Fans: A neglected asset with the power to bite back

Fans: A neglected asset with the power to bite back

It is a fact that football, like any form of entertainment, requires viewers and fans in order to be truly successful. Without fans to pay and watch, the product dies. Or at least withers to little more than a niche interest. Yet, despite this fact, the role of fans in football remains a contentious subject.

Take this real world example of a chairman of a lower league club based in a small town in Scotland.

This story was relayed to me by a fan representative who once held a position on said club’s board. Whilst acknowledging the role of fans as a crucial, and indeed the most significant, source of revenue for his club, this chairman and his board despised the idea of the fans becoming more involved in how things were run.

In the opinion of this fan, the chairman’s level of antipathy was such that he was happily engaged in a secret plot, alongside other league chairmen, to have the SFA cease there funding of fans’ representative organisations. The idea of a supporters’ group having a voice on the board apparently sent shivers down the spine.

This is not an uncommon view among the ‘great and the good’ of football. And the idea seems to find a resistant reaction in the UK in particular. But why?

Unprepared for scrutiny

Football has traditionally been run by successful business people. That’s predominantly grey-haired men who’ve made their money away from the limelight. They are people used to calling the shots and not requiring to answer to scrutiny. In most cases they are unprepared with either contradiction or dissent.

Fans have always traditionally played the role of subordinates as supporters. Nowadays they are consumers of the entertainment product with little to no influence over the decisions taken by the club. But times have changed in a number of ways.

As the finances of football have evolved and new income streams have increased so to has the precariousness of being unsuccessful on the field. Whereas in the past the fans felt fortunate and “doffed their cap to the man with the big house” who sustained the club in lean times, now fans have a more powerful voice even when they don’t always express it effectively.

The increase of TV and sponsorship too, has simultaneously devalued and boosted fans contribution to the spectacle. The landscape has shifted.

Fans are disregarded by their clubs and broadcasters when scheduling games for the convenience of TV subscribers. However, as their visibility has never been higher both within the stadium and on social media, they enjoy increased influence when choosing to vote with their feet.

Especially so when applying pressure on chairmen to change managers. Once the stadium’s heat is felt in the boardroom a manager’s days are almost always numbered.

Knowing that they can exert real pressure on decision-makers at clubs has in some cases subconsciously galvanised supporters. Clubs like Liverpool, whose fans staged a 77th minute walkout in a home tie against Sunderland come to mind. Their fans coordinated action saw the club’s American owners issue an apology and backtrack on increasing season ticket pricing. And other fans groups around the globe have been notable for the role of their support in forging a renaissance at their clubs in the recent past.

But as frustrations about the way the game is run and who it is run for builds among fans so too does the readiness with which fans choose to ratchet up pressure on the powers that be.

Accountability in the boardroom

Protests become more about governance than football. Less “sack the manager” and more and more “sack the board”. Indeed, boards are now being held more responsible than ever before – just as they are in all stockmarket-listed companies. And the comparison is a good one. Even where football businesses are not investor-held.

In this enlightened football age, with its diverse media and supporters drawn from professional backgrounds, it is relatively straightforward to circulate and legitimise what might previously have been considered to be a heretical view – a view that calls the suits to account.

Fans themselves can see their club’s perceived lack of backing for a manager with cash or time. And with a flag to rally around, on forums, social and old media, they will now call out a lack of oversight on poor footballing decisions as the true root cause of on-field failure. And those responsible can no longer remain hidden and unaccountable in their marble halls or oak-lined boardrooms.

And you know what? These newly radicalised fans have a point.

In the UK, and in particular in Scotland, those inside the boardrooms have historically enjoyed an unquestioned sense of expertise in all matters football.

Perhaps the chairman built their wealth and influence as a lawyer, accountant or owner of a business entirely unrelated to sport in any way. But the transition to a football context seldom raises comment. It is as if an honorary degree in football is magically bestowed upon them, upon entering the boardroom. No wonder then that you should get examples of attitudes like that lower league chairman in Scotland mentioned earlier.

Yet how many board members actually possess any demonstrable footballing experience? A director of football? A club legend in an honorary position? Other than them, as a fan you’re likely as qualified for football life as the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker with the keys to club. Because football is simply a law unto itself.

Yet there is the common belief held in collective unity, that “the board knows best”. Its corollary is that the knuckle-dragging ordinary punter lacks understanding as to how football works.

It is this patronising position which invariably sets owners against their fans, teeing them up for an ‘unhappy ending’.

Once the floodlights fade and taken for granted success departs the seething enmity that is ever-present in modern football clubs gets focused on the director’s box. Gone are the days when managers naturally could expect five years or more. So too are the days of dynastic club ownership. On all sides, there is not long-term, no loyalty in football.

For fans this provides power in the form of pressure. The pressure to change managers and the pressure to hasten the exit of unpopular owners.

What next?

Modern football offers both pros and cons to all its stakeholders – fans included. As money flows and the further globalisation of the game continues apace how will the game overcome the challenges of shorter managerial spells, the churn of young managers and coaches and the ever decreasing length of tenure of owners?

There are obvious models. Fan ownership? The German 50+1 model? The franchising of clubs as in the Australian A-League and USA’s MLS? Can these approaches work across the board or must other, newer models be developed still?

As with everything in modern football it will be the money that will ultimately decide what happens next – and where it happens first.

The issue of fans thorny relationships to their clubs’ players, staff and owners is the subject of the second How To Watch Football podcast.

Let us know what you think in the comments section below.