It can be argued that football has a uniqueness to it, but good Fan Engagement should be a focus at any club like those in Rugby Union, Rugby League – or indeed any sport with a substantial and passionate following.
In recent days, we’ve seen Darren Childs, the head of Premiership Rugby, call for Saracens to be more transparent with their fans over the club’s relegation to the Championship – following a serious breach of salary cap regulations, and didn’t hold back in his criticism of their response to their behaviour.
The key issue here is one that Childs raises himself, and central to the first football Fan Engagement Index: transparency. It’s a central part of Fan Engagement because if fans don’t know how their club engages, or what it engages about, then it isn’t really engagement.
All sports have understandably become preoccupied with how the relationship between fans and clubs is monetised, and there are plenty of events and other people telling how they think you should do it, but delivery and tactics are the easy bit. The bit that gets less attention is the structure behind it all: what makes that relationship function day-to-day, how fans engage in dialogue with their club (forums, fan groups or similar, social media), how is that relationship governed internally and externally (by the club and by the leagues/authorities) and as in this case, how do fans find out what’s happening to their club? What’s the culture towards fans like? What’s the attitude like? Is Liam Scully’s (Lincoln City FC’s CEO) ‘golden thread’ of Fan Engagement running through the club?
Until a few months ago, Saracens were a successful club with two recent Premiership titles to its name, a decent track-record in European competition, and plenty to look forward to (a run in this seasons’ European Champions Cup competition is still underway) on the pitch. And now? All the talk is of internationals quitting, and young prospects leaving in case their careers suffer. The standard of rugby will obviously be lower next season – the gap between Premiership Rugby and the Championship, as it is in Rugby League, is many respects far bigger than that between football’s Premier League and Championship, or possibly even Championship/League One, or League Two/National League. Fans will suffer.
Why does all that matter, as long as the club says sorry? It seems pretty straightforward: Saracens operates because it has fans who provide a justification for operating a professional rugby club. Regardless of the specific amounts of income they bring in, without these fans the club would either be playing at an amateur level with no spectators, or wouldn’t exist at all – let alone be playing in a fairly recently built stadium, with what at the time was a revolutionary artificial pitch. On that basis, let alone their financial input, fans deserve to know what’s happening, and I’d suggest be part of the solution.
In terms of strategic communications, there is clearly a bigger challenge at Saracens: it’s unclear why the club won’t talk further about the salary cap breach, and have apparently taken relegation after having been asked to be subject to a more thorough audit of their books. It’s good that the new Chairman, Neil Golding, has issued a statement to fans, but even that seems not to be properly addressing the central allegation made by Childs – that they are refusing a mid-season audit.
High politics aside, this is an example where Fan Engagement should be front and centre. It doesn’t just mean a statement drawing a line under it all. It entails a whole culture and structure. It isn’t tactical, it’s strategic, it’s about whether it’s ingrained in everyone and everything.
Trust in clubs on the part of fans erodes if situations like these are handled badly, and the key to ensuring that trust is maintained is Fan Engagement.
All clubs in all sports need to remember that.