The meaning of fan engagement

CAPITALISM demands that when you’ve made money, you have to generate more to keep the spiral going in the right direction. That’s what it is all about, continual growth and accumulation of wealth. Some aspects of capitalism are clearly unsavoury, heartless and inhumane, others try to combine the pursuit of money with some philanthropic good.

Rarely, in today’s world, do we say what we mean when it comes to the creation of money. We coat it with layers of deliberate vagueness, imply the reason we work is to fulfil a personal challenge or the desire to “make a difference”. There was a time when blatant capitalists, when making a list of ambitions, would simply say, “to become very rich, very quickly”. In the 21st century, they still want to be rich, but they won’t tell you that. 

In the football industry, marketing departments talk of “increasing fan engagement”, “making stakeholders out of fans” and “embracing the community”. In many cases, this fan engagement can be roughly translated into “developing products and selling them to the fans”.

In some ways, football clubs have the most gullible of all client bases for even though the fans know their clubs pay ridiculously huge wages to players, ticket prices continue to be high and merchandise such as replica shirts is churned out on a conveyor belt (often made by exploited workers), they still climb over each other to buy season tickets. While some complain about modern football, the majority still buy into the business model, week-in, week-out.

Even though some clubs follow worthy causes and get their fans to be involved in community projects, the real essence of fan engagement should not be determined by how many charities or social projects they are involved in. True fan engagement needs to allow them to be instrumental in the running of the club – and not just in many operating tea bars, cleaning the stadium or donning a high-vis jacket and guiding traffic. 

Without fans, lower level football simply would not exist and by that we don’t just mean League One and Two in the UK, but the entire non-league structure.

At the highest levels, fan engagement can be achieved by allowing supporters to be consulted on corporate level decisions that affect them – stadium development, club identity and culture, catering, ownership issues, club image and sustainability.

You sense that some clubs are actually terrified of letting fans near the boardroom for fear of losing control. Making clubs more transparent could unearth some problems with governance and financial integrity. Yet the fans deserve to know what goes on and how money is spent, especially at clubs claiming to represent the community.

The covid-19 pandemic has seen some smaller clubs appeal to their fan bases for financial support. Fans will, when the chips are down, invariably come to the rescue of their club, but rarely are they rewarded with a genuine stake in the organisation. Now is the time if there is a will to save the collapse of England’s football eco-system, surely?

Engagement should not merely be a commercial “in” with a vast body of fans, it should be about cementing and leveraging relationships and fostering a collective mission to drive a club forward, whether it is Sunderland or Sutton United or clubs even further down the pyramid.

Some clubs have succeeded in building such an environment, but until the bubble truly bursts, football’s traditional hierarchy will prevail. We may not have to wait too long.


Photo: PA

The Grey Neutral: Viral symptoms

FOOTBALL is still living in a surreal world, desperately trying to restart, if only to appease sponsors and backers, but knowing all too well that one setback could derail all plans. While the top clubs will be able to navigate the uncertainty, the situation is very precarious for small Football League members and also the little clubs at the heart of the game.

Non-league’s broken model

We should all fear for non-league football. Unlike big-time clubs that have diverse revenue streams, gate money is a huge chunk of their income – and it has dried up completely. There’s no point whatsoever in playing non-league games behind closed doors, so it would seem likely that it will be a long time before we see a return to action.

Safe distancing should not be a problem for most non-league clubs, but how will anyone justify allowing local football to proceed when most other activities have been curtailed in towns around the country? The reason top flight football has been given the go ahead is an economic decision – broadcasters have paid their fee, they want something back in return. If TV revenues were not at stake, it is doubtful the game would be resuming.

What is non-league to do? It is possible that we have seen the end of non-league as it was – in other words, paying players at certain levels must surely come to an end. Travel expenses are also something that has to be looked at. Greater regionalisation/localisation would surely cut back some of the costs clubs have to contend with. Of course, they can plead poverty and ask for help, but the easiest way to slash outgoings – in future – is to dispense with wages and minimise travel. In the meantime, the damage to non-league football could be vast, with a lot of clubs having to fold.

The return to “amateur” status is something a lot of clubs will fight against, but a lot of detached folk still believe non-league is indeed run on Corinthian ideals. How many times have you heard TV presenters refer to non-league clubs as “amateur”. They look at a club with 350 spectators and find it hard to believe that players are actually getting paid. For too long, too many clubs have lived beyond their means.

Game of the People has long advocated a shift to spectator-owned or genuine community clubs, and by that we mean clubs where the community has a stake and a voice. “Community” should not merely be a way to grab grants or gain easy PR. The coronavirus crisis should be an opportunity to change what is now in danger of being a broken model.

Season tickets – for what?

Clubs selling season tickets may be a little hasty in their bid to raise money. How can a club seriously sell tickets for 2020-21 when we really do not know when the game, as a spectator sport, will return? We are all expecting a second wave of the coronavirus, which will probably mean another lockdown and the suspension of football – if indeed it ever gets underway again in 2020. Understandably, clubs are eager to replenish lost income, but let’s not forget there are thousands of people who have unfinished seasons and are, in theory, owed money for the 2019-20 campaign.

