Another conference organised in the name of football business, and once again, not one representative of fans present. This time the FT Business of Football Summit (17th & 18th Feb). I’m not singling out the FT for particular criticism, as it’s not the first time and I’m sure it won’t be the last time this happens at such an event. (To be fair, the right response from Sports Editor Murad Ahmed was immediate. I noticed an hour or so later that SD Europe’s LinkedIn business account was thanking the FT for a guest pass. Excellent Public Relations response. As far as these sorts of things go, I wish everyone behaved the same way when they made a mistake.)
Fair criticism. One we’ll fix in future.
— Murad Ahmed (@muradahmed) February 17, 2021
Instead I’m using this as a jumping-off point about how football and associated industries (particularly brands in partner-relationships, as well as marketing, communications and Public Relations agencies) don’t properly involve one of the game’s key ‘stakeholders’ in major decisions.
Rights holders – clubs, leagues, players, associated businesses such as investor groups, marketing agencies and brands, spend a lot of time talking to each other, which is understandable given the obvious need to organise competitions, generate revenue, look for investors. Even agents get a look in these days – well past the days of player representatives being seen as seedy and, in some quarters, unnecessary.
But in these discussions fan representation is often absent, or not really paid enough attention to. Being a representative of fans can be like being at a party full of people you know, but with most of them standing with their back turned to you. Or worse still, like that moment where you see someone you know across the road, call their name, and you know they’re ignoring you as they rush past, head down.
Part of the issue is without doubt a sort of fear factor: the often very oppositional nature of being part of an organised fan group can be an impediment to being taken seriously in the boardroom or conference suite. It isn’t easy trying to engage on a strategic or industry level when some of your members might be hanging from the rafters calling for the resignation of one or other of the people you’re trying to build bridges with.
Except, it takes two to tango, and over the many years I’ve advised them, fan representatives have become more and more constructive and understanding of clubs and those running them. They’re also often professionals or in some cases high flyers in their own right, and have even gone so far as to dispense with football shirts to attend meetings.
There are of course people in football or their associated industries who genuinely acknowledge the importance and the role of fans, and ensure that what they do reflects that. Except it’s not enough, and too little of not enough isn’t a great deal, and it can’t properly permeate through to industry thought leadership as a whole – and that’s often where the overall culture in any sector is formed.
Whether it’s the European Superleague no-one wants, or fan tokens no fan asked for, we end up with things that can’t demonstrate any real insight or support from the very people who are expected to invest their time and money supporting. All of this would be understandable if it were 20 years ago, but it’s not, we don’t have a time machine and given football is constantly talking about fans as ‘stakeholders’, it’s not really excusable anymore.