22/23 Fan Engagement Review: EFL League One

Last week was an in-depth look at fan engagement in the Championship, this week we move into League One for a look into what has been happening this past year. Will any of this affect the next Fan Engagement Index? We can’t tell you that yet, but read on…

We start off with Barnsley who’s Board of Directors took part in a fan engagement forum with the supporters trust. This took place in September. In attendance were important figures such as the club Chairman Neerav Parekh, CEO Khaled El-Ahmed and Director Julie Anne Quay. Head Coach Michael Duff was also in the audience. The meeting was a great chance for supporters to ask questions on all different aspects of the club ranging from finances to the long-term future of Oakwell (Barnsley’s stadium). It is always positive to see those in leadership positions at clubs taking an active part in fan engagement.

The supporters trust at Bolton held their 2023 AGM on the 2nd February and this was described as a successful event in which supporters who attended where able to ask questions of both Manager Ian Evatt, and CEO Neil Hart. At the meeting a variety of topics were discussed such as loyalty schemes for away tickets and, more importantly from an engagement point of view, whether or not there will be an opportunity for fans to buy shares in the club. When it comes to share ownership as a tool for relationships in clubs, it’s has a sometimes controversial past in football. Supporters’ trusts pioneered forms of collective ownership which were part of a tapestry including majority fan-ownership, but individual ownership by fans is less effective, given the ability to influence clubs is entirely down to the number owned. Watch this space.

Unfortunately, like in the Championship, there are some less positive stories concerning fan engagement and one of the main ones comes from Charlton Athletic. Addicks supporters have been through a great deal in terms of dealing with poor ownership (how could anyone forget Roland Duchatelet, who still owns the stadium) and now they are campaigning for incumbent owner Thomas Sandgaard to sell the club.

In the words of the Charlton Athletic Supporters Trust (CAS Trust) Sandgaard has failed to deliver promotion, been responsible for reduced attendances, created a toxic atmosphere for staff and interfered in on-pitch matters. They firmly believe it is time for him to go and there is an interested party, the Methven/Friedman group. There is no telling whether they will be good owners or not but Charlton fans are fed up with the current ownership and feel it is time for change.

In the wake of the government White Paper for the independent regulator the Supporters Charter Group (SCG) at Derby County have held discussions with the club regarding the implementation of a shadow board in line with recommendations from the fan-led review of football. 

It was agreed that there would be two separate supporter-led groups running in parallel. A Supporters Board centred on club governance that would have power of veto over heritage issues such as club colours, crest or a move away from Pride Park. The Supporters Board would regularly meet with the club to discuss finances, kit design and sponsorship. There would then be a chamber, operationally similar to the existing SCG (what we call a ‘Fans Parliament’ in the Fan Engagement Index), with no governance responsibility but would consult on any significant matchday arrangements and experience, ticketing, supporter events and other ‘matchday experience’ issues.

As it stands, there have not been any firm discussions regarding the make-up of either group or who would be represented.

Portsmouth Supporters Trust responded to a protest against the Eisner’s ownership in January by a group called PFC Coalition. The Coalition have been critical of the Eisner’s ambition and their record of what they have done against what they promised when they first took control of the club. The Pompey Trust acknowledged the frustrations over the club still being in League One and sought to reassure fans that Tornante are bound by the terms of the sale to meet the Heritage and Advisory Board four times a year to discuss the overall strategic vision for the club, whilst they also answer to the various supporters groups at the Tony Goodall Fan’s Conference. The Trust described how they would continue to ask the necessary questions, challenge for faster progress and encourage more regular communication.

There was also a significant milestone for Portsmouth this year as they marked 10 years since the supporters stepped up to save the club from liquidation and become fan-owned in the process. A monumental achievement that was celebrated as a part of the clubs 125th anniversary festivities.

Wycombe Wanderers Trust and Rob Couhig completed a deal that they say delivers a ‘secure financial future’ for the club. Feliciana (the majority owners of Wycombe) will control 90% of the club’s voting shares with the trust retaining a 10% shareholding. Adams Park will remain 100% owned by the supporters with the current lease replaced by a new 50-year lease. The trust will keep two directors on the club’s board and will remain holders of the ‘Enshrined Rights Share’ which allows them to control aspects such as the club’s colours and naming rights of the ground.

There is often a greater amount of substantial fan engagement at League One level compared to the Championship. As alluded to in the previous article, one of the big issues is the loss of interest in clubs by owners. This may be because they have failed to reach the promised land of the Premier League, or they simply became bored. The clubs in League One seem to be more connected to their fanbases, though as we see with Charlton poor ownership is not just something Championship supporters have to deal with. We will find out in the next piece whether this trend has continued in League Two.

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