Fan engagement – now is time to act

This week’s publication of the 2019/20 Fan Engagement Index was understandably delayed because of the Covid pandemic, but ultimately it could hardly have been better timed. In light of the protests at Old Trafford last Sunday against the owners and the universal condemnation and subsequent implosion of the European Super League [see https://bit.ly/3gziruc%5D, the thorny issue of fan engagement could hardly be of more importance than it is at this moment. 

Kevin Rye, the owner of the Fan engagement Index, is adamant that now is the time to focus on issues of ownership and governance. “The Index provides a steer as to how the game might prevent things like the ill fated Super League proposals from seeing the light of day again, and ensuring clubs are better run more generally,” Rye says. “It’s all too easy to say we might want something like a ‘German 50%+1’ model as a solution. What the Index does is actually shine a light on the values, structures and cultures that might actually deliver a fan-centred future in English football.”

The Index is based on three criteria – dialogue, governance and transparency – which then form an overall score. “As we emerge from Covid, the voice of fans is going to be critical,” Rye continues. “Some clubs understand this, as you can see from the results. But many haven’t paid enough attention, preferring to focus on pushing out content, social media bantz or PR gimmicks.”

Top Ten Clubs – Fan Engagement Index

  1. Exeter City
  2. Carlisle United
  3. Cambridge United
  4. Newport County
  5. AFC Wimbledon
  6. Lincoln City
  7. Doncaster Rovers
  8. Reading
  9. Portsmouth
  10. Norwich City

Exeter City were the pioneers of supporter owned clubs in English football, as the Supporters Trust rescued the club from financial oblivion in 2003 and have been running the club ever since. “Exeter City offer an example of how to ensure Fan Engagement is woven into the DNA of everything a club does,” Rye says. “It’s far deeper than just 50%+1, even though that’s a fundamental part of who they are. To put it simply, they ‘get it’. That’s the lesson from the Fan Engagement Index 2019/2020: All of those who do well understand that it’s a balance between structure and culture.”

Another club in the top five of the index are AFC Wimbledon, who could be considered as the paragons of fan ownership, having made such impressive strides both on and off the pitch since reforming in 2002 after the original Wimbledon’s much-reviled relocation to Milton Keynes was announced. The Dons Trust holds the controlling stake in the club and has done throughout its 19-year existence thus ensuring that the supporters are the drivers of the club and will remain so for the foreseeable future. 

In contrast, other fan-owned clubs such as Portsmouth and Wycombe Wanderers have sold their controlling stake to outside interests after rescuing their clubs from financial ruin. In 2017 former head of Walt Disney Michael Eisner completed his takeover of Portsmouth, four years after the Supporters Trust saved the club from administration. In 2020 Wycombe was bought by another American, Rob Couhig with the Supporters Trust that originally took over the ailing Chairboys in 2012, retaining a 25% ownership. 

Having secured their place in League One for another season Wimbledon are the highest-placed fan-owned club in the English league and earlier this season returned to Plough Lane after an absence of thirty years [see https://bit.ly/3k60xgV%5D. Xavier Wiggins, co-chair of the Dons Trust, was unsurprisingly a vehement critic of the Super League and a staunch defender of the rights of supporters. “It is the fans I feel most sorry for,” Wiggins said. “The football pyramid should be sacrosanct – and as Wimbledon fans we know that more than most.”

Wiggins also highlighted the importance of grasping the nettle – “We’ve been talking to a number of clubs and they are saying the same thing: ‘Now is the time for change.’ We want football clubs up and down the country to put their rivalries aside and join us so we can make a real lasting difference together – promoting a sustainable game based around the principles of sporting merit and a level playing field.”

It is telling that the leading seven clubs in the index are from League One and Two, with Reading, in eighth place, the first representative from the top two divisions. Newly promoted Norwich are the only Premier League in the top 10, with Leicester City and Everton the only other top flight clubs in the Top 20.  By contrast to Exeter and Wimbledon the ‘Big Six’ are languishing a long way down the table – see below

‘Big Six’ Clubs

46. Manchester City

47. Arsenal

59. Manchester United

62. Tottenham Hotspur

64. Liverpool

78. Chelsea 

With Chelsea at the bottom of the Big Six and the fans of the club being amongst the most vocal in their opposition to the ESL, there is clearly a pressing need for more engagement. The first inkling of some movement in approach came with the announcement on Tuesday that from 1st July there will be supporter presence at future board meetings although they will have no voting rights. This presence will take the form of three ‘supporter advisors’ who would be elected and selected via the Fans Forum, which is a body involving supporters and senior members of the club who meet three times a year. 

Whether this is truly a step in the right direction or merely another example of box-ticking is a moot point. Before the Old Trafford protests the United manager Ole Gunnar Solksjaer commented – “It’s important that the fans’ views are listened to and that we communicate better.” While in the aftermath of Sunday’s protest the Norwegian offered a glimmer of hope when he said: “I’m sure there will be better communication coming.” The hope is that the tide has turned sufficiently to ensure that this is just the start of a much deeper and long-lasting involvement of supporters in the running of their clubs. 

Published by richardfoster60

Author, broadcaster, historian, journalist. A regular contributor to the Guardian, Sky Sports and talkSPORT, my latest book is highly acclaimed Premier League Nuggets - "brilliantly written" - Darren Fletcher, "I love Premier League Nuggets" - Guy Mowbray, "the book is a labour of love" - Peter Drury.

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