Fan Engagement: The Big Picture in 2019/2020
Fan Engagement: The Big Picture in 2019/2020
The first thing we would like to do is to pay tribute to the many dedicated, enthusiastic and hardworking staff, officials and owners who have been trying to do right by their fans throughout this period. Some of them will have suffered themselves with illness or personal tragedy, others suffering in other ways, including losing their jobs.
Secondly, for the second time in a row, we need to mark the loss of yet another club, this time Macclesfield Town. There is simply no excuse for these events happening anymore. The fact that the club has been reformed under the leadership of Rob Smethurst and Robbie Savage is evidently a good thing. We urge Rob and his colleagues to ensure that fans are placed at the centre through proper structures of dialogue and accountability. The fans and their community lost the club through no fault of their own, and because there simply isn’t the regulation and accountability required in the game. All the signs were there, not least in the club’s failure to engage with their fans. Change needs to come, and Fan Engagement must be at the forefront of a new regime for clubs that includes direct, measurable accountability to the people they exist to serve.
Even though it’s hard to believe, the 2019/2020 season really did begin as normal, but when Covid-19 meant the end of the football season, temporarily in the case of some, permanently for others, it did mean for all clubs that from March 2020, engaging with fans on a physical level became impossible. But that made it even more vital to keep fans engaged with their clubs.
Since that time there has been a genuine concern expressed by some in the industry that fans might not return in the numbers hoped for – a conversation we’ve had with several guests on the Fan Engagement Pod including Mark Bradley from the Fan Experience Company, and Amanda Jacks from the Football Supporters Association. That is why ensuring that Fan Engagement and listening goes beyond simply match-related issues, match information and transfer news, is critical to the health of clubs as we emerge from this very difficult and challenging period.
Our principal concern, a picture that is beginning to show after two years of the Fan Engagement Index, is one of culture and attitude amongst some clubs. Although outside of the period this report focuses on, the foundations for the behaviour of the six clubs caught up in the European Super League (and to some extent ‘Project Big Picture’) – were laid many years ago, but it’s not just those six. The attitude that regards engagement as either an exercise on paper, or just a negotiation over ticket allocations or consultation over the badge, is too prevalent amongst too many clubs. There are too many examples where dialogue and engagement is at arms length, and doesn’t feed into decision making processes at a club – which is literally the purpose of ‘Dialogue’ itself.
We should also point out that this year, and for the first time, we sent the data we collected to clubs for comment. We were pleasantly surprised at the response, even from those not doing well. We’d like to thank all 42 clubs who provided us with new information (the names of which are also published alongside the overall data).
Scoring for 2019/2020
The three measured areas are Dialogue (the conversations and listening to fans), Governance (how decisions are made, fans voices listened to, and their interests taken into account and managed) and Transparency (how much of what a club does is exposed to the fans/stakeholders). 80 points are available per-section, with a potential total score of 240 points overall. All of these scores relate only to the practice of Fan Engagement at a club.
All the information and data comprising this year’s Fan Engagement Index can be accessed via the Fan Engagement Hub:
You can also go straight to the scores for each section separately below, and an Index of Key Terms is also available
Overall table for 2019/2020
Overall table for all time (2018/2019 and 2019/2020)
Because the season was affected by Covid-19 – and in the case of the EFL League One and League Two, saw no more competitive fixtures played in the normal (league) season (n.b. this doesn’t include playoff matches, which are not classified as part of the normal, competitive season) – reasonable assumptions have been made in the scoring.
Specifically, it has been assumed that where a club commenced a programme of engagement (e.g. had at least one Fans Parliament, Fans Forum or Structured Dialogue with a Supporters Trust/Independent Group before football stopped in March 2020), they would have had the remaining one required by best practice/EFL rules. This applies to the publishing of any reports, agendas and minutes. This does not apply where no such meetings were held before March 2020.
Overview – Exeter City make it two in a row, and increase their margin of victory
Top again were Exeter City, but they weren’t resting on their laurels, putting on an additional 25 points on last year’s total to hit 195. Crucial to their model is not simply that they’re a fan-owned club, but that they express it in the way they actively involve fans in what they do. This is the crucial part of how clubs do their Fan Engagement, and can be seen at clubs of all types – privately-owned, fan-owned, part fan-owned clubs, including Newport County, Cambridge United, Portsmouth, Carlisle United, Everton, Lincoln City, Reading, Norwich City, Doncaster Rovers, Millwall, and Tranmere Rovers.
Carlisle United is a privately owned club, but the ‘Official Supporters Club’ (which despite the name is actually a Supporters’ Trust) holds a stake in the club and has a shareholders agreement that has helped it stay influential during very difficult times. Thanks to regular meetings between supporters and owners at a number of levels, as well as the supporters club having a seat at the table on the club board, Carlisle have found themselves in joint second place.
For too long supporters trusts or independent fan organisations have been perceived by certain groups as being a threat to the club or potential antagonistic forces but Carlisle’s philosophy can best be summed up by the words of Chief Executive Nigel Clibbens. “A vibrant CUOSC representing our supporters, can help the Club be more responsive to the needs of its fans and local communities and by working together with the Club, challenge and change what we do and help us be more successful.” Nigel’s words are a sentiment we share.
