater understanding of and reality about, football clubs and what makes them tick, without it being in any sense ‘showing their hand’ – particularly as from my experience the information is fairly widely known informally anyway. Jay also adds by way of an example, ‘A lot of Liverpool supporters have this idea that the strategy of the club is to sign them cheap, sign them young, pay them less, sell them for big bucks. The club insists that this isn’t true, and so I think ‘prove it’. It would destroy that (misunderstanding). I think that lack of trust in sharing data hamstrings them from having meaningful conversations with supporters.’

He raises another example involving other clubs and the Premier League: ‘I actually think it’s behavioural.’ he says, continuing, ‘I asked the PL about the conversations they have on categorisation. When we were having those conversations on categorisation last season, before the owners intervened, the officials at LFC were coming back with some interesting models that actually removed categorisation, and said that it was something they had wanted to do for a while. In the October the owners came over, and at the same time had a meeting with the PL, with some of the other big clubs – Spurs, Arsenal, Man City, Man United, Chelsea. That constitutes a block of six votes, and you only need one more to stop the Premier League passing any rule – and I actually think that the owners were told by the others at the meeting ‘don’t do that (on categorisation) because we’ll all have to follow. If you can hold out, it’ll make it easier for us (to resist).’ And the club came back to us, and all the new plans had categorisation on them, and they wouldn’t explain why to us. Until #walkouton77 and then they removed it again.’.

So is there one thing that would improve fan engagement and communication between the club and supporters at Liverpool? ‘Yes. Put a supporter on the board of the football club. I don’t think there aren’t any problems that couldn’t be dealt with by doing this. Ticket pricing, governance, stewarding, policing. All of it would be improved by having supporters involved in the decision making. The real practical first step though is that the SLO should be a supporter of the club (as the original, German model was intended to be) and my idea is that Liverpool should actually elect a supporter, from its supporter base, supported, staffed, assisted by the club, but elected by supporters, and holding regular surgeries, public meetings. I think that would show that the club actually take fan engagement seriously. Imagine Liverpool being able to go to that person and say ‘what do you think the supporters think of this?’ Actually asking supporters important things, instead of getting surveys asking if we would pay more to travel on the team bus, or fly with the players. Let’s ask them about things that actually matter.’

‘Fans want to be seen as fans, and not as customers, even if there is a customer service element to it. I just don’t think they (owners and directors) understand supporters sometimes, and I don’t think they’re willing to learn, to the extent that they don’t even think they have to tell you why, even when they think you’re wrong. They just think you should accept it.’

The language of Fan Engagement: ‘The critical friend’

One of the most important phrases in fan engagement or fan relations is the term the ‘critical friend’.

It is a phrase that many supporters’ organisations these days use, supporters’ trusts in particular. Indeed, part of the whole emergence of this type of fan organisation came from the establishment of the first supporters’ trusts at Northampton Town FC. Most specifically, the NTFC  Trust came about precisely because the club was not receiving proper scrutiny in the darker days of the 1990s, and faced ruin.

The phrase is meant to mean, like you might do with a friend, speaking honestly about problems that you have with what they’re doing, why, and what might be done to help do it differently – or not at all. It’s not about the right to be rude or offensive – and criticising the Chairman’s choice of attire is certainly not what it’s about, clearly! To understand it best, you should think about it alongside that other phrase: the idea that you both share similar aims – often referred to as ‘we all want what’s best for the club’.

Of course, such a broad term as ‘we all want the best for the club’ isn’t the most self-explanatory of phrases, and it can cause confusion in itself. Either way, the notion of the ‘critical friend’ takes a lot of getting used to for football clubs in general (and I’ve seen it in happen many other countries as well), but especially in the UK where there’s a tradition of an owner being in charge, and having the right to do what they want, in broad terms. Football clubs haven’t been used to having to justify themselves to ‘outsiders’ – which is often how fans can be seen in this context, especially over difficult issues.

It’s difficult because owners, directors, and officials often use the language of ‘us’, ‘we’, outwardly meaning that ‘we’re all in it together’, but the truth is, a lot of them still struggle to understand what ‘us’ actually means to fans. I also think that fans don’t always understand exactly what the pressures are for a football club – financially, organisationally. The fact that ‘fan engagement’ is still entrenched in the language of ‘customer service’, marketing and sales makes things even particularly difficult. 

In the world of fandom – particularly organised groups – ‘critical friend’ means ‘we’re not afraid to tell you what we think’, and sometimes, because of how they’re set up and structured (a supporters’ trust particularly is required by its rules them to operate as an independent-minded body focused on the long-term position of the club in its community), they might decide to do something that is perceived to be against the interests more specifically of senior officials, shareholders, directors etc. On the other side ‘we’re not afraid to tell you what we think’ can often sound more like ‘you’re no good at this’, or worse still, as some kind of disloyalty to the club. It can feel like you’re being attacked.

