Fan Insights was set up as a positive step towards improving how Fan Engagement is done, so let me make one thing clear before I say anything else: running a club – not just in football in fact – is no picnic. Running a big Premier League club, even less so. No-one should fool themselves that it is, especially when times are doubly, trebly tough as they are now.
But when I read of another story about a club proposing major changes to Fan Engagement structures, staff or relationships, that appear to be a surprise to some of the most engaged and active fans, with the inevitable bad headlines, with equally negative reactions from all sections of the fanbase, I do wonder whether the message is getting through.
Arsenal have committed another apparently self-inflicted injury, with an internal ‘strategic review’ apparently threatening the role of Supporter Liaison Officer, currently held by the very popular Mark Brindle. This has come hot on the heels of club mascot Gunnersaurus being told he was for the knackers yard, only to be hastily reinstated after the inevitable outcry.
The first thing is to acknowledge that even a club like Arsenal will be feeling the financial pressures of having no fans in the ground, and the clawback of broadcasting revenues. Pressure like this is unheard of in football, and we’re all learning lessons. But this surely an issue of culture.
Hard to comment on a specific case without knowing more, but in general there isn’t really any decent excuse for clubs not to involve fan representatives in a process well before news leaks out and becomes a public relations problem. #fanengagement https://t.co/vc26AW96ab
— Fan Insights (@faninsightscouk) February 10, 2021
Arsenal are not the first, and won’t be the last, to make mistakes in this area. In terms of the ‘top’ clubs, it’s not that unusual to see big changes proposed without the involvement of fans.
After years of working in it and studying it, it’s clear to me that a lot of football clubs have a habit of thinking that Fan Engagement (and by extension consultation/dialogue etc) is just there to determine whether ticket prices are too high, or what the process is for getting flags in the stadium. And even when fans are brought into big decision making or review processes, it can be considered to be more about ‘softening the blow’ of bad news. It can be both of those things, but not often enough, the third one: engagement as a way of co-creation, of collaboration, and of making better decisions.
The key in all of this is the culture and the leadership. Doing a lot of listening is absolutely fundamental to both of these.
So admittedly knowing very little about the process at play here, here is the general routemap to the best outcome when it comes to dealing with difficult stuff like this
1. What does the intelligence we get from our relationships with fans and activist groups, tell us about how to manage such a process?
2. Should we be bringing in some direct insight from those groups or individuals during this to help to inform the process (whatever you think the end-point might be, their involvement is key to getting to the right outcome)
3. Is there a solution that could involve working with fans to help deliver an alternative. In the case of supporter-facing roles, at a club with fewer resources that might involve bringing in volunteers, making the relationships you have with fan representatives even more important.
If you’re the MD, CEO, Chair or owner, if you ask these questions at this stage of any process, you’re far less likely to find the issue spilling out into the public domain, and people like me passing comment on it.
It is possible to acknowledge that running a football club in any environment, let alone this present one, is very, very tough. However it is also perfectly acceptable to equally say that there isn’t any decent excuse for clubs not to involve fan representatives in a process well before news leaks out and becomes a public relations problem.
And it’s not as though there aren’t any good examples where Fan Engagement is concerned, at all levels of the game. In The Premier League alone, Brighton, Everton, Fulham, Leicester are good examples where listening is part of how the club is run – part of the culture generally, and the leadership. I spend a lot of time speaking with many of those who do things this way, and whilst it isn’t all plain sailing, I do know that once you start doing it, it becomes invaluable.