Mark and Linda Palios at Tranmere Rovers have taken significant strides to transform the club on and off the field since they took ownership in 2014. Part of that transformation has been the dialogue with supporters’ groups, online supporters help and regular fans forums. The result for them has been to re-galvanise a club from the nadir of their fortunes into one that maintained their fanbase for the three years in non-league (an impressive feat) to growing the fan base, all the while being a stone’s throw from the ‘glamour’ clubs of Everton and Liverpool.
Cambridge United, Lincoln City, Reading, Norwich City, Doncaster Rovers, Millwall and Portsmouth are examples of clubs who, in 2019/2020, just continued to get it right. Although Millwall and Cambridge United improved significantly, they haven’t overhauled their model of engagement. The secret to all of these clubs being consistently good at it is simply that they keep doing it. What they’ve worked out is that, in a game of such uncertainty as football, it makes sense to have strong fundamentals behind the scenes, and one of those has to be Fan Engagement.
Wycombe Wanderers dropped off slightly because they moved from fan ownership to majority private ownership, though the supporters’ trust retain a stake, and the signs are very promising that Rob Couhig and his family are part of an emerging group of ‘enlightened owners and investors’, that includes the likes of Clive Nates and his colleagues at Lincoln City, and others including at the time of writing the prospective owners of Grimsby Town.
Movers and shakers
The measurement that really matters when it comes to movements in the table is how much clubs have improved compared with their own score last year, rather than focusing on rises and falls in the table overall. This is because small changes in the score of a club can often lead to quite big movements in position.
Eyes will fall on the top clubs, particularly the six currently sat on the football naughty step. Suffice it to say that none of these clubs – and only two in the Premier League overall – made any real progress this year – Sheffield United and Wolves. Even Arsenal gaining ten points pales into insignificance when you match this rise with their actions at times since (the abortive sacking of popular mascot Gunnersaurus, or the apparent proposals to make changes to their Supporter Liaison Officer (SLO) arrangements that led to fans all over the World expressing their opposition.)
Like Man United’s Ed Woodward telling fans that ‘you are in our thoughts’ when it came to the Super League proposals, far too many clubs act with two faces. Fan Engagement is about leadership, about choices and about consistency of approach, and fellow Premier League clubs like Everton and Leicester City, alongside the club often held up as an example, Norwich City, repeatedly demonstrate just how it’s done. We will be releasing a new case study on Everton’s approach, produced in conjunction with the Club, shortly.
What the actual score changes can indicate is some quite substantial changes in what clubs have been doing in their Fan Engagement. Those posting increases of 30 points plus on last year’s score were:
Bristol Rovers (80), Accrington Stanley (55), Bradford City (55), Cambridge United (50), Newport County (50), Crewe Alexandra (45), Luton Town (45), Shrewsbury Town (45), Rotherham United (40), Sheffield United (30), Walsall (40), Wigan Athletic (40), Forest Green Rovers (35), Millwall (35), Tranmere Rovers (35), Wolverhampton Wanderers (35), Oldham Athletic (30).
Of particular note are Bristol Rovers. Despite a poor season on the pitch, they have worked particularly hard to improve Fan Engagement across the board. The work of CEO Martyn Starnes and Tom Gorringe has been particularly critical to this, but also the fact that owner and president Wael Al-Qadi has embraced this. We hope it lasts. Bradford City have made similar strides, resurrecting their supporters’ board after a terrible period at the club under a previous CEO, and now under new leadership with the youngest Chief Executive in English football, Ryan Sparks. Accrington Stanley, led by the often redoubtable, always honest, Andy Holt, have added to their engagement by signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with their new supporters’ trust.
Although some of these rises in the table have come through actual changes to the way that they carry out their Fan Engagement – particularly in the case of Bristol Rovers, Accrington, Bradford City and Cambridge United – some have also come because clubs have provided us with information that we didn’t previously have. This flags up the importance of clubs engaging with us, and we’re immensely grateful for the cooperation of the 42 clubs who provided us with new information or comments, particularly given the massive pressure on resources caused by Covid-19.
Elsewhere in the table
However, looking at the bottom of the Index and there are different stories to tell. Some, like we have a different story to tell. Swindon Town and a now defunct Macclesfield Town occupied the bottom two positions. We could find no evidence at either of regular meetings with a trust or supporters’ group, an independent SLO or transparency in their dealings with supporters.
Several clubs towards the bottom were also there in 2018/19, such as Bolton Wanderers. It’s a bit too harsh to criticise the new owners for not turning things around quickly enough in this case, but in more general terms, experience over many years tells us that new owners have a window of opportunity that needs to be grasped to build relationships of trust with fans.
There is also a trend for clubs which are facing difficulties or being badly managed or run, to limit or severely restrict dialogue with the fans. We would always encourage fans and other local stakeholders (such as councils) to pay close attention to this trend if it’s happening at a club, as it could indicate deeper problems.
When it comes to Fan Engagement, there are clubs which are famed for their Instagram presence, or Twitter ‘bantz’. We need to be clear here: setting up a Tik-Tok channel showing players at training, or goal montages is not what we’re talking about, even if it’s what some people think is important. Neither are publicity stunts. These are the decorations on top of the cake, or they are Public Relations stunts. They are not the way you maintain and deepen a relationship with your fans.
If you’re interested in chatting about the Fan Engagement Index, or what Think Fan Engagement can do for you, your club, your brand or your client, drop us a line.
Article co-written by Edward Anderson.