At Plymouth Argyle, the Argyle Fans Trust (AFT) has just ceased regular meetings with the club, and there seems to be disagreement as to how this has come about, but it has. The club claims amongst other things that it reduced the frequency of meetings between CEO Martyn Starnes and the AFT for practical reasons (the club say they simply didn’t need as many), but the AFT say they’ve pulled out of the meetings because the organisation has been subject to a ‘series of punitive measures’ as a result of their lodging a successful ACV (Asset of Community Value) application on Home Park, and subsequently receiving the support of the council.

So what do clubs need to do in these circumstances, and what should supporters’ organisations do? A lot of the advice I would give to either party is to always, unless it’s clearly impossible, retain contact. There are of course moments where that’s very difficult – even impossible, and currently the likes of Hull, Blackpool and Blackburn are examples of where it seems trust has broken down permanently, though the judgement can be quite fine at times. But my advice in all but the most extreme cases, even if you need a third party to broker it, try not to pull down the shutters. And even in the worst cases, it’s always worth keeping the channels open just in case minds change.

Secondly, I’ve found that the instinct of a lot of people on both sides is to reach for the number of the local journalist, rather than the club. But ‘Club slams trust/trust slams club over xxxxxxx’, might make a decent headline, but it’s the template for more friction. Both sides have to be mature enough to understand each other’s’ position, both need to avoid becoming entrenched.

I think we all forget in football, whether you’re coming at it as a fan, official, director or governing body, that we all speak at best different dialects, and even sometimes completely different languages, even if the language of football is common. And when it’s related to finances, or the stadium, what you do as a club in these areas can if handled badly, often lead to suspicion, then exasperation on the other side, and sadly, further mudslinging.

If clubs want to ensure less rocky moments, and supporters’ organisations, better respect and recognition of their role as that ‘critical friend’, it’s important to approach difficult issues with the attitude that disagreements are often short-term, and can be resolved by communicating and working through them. So arrange a meeting with the relevant person and leave that door open. Whether you’re a supporters’ group or a club official, don’t be afraid to pick up the phone, have a chat at the ground.

And whatever you do, don’t just talk, try listening as well.

Fan Engagement: They can hear you, but are they actually listening? 

I’m not the biggest fan of the term ‘fan engagement’. Of course in general it’s a laudable aim – welcome in fact – that one of the major stakeholders of football should be regarded as more than simply the attendee of a sporting event, or worse still, an inconvenience. However, what does concern me is the way it’s used as a term spanning mobile data mining, all the way up to engaging the fan as part of the governance structure of a club. It’s a bit like suggesting that coaching my son’s under five Saturday morning kickabout is the same as coaching Real Madrid. They are the intrinsically the same because they involve balls, bibs and occasional strops, but they are, clearly, very different, require different skills. Yet the term – which admittedly even I use effectively as a flag of convenience precisely because of those problems I’ve identified – is bandied about as a way of covering every base, whilst meaning very different things in different circumstances, and at different clubs. 

Take Blackburn Rovers as a current example. The supporters’ trust there has been in existence for some five years, and yet in that time, despite requesting it regularly, has never managed to have a meeting with the reclusive owners, Venky’s. Now in the position where the absence of leadership of the club is showing in attendances, its performance on the pitch and concerns about transfer activity, the Trust feels it has no choice but to call for the owners to sell up. Of course it’s the right of Venky’s to do what it wants with the company it owns, but given it owns a football club, they need to be a little more sensitive to the cultural mores. This applies to many other clubs, owners foreign & domestic, absent and present. And they won’t be able to do that by creating a ‘family friendly’ Ewood Park. They’ll do it because they engage in conversations about issues that matter. I know a bit about the situation at Blackburn from my time at Supporters Direct, and it does seem to be one that is exacerbated by the distance of ownership in this case. But it could I’m pretty certain be far better managed by the owners being prepared to explain what’s going on and why to a group of people, as is clear from the fact it’s taken five years to ask for a change of ownership, who are very, very patient. And there’s your difference: that isn’t the same as the EFL’s ‘Enjoy the Match‘ initiative, is it? 

Don’t get me wrong. Football has progressed from an incredibly low point. Even up to a few years ago the idea that most clubs and leagues would consider ‘engagement with fans’ a thing worth considering much beyond a ‘thanks for your support’ in the programme notes, was pretty laughable. And it has to be acknowledged that we have the likes of ex-League Chair Lord Mawhinney to thank for even making the idea seem important to clubs. 

