Fan Engagement in 2020/2021: The Big Picture


Fan Engagement: The Big Picture in 2020/2021

As we always do, we’d like to first pay tribute to the many dedicated, enthusiastic and hardworking staff, officials, directors and owners who work so hard for fans. The fact that they had to do this for a full season behind closed doors made the job even harder.

This is especially true because many will have suffered themselves with illness or personal tragedy, whilst many lost their jobs during this period.

The 2020/21 season turned out not just to be the Covid Season, but could well end up being seen in future as the moment that football finally changed. We’ll come to that in more detail, but for now we’ll  focus on the dominating theme.

With all this, why not suspend the Fan Engagement Index for the season? It’s a fair point, except as we all know now, engagement doesn’t stop because the fans aren’t in the stadium. In fact, the engagement arguably becomes more important.

We’d already experienced the stop/start (and in most cases, stop again) of the 2019/2020 season, but the whole of 2020/2021 saw clubs in the position of having their season played out, bar a few test events and play-off games, behind closed doors. Covid gave us the chance to actually see what ‘football without fans’ really looks like and it looks financially bankrupt and bereft.

Clubs were denied large amounts of revenue, and fans had to spend Saturday afternoons shouting at their laptops. For many who worked in the industry, including frontline Fan Engagement staff, there was the continued threat of redundancy.

Everyone in the industry will be aware of conversations about how the lock-out might change long-term behaviour, and whether fans would return in numbers. Many in the industry talked about habits being broken, and at the very least, some fans just not spending as much time and money on football as before. I think it’s safe to say that the evidence isn’t clear yet, but maybe to some extent it reminded us of the frailty of clubs.

Don’t forget you can hear our Fan Engagement Index Pod Special. Available wherever you get your podcasts. Search ‘Fan Engagement Pod’

The European Super League and Project Big Picture

‘Never waste a good crisis’, and whilst most of our collective backs were turned having conversations about the future of the game, the self-titled ‘Big Clubs’ and their allies were pushing Project Big Picture and the European Super League (ESL). Fortunately, Project Big Picture largely petered out, and instead of a smash and grab raid, the ESL ended up looking more clown car than something out of a Guy Ritchie film.

Most clubs didn’t want it, most fans didn’t want it, the governing bodies (FA, UEFA, FIFA) – mostly – didn’t want it, and the clubs involved ended up with a form of public shaming. Hopefully that proposal remains in the morgue and not risen, Frankenstein’s Monster like, from the slab.

What really matters was that the government finally pressed ‘go’ on the promised Fan Led Review. The game is meant to be governed by The FA, but The FA can’t do it because of the myriad conflicts of interest, which everyone knows is true, but some prefer there to be these conflicts of interest as it benefits them. It continues to be the case that in reality, meaningful Fan Engagement is an option to clubs, not what should be a part of how every club has to operate. This can’t continue. Every club is at heart made of the same DNA, the same building blocks, and just as other elements of the competition away from the pitch are formally regulated, so must engagement be.

Over time, it has become clear that an independent regulator is both necessary and desirable. This is true in all sorts of financial and administrative areas, and we strongly believe it should be in terms of Fan Engagement. Whist it would be preferable for all clubs to be able to look after themselves in this area – and the Fan Engagement Index shows that there are many who do take these responsibilities seriously – it’s hard to see any other way of seeing real change. It’s tiresome for fans that there has to be a battle to convince the often fleeting, and always temporary, owners of a club that they should be listened to and involved. That is why we support many of the findings of Tracy Crouch’s Fan Led Review, and are part of the Fair Game campaign.

Winners and Losers

Once again, Exeter City have come out on top 3rd season running. The Trust owned club scoring highly across all three categories of Dialogue, Governance and Transparency. Of the six highest ranking clubs, five of them are in a position where a Supporters’ Trust holds shares in the club. The highest ranked club from the Premier League in the Index was Everton in 20th whilst perhaps unsurprisingly Newcastle United were the lowest ranked in The Premier League, being 87th out of 92.

Although the wooden spoon went once more to Swindon Town, thanks to the new ownership of Clem Morfuni and a far more active engagement with the Supporters’ Trust, there has been a definitive move away from the era under which this information was collected. Don’t forget our podcast special featuring an interview with the new CEO Rob Angus, and a very much more engaged Trust STFC. We expect to see them climbing the Index next season. Don’t forget to hear Rob Angus and Trust STFC Chair, Steve Mytton on the Fan Engagement Pod special, talking about huge changes since the takeover.

