Blind fan devotion does nobody any good

FOOTBALL loyalists often boast of their undying love for their club and sneer at those you don’t share the same obsessional view. “Where were you when we were shit?,” is a much-asked question of the new fan by balding, cynical long-standing fans. 

There are 92 bodies of fans in the Premier and Football League, each with their own identity. Fans within the core follow their club, come what may, the difference between the core and expanded supporter base is determined by team performance. Do well, and the crowds rise, do poorly and the support dwindles down to the core.

Supporters don’t always stick with it, hence the myth that “managers, players and chairmen come and go, supporters are a constant” isn’t necessarily true. The body support remains, but the size of that support changes. How could it be anything other than an organic being that expands and shrinks? Just consider that in 1983, Chelsea’s average gate was around 12,700 and some attendances were less than 7,000. Regulars at Stamford Bridge today, many of whom were not around in those desperate days, would find it hard to believe just how low Chelsea’s support fell and how disillusioned so many were.

Similarly, in 1991-92, the last pre-Premier season, Tottenham averaged 28,000, Manchester city 27,000, West Ham 21,300, Chelsea 19,000 and Arsenal 32,000. Yes, fans have always been there, but the numbers have changed. So who are the loyal fans?

You hear criticisms of fans who are not “loyal Blues, loyal Gooners or loyal Spurs”, but the the word loyal needs examining. What does “loyal” mean? Loyal is returning to the stadium even though the team might be rubbish, urging the players on even though they are of limited ability. 

But is loyal a healthy condition? In the modern world, we have choice, we do not have to go to the game, we do not have to tolerate inadequacy, we certainly do not need to silently put up with poor facilities or poor communication by clubs. We have choice, we have alternatives. In the distant past, if your home town had a football team, you went along, squeezed onto the terraces and watched honest toilers kick the ball around for 90 minutes. It was cheap, the spectator accommodation was often appalling, the catering primitive, but it was the best the establishment offered.

As we moved from being hordes of working class, obedient proles to a crude form of middle class theatre-goers, we became more discerning. Amazingly, with the arrival of the Premier League, we still allowed admission prices to be raised astronomically and players wages climb to multiples of the ordinary man or woman’s income. But still, the fans continue to feed the beast, buying merchandise as if it were rare baubles from a tomb raid and filling stadiums to record highs. They complain about how they are frequently taken for granted, but still they pour their hard-earned into the coffers of the big clubs. Somebody forgot to tell many fans that football is a discretionary spend and not an essential item. Football fans are often classic examples of FOMO (fear of missing out).

Football clubs are prone to making mistakes, but they do not see the inevitable outcome of so many of their decisions.

The loyalty of the fan rarely seems to be questioned, as if it is a prerequisite for being perm itted to attend, but so many people do themselves a disservice by bolting themselves to a football club, which in reality, comprises a troop of young men with all the hormones and temperament of street-corner youths. That grown men and women with education and sophisticated lifestyles align themselves, with no questions asked, to such an entity is a mystery and underlines the curious role football plays in society.

But such allegiance should not be a case of blindly following a team and not questioning the status quo. Football fans are customers, products of capitalism and the relationship is simple – pay your admission, watch the game. By all means, shout your encouragement, but being a loyal fan is doing just that. Or is it?

We are no longer passive spectators who accept what’s dished up like extra from Oliver Twist. If the fans are supposed to be stakeholders, then the act of tenuous ownership, either actual or emotional, demands the club and its management is accountable to the fans. If you want spectators, do not treat them with disdain or try to cheat them. Likewise, listen to them and keep lines of communication open.

So does being loyal mean you don’t have license to criticise, ask questions and blindly support the club even if you know things are not right? Are the only people who can say their team whether a team is poor are the managers themselves? 

And does the act of being critical mean you are disloyal or a turncoat? Take for example, the manager whose time is running out. His best pals will, invariably, tell him he’s great, insist that he’s been unlucky and given he’s a top fellow, things will work out. It’s like the loyal wife who tells her husband he’s wonderful all the time. Delusion sets in. The real best pal will tell his manager friend it’s time to go. It’s a tough task, and won’t be well received in most cases, but prolonging pain does nobody a service.

The contract between a fan and the club is personal, but it is a commercial transaction as much as an emotional agreement. It is a peculiar situation, one that is almost out of sync with contemporary life. You will still hear comments like, “you change your wife, but not your football club”, but why not change your club? Most clubs do not really represent their towns anymore, most players are not shining stars of the neighbourhood. Almost every team is multi-national, owned by foreign investors and representative of a global brand. The old days of clubs being symbols of their city or town have long gone. Not even non-league clubs are always local clubs for local players. Therefore, the idea you support your local team through good and bad, is an old-fashioned and dare we say, outdated, concept. Want further proof? – in most towns around Britain, you will find as many Liverpool and Manchester United fans as staunch followers of the local side. So much for backing “local”.

Clubs and their management make mistakes all the time. Sometimes, they cannot see the inevitable outcome of their bad decisions. The fans are there to hold them to task and nobody should be called “disloyal” for voicing that opinion. It is the 21st century, even in these worrying pandemic days, we have more alternatives than ever before. Loyalty has to be earned, a club has no given right to expect it when the wheels come off the wagon.

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.

