The fan as stakeholder
It is a returning phenomenon, fans protesting against club boards’ decisions. The protests by Hull City supporters against owner Assem Allam’s attempt to rename the club as Hull Tigers, got a lot of attention in the football world. The massive walk out by Liverpool supporters in the 77th minute last year because of rising ticket prices was also well covered in the press. They are reactions to the commercialisation of football, whereby the fan is seen as customer and approached from a commercial perspective. Fans are often unhappy with this, they want to be heard and want to know that their opinions matter. As fans are crucial to the continuation of clubs, it is more sensible to see and treat them as stakeholders.
Rich sheiks, oil magnates and companies buy clubs and make major investments, but also come to the conclusion that different factors and laws rule the football world. Many of these owners appear to be far removed from their own fans.
In Germany and Sweden (with exceptions) there is still the 50+1 rule that requires the majority of a club to be in the hands of members. Rather the exception than the rule in football, it contributes to retaining tradition and club culture.
The involvement of German fans and the German football culture was clearly visible when fans of multiple clubs protested against RasenBallsport Leipzig, better known as Red Bull Leipzig. The club has risen to the Bundesliga within seven seasons – after being bought by energydrink and media company Red Bull – and has firmly been in second place (that gives access to the Champions League) this season. Everything Red Bull Leipzig is, in particular the commercialisation (for seemingly Red Bull’s self-interest), goes against the fan culture of German football.
Red Bull first took over an Austrian club, now named FC Red Bull Salzburg, which resulted in sporting success. Nevertheless, a portion of the supporters was unhappy with the takeover. Fundamental traditions were not only discarded – club colours and badge were changed into more Red Bull appropriate colours and badge – Red Bull co-founder Dietrich Mateschitz supposedly went as far as saying that the club had no history and started afresh. Subsequently a portion of the fans started a new club with the old traditions.
Despite the positive results FC Red Bull Salzburg has achieved in recent years, Red Bull seems to have realised that their approach towards fans could have been better. Not consulting fans, and thus not treating them as a stakeholder, leads to problems that could be prevented with a subtler, better treatment. When taking over MLS team the New York MetroStars, Red Bull consulted fans far more.
Consult the fan
Enough clubs are aware that they have to consult fans and involve them in decisions. An approach that often results in more loyal fans. Clubs start dialogue with supporters clubs and organise membership meetings where important decisions are discussed.
At FC Barcelona’s membership meeting last year for example, there was a vote whether the four-year deal with new sponsor Rakuten, worth a minimum of 55 million Euros per year, could go through.
Smaller decisions, far below board level, are also ideal moments to integrate fans into the decision process, to start dialogue and thereby maintain positive relationships.
AS Roma is a good example of a club applying this principle. In 2015 the Roman club launched a new crowd sourced website for which it had consulted fans through Reddit, social network sites and independent fan forums about site navigation, design and content.
Recently the club also asked their online followers to vote for a new language version of their website. Roma fans could choose between Arabic, Indonesian, Portuguese and Spanish. An Arabic version eventually won with much ease and the club launched the website in December.
Another example comes from Everton and their technical sponsor Umbro. They follow various other clubs by consulting fans about the kits. Earlier Evertonians got the chance to design and choose a motif for the neckline. For the 2018/19 season the partners have gone a step further in giving the Blues more influence on kit design. Through a survey fans can share what their favourite kits were in the past 15 years and which elements (colour, style, emblems, etc.) they like to see.
Manchester City also consults its fans on a regular basis. For the new badge that the club uses since last year, there was a 30-day consultation period with Cityzens.
Beautiful examples of how clubs approach fans as stakeholders to help make decisions and to collect creative ideas.
Where do you draw the line?
The question is of course to what extend the football world should apply this. Ideas like letting fans vote through mobile apps on who should be substituted have been suggested. Is it smart to let fans decide via democratic voting about all the major and minor business questions? Do fans have the expertise and information to make the right choices?
It is easy to go too far, resulting in negative situations. Many of the examples show that clubs truly do consult fans, but that they ultimately make their own decisions
In the end consulting fans should be about more than just customer service. A group that is that important to the success and future of an organisation should have a voice and be approached as a stakeholder.
A Dutch version of this article first appeared on www.sportknowhowxl.nl