That clubs and leagues now have supporter liaison officers, alongside the plethora of fan-friendly policies and various schemes, is great. But we’re not there yet. Not even close. Because it’s about knowing what ‘engagement’ means in each case, and very often it’s about ‘listening’, ‘understanding’ and, sometimes, admitting you’re wrong, and fixing the problem (witness Liverpool’s change of heart last season.) Maybe it needs a new term, though that’s not what I’m necessarily seeking here. 

Until we’ve properly separated out the elements that make up ‘fan engagement’, whilst appreciating that there can be overlap between them, we won’t be doing it properly. Today’s ‘Checkatrade Trophy’ tweet of the day is testament to that. 

Fan Engagement & why the National League’s future depends on it

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It’s been a a particularly intriguing time over recent months, and particularly so for Football League (EFL) clubs and, most concerning of all, the National League (NL). This is particularly true following EFL Chief Executive Shaun Harvey proposing the biggest change to football since the early 1990s, and mid-2000s, with his 100 club ‘professional’ structure, which would basically render the NL memberless.

Here’s my take on what might be happening across the board, and particularly what the impact on the NL might be, and how it should respond as part of its Grow the Game strategy.

The EFL – how to win friends (and influence people)
Since Shaun Harvey effectively took control of the reins this summer, finalised with the departure of Greg Clarke (now the incoming Chairman of The Football Association – worthy of a post in itself), he’s been very busy. One of his major moves has seen the EFL become a far more ‘constructive partner’ of The Premier League. He’s talked a lot about ‘whole game solutions’, working closely with Martin Glenn at The FA, and Richard Scudamore at The Premier League (PL). We’ve already the results in reducing FA Cup replays and other potential changes to the competition, what are little different to B-Teams in the revamped EFL Trophy (receiving a million pounds from the PL to accompany it and compensate for the loss of principal sponsor, JPT). Most important of all, the restructuring of the ‘professional game’ to being a five-division, 100 team pyramid, taking in a whole chunk of the NL’s member clubs by invitation. He’s given himself until next year’s AGM to get the 90% of clubs to agree. Given it means a loss of income to clubs to be replaced by the PL’s largesse, it might be one step too far even for clubs traditionally less concerned with the bigger picture – especially as it ties in the League even more to the PL’s three-yearly broadcasting contract rounds.

Setting aside how unpopular the new format for the EFL Trophy (formerly JPT) is, Harvey’s overall strategy makes a lot of sense as it finally acknowledges the reality that are the PL preeminent competition in the game. It puts to bed former Chairman Lord Mawhinney’s very obvious strategy of being bold and, at times, quite strident – much like Mawhinney himself, but certainly confident and more self-reliant. There is also further space for The EFL, given that The FA has withdrawn from much of their day-to-day interest in the professional game and its regulation. The Premier League and their EFL cousins can now focus on running their competitions, unhindered, and sculpt them fairly well as they wish. The approach Harvey’s pursuing shows he’s collegiate, whilst demonstrating leadership, and a willingness to do the difficult thinking (this interview with Chairman Ian Lenegan positions he and The EFL in exactly that way). It’s canny, particularly when you think about the fractured, partisan nature of football politics. But it has some risks attached to it, largely connected with giving up too much to a Premier League that will always be happy to take control of anything that suits its interests and is quite simply, very, very powerful.

The Premier League – sitting pretty
The Premier League has never looked more unassailable. It’s managed to box off and manage the issues of reform, financing, player development, supporter relations, and most of the problems that faced it when the it was taken to task for the second time in two years in the 2013 Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee report on football governance. The man in charge of politics for Scudamore, the PL’s Bill Bush, has run an efficient, very clever, and at times ruthless long-term strategy that has ensured almost total control in funding and political terms over all the areas of football it needs control of.

This has been done by ensuring that all the important areas of funding in effect report to it: follow the money, as they say. This also includes those such as fan ownership and fan engagement experts, Supporters Direct, the Football Supporters Federation, and Kick it Out, whose funding sits with the ‘Fans Fund’ (referred to in some circles as the ‘orphaned causes fund’). It also shows how much territory The FA has conceded. It should be of particular interest to supporters’ trusts and their advocates, given that there is still the small question of an unfulfilled recommendation from the Culture, Media and Sport Select (CMS) Committee on Supporters Direct’s long-term funding being put on surer footing via The FA itself, rather than the obviously conflicted PL (read the report from 2013 and the recommendation on page 36)

The FA – the long road back
In terms of what The FA are actually doing these days, their approach is dictated partly by financial necessity. In getting The FA ‘fit for purpose’ as an organisation, doing one thing well – the playing side – makes perfect sense. That it leaves a vacuum is not desirable for reasons I’ve hinted at already, but if The FA is ever to be much more than just a lurking presence, rebuilding its dilapidated reputation piece-by-piece has got to be a necessity. The fact that this means it’s leaving a great deal to the PL and others is a big downside, but like the EFL, it’s really just accepting things as they are, rather than pretending they can change much at this point. Governance of course is still a big issue, and means that the big ticket item of the CMS review still hasn’t been addressed (though government is threatening withdrawal of £30m of Sport England funding if it doesn’t get this sorted: watch this space), however the fact that Glenn is allowing the PL and EFL space to operate must, one supposes, reduce the pressure somewhat and allow him to do what’s necessary.

