IMPROVING SUPPORTER ENGAGEMENT
Why is this important?
It should be a given that supporters are the most important stakeholder that any football club has, and it makes sound business sense to communicate with them - and to do it well.
However the evidence offered to Ms. Crouch suggested that standards - and supporter experiences - vary quite significantly from club to club.
• engagement is often limited to match day matters, rather than anything more strategic
• there are no effective mechanisms to check whether clubs are complying with what rules there are
• in some cases, clubs are unduly controlling in their approach to dialogue
• some clubs have suspended dialogue when fan groups have criticised them….
• …. and some clubs give the impression they see it as a tick box exercise
• most clubs have a Supporters Liaison Officer - but how effective the SLO is varies a lot from club to club
What does the word “engagement” mean here?
There is no magic bullet here, and a variety of different approaches exist, with some working better than others.
Ms. Crouch did look at the German model, which is often called the “50+1” model, whereby supporters own a majority share in their clubs.
This approach has worked quite well in Germany, but the circumstances there are quite different from those in England. In the former, the journey to 50%+ ownership began from 100% ; in England, it would usually be starting from a position of 0% ownership. Ms. Crouch accepted that insisting on a wholesale move to the German model would be hugely problematic and ruinously expensive.
If the objective is to give fans a bigger voice in how their club is run, there are better, quicker and much cheaper ways of doing it.
What approaches to engagement did she consider instead?
Ms. Crouch looked at four different types of engagement :
a) the fans forum
in style, it resembles a town hall meeting. Anyone can attend, and audiences are often very large. However the size of the group often inhibits discussion and can make it difficult to manage
b) structured dialogue
this approach is well understood in England and has been a feature at many clubs for some time. Usually these meetings are held several times a year, senior personnel from the club attend and take questions or answer those previously submitted. From the fan side, the attendees usually include representative groups, albeit some clubs invite non-aligned fans as well.
This approach can be helpful, but evidence suggests that quality varies a lot, as does the spontaneity of the discussion.
c) through fan-elected directors
this has been a feature at a number of clubs, and although it can at its best be a very powerful method of giving fans a voice, not all experiences have been positive. Some fans who have performed the role reported that they were tolerated, rather than welcomed ; they felt excluded from key decisions which were often taken elsewhere ; and balancing fan expectations and their desire for information, against the need to respect things like fiduciary confidentiality could be very difficult.
d) through a “Shadow Board” (SB) made up of supporters
This was the approach that Ms. Crouch thought offered the greatest chance of success - and change from what has been happening to date. There is some evidence to suggest that at some clubs this means of engagement is already being introduced.
Ms. Crouch thinks that the legislation should provide for the creation of Shadow Boards (SB) :
• they could provide a voice for diverse groups of supporters
• and if non-legal in nature would avoid some of the restrictions placed upon fan-led directors, whilst still giving fans access to key people and information
There are some important provisos attached to Ms. Crouch’s endorsement of this approach :
• the selection process for SB members should be entirely independent of the club
• the SB should include a cross-section of the fan base, including whichever group holds the “golden share” (more below)
• SB members need to sign up to confidentiality principles in respect of some aspects of the club’s business
What would a Shadow Board look like in practice?
It is very likely that there will be a number of models to suit local circumstances. But subject to that, it is expected that :
• SBs will operate to Terms of Reference agreed with the regulator
• they will typically have anywhere between 5-12 members
• there will be “reserved seats” for key representatives, including the golden share holder
• the Chair will be an annual appointment, from season to season
• SB members will be subject to retirement by rotation…
• … and guaranteed specified meetings with senior representatives of the club
What will the Shadow Board discuss with the club?
There is no exhaustive list, but topics could include some or all of the following :
• the club’s strategic vision and objectives
• business planning (short, medium, longer term)
• operational match day issues
• club heritage issues
• marketing, merchandising, sponsorship
• stadium related issues
• wider supporter engagement
Are there any topics that are NOT up for SB discussion?
Yes. It is NOT a forum for discussing on-field matters (like team selection and tactics) or how the club makes commercial decisions (eg around ticket pricing)
The Independent Football Ombudsman (IFO)
It is probably fair to say that the IFO has not been a resounding success. Many fans do not know there is one ; those who do have given evidence that suggests they think it lacks the powers that it needs to be effective, is clearly not independent and its work is not of the standard that fans expect.
Ms. Crouch clearly states that there is a continuing need for a Football Ombudsman to deal with fan complaints about customer and consumer type issues. But it needs to raise its game significantly in order to win fan confidence, and she recommends :
• it needs to upgrade its performance and practices to a standard that would allow it to become a member of the Ombudsman Association …
• … specifically, appointments to the IFO need to be done in line with standards established by the Nolan Committee on Standards in Public Life ; and
• it needs to be resourced in a way that allows it to meet the standards expected