Liverpool and Manchester

According to YouGov, Liverpool are the most popular club in the United Kingdom, followed by Barcelona, Real Madrid and Manchester United. This sounds quite hard to believe, although globalisation and the cosmopolitan nature of Britain have both contributed to two non-UK teams finishing above everyone bar the Premier champions-elect.

Liverpool’s rise to the top of the YouGov table is down to a number of key factors – their exciting team, their popular manager and the decline of Manchester United in recent years. The fan mood around United is quite negative (a rating of 31%). Only one club, Chelsea, has a higher negative rating (33%). Other clubs who have fallen away and therefore have relatively high levels of negative sentiment are Arsenal (30%), Manchester City (30%) and Tottenham (24%). Liverpool’s negativity runs to 22%. In general, the bigger clubs have more gloom and doom merchants and that’s because of high levels of expectation.

Liverpool may be on the brink of winning the Premier League, which will be something of a hollow triumph without the fans and may yet be a title with an asterisk. The latest news is not good about Liverpool and Manchester. The so-called “R rate”, in other words, the rate of infection, is rising in both cities and there’s talk of a renewed lockdown. If that were the case, will Liverpool be able to play their remaining Premier games? Somebody may be wishing now that they’d called it a day and decided the season on points-per-game.




Photo: PA



Non-League should use coronavirus as a time for reinvention

FOOTBALL clubs at all levels are feeling the squeeze at the moment. When you hear that a huge organisation like Barcelona is having financial pressure and their players have taken a pay cut, then you know the game is in a precarious state. Just six weeks without football and some clubs are already staring into the abyss.

If the likes of Barcelona are in a mess, then it is no surprise that non-league clubs are facing existential threats at the moment. The concept of provisioning for a rainy day has never been one of football’s priorities and many non-league clubs live day-to-day and basically use up all their spare cash on wages. The wage-to-income ratio of non-league is probably quite frightening. Most people don’t realise it, for many club accounts are, at best, pretty opaque, and the subject of player wages is a topic that is rarely accurate.

When the dust finally settles, non-league football could be decimated, unless the game takes a good look at itself and comes to the conclusion that living beyond one’s means should be consigned to the past.

Fans should challenge clubs about their financial affairs

It is all very well clubs seeking supporter donations, but the lack of clarity around finances should prompt supporters to ask some challenging questions of club officials before they part with their cash. Expecting fans to do so without more openness over how the money is managed lacks integrity and trust, the very thing some clubs are asking their fans to exercise. All too often, pouring money into a football club is merely throwing it down a bottomless pit.

But solutions should be sought not on a club-by-club basis, but across non-league football, even if they have to determined step-by-step. The root to many clubs’ problems is the wage structure (if indeed there is a structure). It is surely appropriate to introduce a wage cap along the lines of maintaining a sensible and pragmatic wage-to-income ratio. Of course, some people will abuse the system but it may also deliver other benefits such as greater levels of competitiveness. Non-league football could, dare we say, become more democratic.

It may also be time to eradicate full-time clubs at non-league level. Non-league wasn’t meant to be a full-time professional body of clubs. Obviously, the creation of National Leagues has, to a certain degree, necessitated the shift for many clubs, but it is a fairly ridiculous scenario in some cases. Is it really progress?

Some could argue the move back to part-time would be a retrograde step, but the Coronavirus has shown us that in some respects, everyone is dancing on a volcano. Let’s be clear, non-league football clubs should not be bailed out, no matter how much we love our own. More than ever, clubs have to be able to pay their way and live within their means. If that translates into taking a step back, then so be it. Better to be a well-run and realistic club than one that flies too high with wings made of tallow.

And now, surely it is not a bad idea to mobilise the fans and those that care about the local club, to really become stakeholders? Clubs claim to be “community”, but the fans, the number one stakeholders, rarely have a tangible stake – it is purely emotional. The time is right to create more fully or partially supporter-owned clubs. If the result of that is a structure based on lower cash income levels and allows clubs to remove the need for autocratic owners, then non-league football should tell itself it is in it for the long-haul. The good of the game.

“Community” should mean just that – not a tag of convenience

Basically, clubs can deal with short-term pain through asking for donations from fans and the public, but the real issue is how they should manage their affairs going forward. This latest crisis has shown us that football, indeed most people, have little protection when the unexpected happens. Worryingly, we live in a world where the “unexpected” seems to be happening all too frequently. The economic fall-out of stopping the world in its tracks will be far worse than anyone can imagine, although it may be a short-term slump with a sharp rebound. Nobody really knows.

The lockdown has taught us that we can do without many of the things we took for granted and that includes expenditure, instant gratification and the superficial. As for football, it has reminded us that the term “hand to mouth” can describe all sections of the game. It is time to initiate change by making the community truly part of the club as well as a club claiming to be part of the community. It has to be a two-way street. Some clubs know how to do it very well, but it should be a model that defines non-league football going forward and the fans should know exactly how their club is governed and financed.




Photo: PA