22/23 Fan Engagement Review: The EFL Championship

As the 2022/23 season draws to a close, we thought this the best time to look at what has been happening in fan engagement and relationships between clubs and fans across the top-four divisions of English men’s football this year.

Will any of this affect the next Fan Engagement Index? We can’t tell you that yet, but we can start in the Championship with a look a what’s been going on. 

The Blues Trust at Birmingham City remain unrelenting in their commitment to convincing the club’s owner to sell up and move on. This season they sent Wenqing Zhao an open letter which was hand delivered to Ian Dutton, the managing director at Birmingham, with the promise it would reach Zhao.

The letter was written on behalf of the sell the club campaign which brings a number of supporters groups together under the same banner. These groups are demanding a clear exit strategy from the ownership with specific timelines, open and honest communication and the creation of a fan advisory board.

In March there was a response received from Zhao which was welcomed by the supporters’ groups as it created a platform for further discussion, something which has long been missing. It is hoped that this dialogue will continue rather than be a one-off attempt at pacifying frustrated supporters.

Despite this, the response regarding the creation of a fan advisory board was described by the trust as underwhelming. The fact that the creation of a fan advisory board is only being given consideration in 2023 is disappointing to say the least.

The supporters trust at Blackburn Rovers are yet again calling on the owners to properly engage with the club’s fanbase. There were increased calls for engagement once again after what was regarded as a ‘fiasco’ on transfer deadline day with the trust citing it as further evidence of the owner’s incompetence and inability to run a functioning football club.

There is still a great deal of apathy at Ewood Park with large numbers of empty seats resulting in record low attendances since the grounds redevelopment. The trust themselves describe how so many fans feel detached from the club due to the actions of owners, Venkys. The trust at Blackburn are calling for the creation of a shadow board following the government white paper on the fan-led review, hopefully in time we will see greater engagement between Rovers fans and the board.

At the start of this month the trust at Cardiff City met with club chairman Mehmet Dalman to discuss a range of issues, one of which being fan consultation. Once again, we are highlighting an issue with disconnect with the fans and their club. At Cardiff specifically this is between the fans and those at board level, including owner Vincent Tan. In the meeting the club explained how they were looking to continue their previously stated intention to hold fans forums (large, open meetings for all fans). The trust stated their wish to liaise with the board to see this come to fruition. This could happen as early as June.

In March it was announced that Huddersfield were set to be taken over by an unnamed North American consortium. The Huddersfield Town Supporters Association (HTSA) naturally pushed for further clarification due to the mystery surrounding this consortium and released a statement detailing how they believe there are still ‘several important questions that have to be answered’. 

On the 28th the identity of the prospective new owner was confirmed as Kevin M Nagle, owner of Sacramento Republic over in America. Despite now knowing the identity of Nagle, it is likely the supporters will still have questions over what his ownership will look like. Hopefully he will realise the importance of strong fan engagement and provide the fans with the answers they need.

Reading had a difficult season this year unfortunately culminating in their relegation from the Championship, this was partly down to a points deduction imposed on them by the EFL. Supporters Trust at Reading (STAR) were encouraged by the fact that the clubs Head of Football Operations Mark Bowen came out and spoke both openly and transparently regarding the issue. Describing how the club would operate in the short and long term whilst discussing how the breached the business plan agreed with the EFL in November 2021 which led to their points deduction.

Despite the financial issues, there remains an openness on the part of the club which sees the Royals sit consistently in the top ten of the Fan Engagement Index, including the most recent 2021/22 edition. 

In their response to the points deduction STAR detailed how they would urge Reading to provide clear and transparent updates on the situation moving forward, arrange a meeting to communicate the views of the fans to senior management.

Watford have this year found themselves at risk of being in breach of EFL rules regarding fan engagement. The rules stipulate that clubs need to hold either meetings or fans forums at least twice each year, as of April 12th the Hornets had failed to hold any in 2022/23.

The club claims that they would happily pay a £1,000 fine to ensure that fan groups have enough time to agree on a structure that would allow all appropriate groups to have representation in a meeting with the clubs most senior officials. Watford’s most recent attempt at fan engagement (March 31st of last year) was heavily criticised by fans as they did not communicate anything about the so-called Supporter Committee until eight days after it was held. There were also questions about the behind closed doors nature of the meeting with some supporter representatives being invited in secret.

Watford have not offered a timescale on the next supporter engagement meeting but have said that owner Gino Pozzo and chairman Scott Duxbury will be in attendance. The issues surrounding fan engagement come at a time of disconnect between the fans and the club with some supporters demonstrating against Gino Pozzo’s ownership.

Lastly, the official supporters club at Wigan have this year been seeking assurances from their ownership due to issues with the payment of wages. In March they released a statement welcoming the news that players and staff had finally been paid in full however, they also recognised that Latics fans would have concerns regarding the long-term funding of the club.

As such, the next priority of the supporters’ club is to provide the clubs owners with an organised platform whereby they can give detailed answers to questions from the supporters about finances and organisational changes. They describe how Wigan’s chairman is arranging travel over to Greater Manchester and the supporters club will look to facilitate this meeting at the earliest opportunity.

As you can see, a fair proportion of the stories regarding fan engagement in the Championship can be described as negative. Unfortunately, it is reflection of something that is still all too common in the modern game, owners losing interest and neglecting clubs and their fans. This is undoubtedly why the majority of fan groups are overwhelmingly in favour of the fan-led review and the introduction of an independent regulator, and why work such as our own Fan Engagement Index is so important in improving and maintaining standards of fan engagement, and accountability for fans.

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