@GameofthePeople

Photo: PA

Covid-19: It’s a political football

FOOTBALL continues to be divided over the timing of fans’ return to the stadiums. From a business perspective, no paying spectators is a disaster for most clubs, but the game still suffers from the ingrained perception that it is not a very important segment of society. Equally, there is a lack of widespread acknowledgement that culturally, football has a key role to play in maintaining public morale. 

There is a growing belief that suspending football and its resumption behind closed doors, was a decision based purely around politics rather than necessity. Although the game is the biggest crowd attraction among virtually all major sporting events, the historic sentiment suggested it was frivolous, inessential and, after all, merely a game. That may have been true in 1914 and perhaps 1939, although the mood around football was very different in the second world war, but in 2020, football is an industry enjoyed by millions, bringing meaning and enhancement to the lives of many and also generating huge sums of money. It is certainly no longer frivolous.

Icons

A group of academics[1] recently produced a paper on the subject of Covid-19 and the return of the fans, calling for the UK government to reverse the decision to prohibit spectators from attending football matches. Covid-19: The return of fans is published by the journal, Managing Sport & Leisure.

The report underlines that since the financial crisis of 2007-2012, a chasm has developed between supporters and the football elite. Fans have been taken for granted yet the game has become a socially constructed product. “A football club provides an identity, a cultural icon, escapism and a focus for social interaction,” says the paper.

Yet there are still examples of politicians failing to understand football’s true position in society. Conservative MP Jake Berry, speaking in the House of Commons[2], said the game was at the heart of the community in the north of England while in the south, opera, ballet and the theatre fill that role. He added that clubs like Accrington Stanley, Barrow and Carlisle United are the northern equivalent of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Such a comical view is very worrying for an industry that contributes so much to the whole nation.

It is clubs from League One and Two, not to mention the financially fragile Championship, that are most vulnerable to the impact of Covid-19. As the report reminds us, matchday income accounts for a high percentage of overall income, 30% for League One and 34% of League Two. The Premier League derives 13% of its revenues from matches and the Championship 20% but Scotland is even more vulnerable with 46%. 

Behind closed doors football has provided the public with its opium and although the Premier League can survive with this arrangement, thanks to the still sizeable broadcasting revenues, lower down, the clubs are in a precarious position. Gary Sweet, the CEO of Luton Town, told the BBC that football cannot survive a year without supporters and that if clubs tip into trouble, “there’s not really a queue of people willing to buy football clubs”.

The Chairman of the EFL, Rick Parry said the league’s members would lose £ 50 million in gate revenues and a further £ 250 million if no fans were admitted in 2020-21. “Such a hole in club finances will inevitably lead to insolvency for some…there is somewhat of a Darwinian feel around football if this impasse is not reversed, with the strongest clubs getting stronger and the weaker clubs perishing along the way,” said the academic paper.

Capitalism

We may have already witnessed the first attempt at exercising a power grab, something the paper suggests will happen if the current situation does not change. The “bail-out” of the EFL by the top Premier clubs, which would come at a cost, may have failed, but the problems may not have gone away. “This is how capitalism works,” said the research team. It is difficult, however, to see the modern game as anything other than a product of capitalism, which doesn’t bode well for those that want to see a more democratic football universe.

In a recent interview with POLITICO[3], the Premier League’s CEO, Richard Masters, hinted the Premier’s top clubs cannot afford to cut spending – the top six clubs spend more than £ 1.5 billion a season on wages – to support smaller rivals. “The Premier League is the most competitive in the world and you can’t stand still, you have to continue to compete and have to continue to invest,” he said. Meanwhile, some MPs have called for the Premier and the EFL to reach an agreement over any bail-out “for the good of the game”. There’s also pressure from the fans, some 200,000 of which have signed a petition for crowds to be permitted after the current lockdown. 

It is not just matchday revenues that have suffered from the pandemic, commercial revenues have also been compromised. The value of sponsorship is certainly diluted by a lack of supporters in a stadium. Broadcasting, too, may feel somewhat short-changed. PP Sports of China did not pay the Premier League its £ 160 million instalment for the 2019-20 season, resulting in the league terminating a lucrative £ 523 million deal two years ahead of schedule.[4]  The Premier League still manages to earn more than € 1.9 billion through the sale of TV rights.

The academic team cautions that “while we argue spectators need to be allowed back to games to ensure football survives, there are things clubs can do”. This includes more creative thinking around monetising of assets, perhaps suing technology to better effect. Clubs also need to make tougher financial decisions. The paper concludes: “Football is more than a business… if the UK government do not change their policy and allow spectators to return, they threaten the sustainability of our entire football infrastructure.”

@GameofthePeople
Photo: PA Images


[1] Alexander John Bond, David Cockayne, Jan Andre Lee Ludvigsen, Kieran Maguire, Daniel Parnell, Daniel Plumley, Paul Widdop, Rob Wilson. “Covid-19: the return of football fans”.

[2] The Independent, “Tory MP mocked after saying northerners like football but southerners prefer opera”, report by Colin Drury, November 12, 2020.

[3] POLITICO, November 9 2020: “Political Football: Premier League braces for scrutiny amid Covid deadlock.”

[4] Football Benchmark, “Season one after the Covid Outbreak” – September 15, 2020.