The National League – making ‘Fan Engagement’ more than a strapline
Where does this leave the National League then? It’s a good question. In terms of its importance as a competition, it doesn’t need a huge amount of actual fixing as such – aside from the obvious and very, very long-term issue of the third promotion place (part of the their response to the EFL proposals published in late June). This long desired – and utterly necessary change – would almost certainly improve competition further, and probably have a knock-on effect of relieving some of the financial pressure on relegated EFL clubs, and those further down the pyramid being funded with external money.

In terms of how they pursue their response to the EFL’s gauntlet, their ‘Growing our Game’ strategy, the most promising potential has to lie in the ‘For the Fans’ territory that the EFL has basically exited, one established by former Chair Lord Mawhinney. The EFL having opted instead for a sort of ‘Premier League Lite’ ‘brand first’ approach, leaves space for a high-profile, community rooted, genuinely fan-friendly league that sees itself as being ‘authentic’, and tries to act at all times as such. It has one problem: money. Clubs want money for their playing budgets to compete in a division with four relegation spots, and only two going up. That’s a tough proposition when you’re seeking to grow your income through limited sources, and need money to market yourself (the League doesn’t run itself on a huge budget).

Having to operate outside the main group of three, PL, EFL, FA, is very difficult. Although in discussions on the pyramid one presumes their interests are covered by the presence of The FA – who continue to take a substantial interest in the game outside of the PL and EFL – their importance to the game, never really properly appreciated in The FA’s politics, needs to be felt more keenly. Being treated as an outsider when you are and should be treated as an insider makes it even tougher. But the NL could play this to their advantage.

In the non-league game as a whole I’d say there tends to be something of a unique passion and high-regard from fans for their clubs and competitions. Non-league football, and by extension the NL, may have a smaller number of supporters, but they are nonetheless a very enthusiastic base, which sustains its own radio show, newspaper and even a dedicated Non League Day. It commands interest that is arguably disproportionate to its size, and could utilise and harness this to show the rest of the football world that it’s an important and popular competition. The NL has a good name and profile, and should try to utilise what it’s got that neither the EFL nor the PL have: a genuine passion, belonging, togetherness. Authenticity in an age where to be authentic is to have a retro shirt on sale in the club shop. It certainly doesn’t need rebranding as ‘fan friendly’and becoming a bit more ‘customer focused’. Make phrases like ‘fan involvement’, ‘fan engagement’ and ‘supporter liaison’ can – and should be – more than just a tick-box exercise: place supporters as integral to a campaign that celebrates the competition and looks to its strengths.

The current state of play is setting out the way that the game will be essentially run for the next ten-to-fifteen years or more. The NL itself is clearly under some existential threat, but the future is up for grabs…

Walking the tightrope the Swansea City way

Swansea City Supporters Trust is often held up as an example of a supporters’ trust actively and beneficially influencing the direction of a club. They’re obviously blessed with the status of being in the Premier League, but I’m not always sure that’s such a great blessing: whilst that’s obviously of great benefit financially we should also remember that if you want to remain competitive without someone guaranteeing large sums of money, it’s tough. Really tough. Moreover, there’s a big issue when it comes to issues like continuity in the boardroom (given that there are a clutch of private fan-shareholders who will one day have to part with the shares even if it’s just by dying off), or for example, infrastructure development, which is the subject of a recent post by the Swansea City Supporters Trust on their website.

Setting aside these issues, people who might not always understand the less tangible affects of democratic fan involvement in a club should read the aforementioned post on their website (scroll down to the bottom of this post for the link).

The post is all about trying to steer a difficult discussion about the future, sketch out something of a vision, without being unnecessarily critical of any party, and ensuring that their role is seen as being as vital in the future as it has been up to now. It manages all of that in a measured and thoughtful way.

I don’t know whether it’s part of a long-term PR plan, or whether they’ve just decided that the issue needs broaching now, and they’ll develop their thinking in response. However as an opening gambit, I’d say it’s as good as any example I’ve seen of a supporters’ trust or any fan organisation handling a difficult issue. I know a few organisations who could do far worse than follow their example.

You can read it here: http://www.swanstrust.co.uk/2015/11/17/where-do-we-go-from-here/

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