Why non-league fans need to know

MODERN football, at its highest level, has become a commodity. Investment in football clubs has become an asset class to be placed alongside bonds, equities, real estate and gold. At the top, fans have little or no intimacy with their club, they are paying customers that buy into the brand like technology geeks become disciples of the latest iPhone. They keep feeding the machine and the clubs have an audience that queues for the right to queue online in pursuit of tickets and favours. The demand outstrips the supply in multiples.

At the game’s pinnacle, football clubs are no different from large corporates, but in the non-league game it is different, the audience is smaller, the financial stakes relatively minute and the relationship between fan and club is supposedly more personal.

The investment made by non-league fans comes in the form of attachment and loyalty, unless of course there is a fund that supporters contribute to bolster finances and help the club compete at the highest possible level.

Regardless of the ownership structure, a club can quickly develop tumbleweed without its supporters. The club needs it fans as much as the loyal, die-hard needs his or her football fix. This is so very relevant at non-league level because a club, in order to be relevant to the community, must have critical mass in terms of people that “care” whether it exists or not. For a club’s administration to take that for granted is very dangerous and can, ultimately, lead to extinction.

The only way a club can thrive is for all stakeholders to be connected and to be full-square behind the mission. It may be appear to be something of a contemporary cliché, but it is no more a catchphrase than other important elements of modern sporting entities, such as diversity and community.

Without people, everything that involves the day-to-day running of the club, its community position and its fund-raising activities becomes null and void. If a club has 500 fans, it is obviously more relevant to the neighbourhood than a club with a couple of dozen followers. And if you don’t have fans, you can soon get to the point where you ask, “what is the club really for?”.

That’s why financial transparency is an important factor. Owners may, with some justification, consider the financial state of “their” club is not the concern of the people on the terraces, and if it was a conventional business with the pursuit of profit at the heart of its business model and shareholders receiving dividends, then you could buy into that idea. But supporters, in effect are “emotional shareholders” if nothing else. Their allegiance is an asset, one that should be valued, but it can so easily be lost if it appears to be a one-way commitment.

Around 30 years ago, I shared a driveway at my home and my neighbours said the drive was 75% theirs (this was not true, a shared drive is a shared drive and plans can be misleading) and that they were being extremely generous to allow me to use the drive. I added that, “without my supposed 25%, your 75% is worthless, you wouldn’t have enough room to take your car up the ramp.” Heads were scratched and the conclusion was, “how true”. You can compare this to the dynamic between owners and supporters. The owner may have most of the cards, but if there is no audience, there is nothing but an empty ground and a dying club.

Owners should see their support base as an asset, almost as much a part of the family silver as that £200 per week centre forward. This asset can be harnessed to become a force for good, be it community activities or as a positive body that helps the club achieve its goals. For example, if the club has problems over its stadium, like the Dulwich affair, the sheer numbers involved in protesting can add leverage to the argument. Likewise, any club owner that proclaims, “we are all in this together” has to mean it and develop trust and two-way dialogue that really does make the fans feel as though they have a voice.

Most non-league fans would actually relish the chance to own a stake in their club. A survey by Game of the People revealed that 79% of respondents would welcome a share issue, although 10% wouldn’t consider it under the current regime.

Too often fans are not allowed to know about the finances of their club. While certain sensitivities will exist, and do a club no good to become public domain, basic financial details would let the supporters know that their emotional “investment” is in good hands. Some clubs, those with full or partial supporter-ownership models, do publicise their figures, but there are still some that operate under a “smoke and mirrors” model.

Openness and greater transparency can only be a plus. Non-league clubs are small communities where gossip is commonplace and people come to their own conclusions if the environment is opaque and complex. Some clubs do it well, others need to follow, for the future of non-league football should be about community, realism and inclusion, from top to bottom. A new generation of fans is needed to ensure the demographic remains healthy, and it is worth noting that this group of people will have a very different outlook than the ageing supporter bases prevalent at many clubs. They will, undoubtedly, ask more questions and challenge the status quo.