A mention should also go Plymouth Argyle, 11th this season, and who laid out their finances in clear layman’s terms in 2019/20 season and a letter this year with link to full accounts. This is a similar approach pursued by Brighton and Hove Albion for some years, and is welcome. We hope this culture of openness continues from the club.

Of course, we are also aware that with Covid the season it also affected clubs ability to adapt to the new situation and may have impacted what some clubs wish to do, especially those who didn’t have such structures already established due to new ownership. Therefore, there may be other clubs who find themselves in a position they feel isn’t deserved. Bolton Wanderers could perhaps be in this category with owners taking over as a pandemic struck, but that is the drawback with a retrospective measurement like the Index. Hopefully changes will be seen next season, by which time there will be no excuses.

We have always been clear that the Index is not some kind of infallible measurement. Not long after we go to press, despite finishing in 13th place, Oldham Athletic have seen all communication with their supporters break down. The Index is meant to provide a snapshot of the structures in place at a club.

The Oldham Athletic Supporters Foundation (the supporters’ trust) which holds the directorship of the club, and new independent group, Push The Boundary, have been actively campaigning for the owners to leave, which it appears the owners have accepted is necessary.

To have a business model that antagonises your key stakeholder (and customer) is the height of foolishness. So whether you’re at the bottom of The EFL, or the top of The Premier League, whatever you do, spend time – and resources – on Fan Engagement. It’s not about immediate ROI, but ROI over a lifetime.

Whilst it’s unusual to see quite such a disconnect between structure and the experience on the ground, it is possible, which is what we’ve seen in this case. It doesn’t mean that structure doesn’t matter. Structure should be there, and passed on with the club between owners. What it demonstrates, without doubt, is the need for external enforcement through regulation.

Liverpool & Man United Making Big Changes to Fan Engagement Structures

Although both of these initiatives are taking place outside of the dates covered by this year’s Index, it’s important to cover them, as they were undoubtedly hastened by events during the period concerned (‘Project Big Picture’ in late 2020, and the proposed European Super League in April 2021).

On the back of the ESL fiasco and pre-empting the Crouch Report, certain fan groups and clubs have not let a good crisis go to waste. Spirit of Shankly (SOS), Liverpool’s Supporters Trust, are on the verge as we publish of an historic agreement with the owners of Liverpool for genuine supporter representation with the club (as opposed to overall owners, the Fenway Sports Group) and the creation of various structures of engagement (see below). This will including rights to consent for major changes relocation of Premier League games from Anfield and crucially, attempts to join any future breakaway league. Don’t forget the Fan Engagement Pod special, where we hear from SOS Chair Joe Blott.

These changes are providing the potential to rebuild bridges from the ashes of the European Super League car crash, and shows that far from being antagonistic forces, supporters’ trusts – and fans more generally – can provide a vital way of allowing clubs who have gone off track to re-establish a positive connection to their fan-base.

Read more on the SOS website

Manchester United

At Manchester United, a new Head of Fan Engagement has been appointed. Alone, this might not be seen as all that significant. Except the appointment is that of Rick McGagh, Head of Internal Communications and Engagement at OFSTED (Office For Standards in Education), and also a member of both Man United’s Fans’ Forum (Fans Parliament) and Fans’ Advisory Board (FAB).

The fact the club has chosen someone with this particular expertise might have been missed by some. For us it’s a signal that the club and its incoming CEO, Richard Arnold, have got the message that fans need to be treated as stakeholders first – even if they are part-time customers.  There are also changes expected to the share structure so that the likes of MUST can once more have a voice underpinned by some sense of ownership – something supporters’ trust MUST have been campaigning for since the Glazer takeover of 2005.

Whilst we wait to see the detail of the promised reforms from Chelsea and Spurs, it’s clear that the failure of the ESL project has meant that fans and progressives within football clubs have been able to make some genuine advances.

Regardless of what happens, clubs or fans shouldn’t be waiting for the Government to show them what best practise looks like. For the majority of the 92, proactively engaging with their supporters is simply good business.

Scoring for 2020/2021

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.

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