Are clubs finally beginning to recognise the detachment from their fans? Perhaps.
The relationship between sports clubs and fans remains an ever-increasing source of conflict in the modern era, as many professional associations and club hierarchies seek to detach their ambitions and targets from the bread-and-butter aspirations of the every-day fan. Nearly all professional sports can provide cases of supporter dissatisfaction with corporate officialdom, prompting a well-voiced question from terrace to turnstile – should sports clubs actually listen to their fans? As a fanatical football supporter steeped in the tradition of sporting civil society, this author can only present the argument that sports clubs must start re-listening to their fans to save the future of the beautiful games that we know and love.
“…prompting a well-voiced question from terrace to turnstile – should sports clubs actually listen to their fans?”
There are many justifiable reasons as to why sports clubs should start re-listening to their fans, but perhaps the most important is that fans represent the lifeblood and ethics of the surrounding community. Any successful sports club is constructed upon the values and standards of local residents; there can be no foundation for market-growth without firstly embodying the values of the foundation base. For balance, it is right to recognise that club hierarchies now operate in an extraordinarily competitive global market in which creating new international depths of support can produce professional success.
It is also true that many club boardrooms within liberal democracies often operate in a similar way to national executives; fans accept that outsourcing administrative responsibilities to leading experts can produce a more effective management in their stead. There are clearly benefits to this style of management, but it has often come at the cost of alienating local supporters who create match day experiences – to the detriment of both fans and boardroom alike. For example, West Ham United’s move to the Olympic Stadium has undoubtedly produced a level of professional success that outstrips the club’s recent fortunes over the last 30 years, but there remains a public discussion surrounding fan alienation that threatens to disrupt the ambitions of both people and profit. A failure of the board to remain in dialogue with fans about the stadium’s branding not only contributes towards an identity-crisis that alienates the local community: the act of Peter-robbing-Paul continually produces spontaneous waves of protest that also threatens the board’s ability to attract newly globalised audiences to support the club.
“The act of Peter-robbing-Paul continually produces spontaneous waves of protest that also threatens the board’s ability to attract newly globalised audiences to support the club.”
Closer to home, Celtic’s dominance of Scottish football has been regularly tarnished by frequent squabbles between terrace-opinion and boardroom; controversial decisions – such as a refusal to recognise Palestinian-rights activism and accepting the now-defunct “Offensive Behaviour at Football Act” legislation – have inspired many protests over the last decade that produces coverage which encourages both supporters and sponsors to take their customs elsewhere. It is quite clear that both these cases could be efficiently resolved with a more resolute commitment to fan engagement: if clubs began to re-listen to their fan-base there would undeniably be a healthier environment to realise the divergent ambitions of both the community and commercial profit. Sports club hierarchies must start to re-listen to their fans, or pay the price of losing the very foundation of the brand they hope to promote on a national and international level.
Equally, it is also clear that sports clubs must start re-listening to their fans to develop cutting-edge business strategies that can appropriately compete with others within the industry. It is irrefutably true that the most noteworthy additions to the matchday experience over the last decade have been those that have included supporter engagement, ensuring a need to more readily encourage fan-orientated approaches towards stadium and matchday improvements. Of course, there is devil in the detail; the adage of “be careful what you wish for” most certainly applies to the results of a fan-led pressure campaign to introduce Hicks and Gillett as Liverpool FC executives in 2007. Equally, Barcelona FC officials find it extraordinarily difficult to convince supporters – who have a collectively leading-stake in executive decision-making – to embrace financial change that will save the institution. There can be no doubt that more representative models of officialdom can provide a stability that efficiently avoids the fickle emotions of fan-led demands, but club hierarchies who have incorporated a more direct form of focus-group engagement with supporters have continued to be rewarded for their efforts.
“There is devil in the detail; the adage of ‘be careful what you wish for’ most certainly applies to the results of a fan-led pressure campaign to introduce Hicks and Gillett as Liverpool FC executives…”
In recent times, the Celtic PLC continues to be held in high esteem across British football for the development of the UK state’s first standing section – in a move that would never have materialised without several concentrated initial research-groups between club representatives and fans. Equally, the match day experiences of FC United of Manchester – which continually break non-league official attendance records each season – are attributed by many peer-reviewed studies to be because its hierarchy outsources decisions about away-kit colours, football-orientated targets and available merchandise for consumption to fan-led focus groups. Such successful examples illustrate that a sports hierarchy can “tap-into” the perspectives of their fan-base to develop a market strategy that can bring benefits to both parties: a quid-pro-quo arrangement between supporters and stakeholders ensures both groups can achieve their long-term aim of bringing positive and lucrative attention to the club. There is enough positive evidence to suggest that sports clubs should more readily encourage supporters to be involved in business strategies: re-listening to fans continues to provide a competitive edge to ensure success in an extremely competitive industry.
“A quid-pro-quo arrangement between supporters and stakeholders ensures both groups can achieve their long-term aim of bringing positive and lucrative attention to the club.”
The modern relationship between clubs and fans continues to remain under scrutiny as nearly every sport continues to present examples of tension between tenure and terrace. Sports clubs must start re-listening to their local foundation to save the future of the institutions that we love. The case examples and peer-reviewed studies illustrate that directly re-engaging with supporters can effectively realise the divergent interests of both people and profit: there are too many benefits for fan engagement for the issue to remain neglected by club representatives. In particular, a direct course of fan engagement can ensure the club can honour the values of the local community; more adequately develop a global fan base; and ‘tap-into’ fan ideas for matchday experiences to maintain a competitive edge in business strategies,with each resolution ensuring a positive outcome for both supporter and stakeholder. Sports clubs must start re-listening to their fans, as like-it-or-not, the future of both community and company requires it to remain prosperous in the modern age.