What do fans of English football want?

Earlier this week, Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden gathered the stakeholders of English football together in what was dubbed a Football Summit. The idea was to address the many issues the game is facing, but it was the attendance list that caught the eye. Alongside the league chiefs and the Football Association were representatives of the fans and the players. The fact that the presence of reps of the talent and the people that watch it is noteworthy tells you much about how the game has been run, and why it needs to be run better.

But this, before you draw any hasty conclusions, is not going to be one of those ‘bash the football authorities’ pieces. Although goodness knows they deserve a bashing sometimes. Anyone who has read this far will be more or less familiar with the failings of the authorities on a host of issues from governance to diversity. And during the crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic the game’s propensity for tone-deafness really hasn’t helped it. But you’re reading this because, like me and many hundreds of thousands of others, you value the game enough to want better for it. Much as we, justifiably, criticise the game, it is in many respects a success story.

I’ve been going to the game since 1978, and over the last 10 years I’ve become more actively involved in the supporter movement. I’ve also written about the business side of the game, and worked for some well-known sports brands. So, in the spirit of fans now being considered proper grown-up stakeholders – and who doesn’t want to be a stakeholder these days? – here’s some of the conversation that’s going around in my head.

Football is no ordinary business

At the very top level, football is a huge success story. The Premier League is one of the most successful businesses in the world. Demand is huge, reflected in the 97%+ attendance rates at stadiums for the live event and the huge TV audiences. In an age when content is king, football – and particularly Premier League football – is the stickiest of content, sprinkling a little of its magic on any brand that successfully associates itself with it. But there’s too little recognition across the board of why football is so popular and so valuable a business. The explanation is simple – brand loyalty.

But my club isn’t a can of fizzy drink.

Precisely. If you can’t get Coke, you’ll make do with Pepsi. If Tesco don’t have what you want, there’s always Sainsbury’s. But if Spurs bore the pants off me and their forward line couldn’t hit the proverbial cow’s backside with a banjo, I’m not about to sign up for an Arsenal season ticket. (Although as this is football, I need to make it abundantly clear that the Spurs forward line is obviously not in need of any banjos). Fans’ loyalty to their club transcends almost everything else, and this is how the clubs can make so much money. Other brands can only dream of what football clubs have, which is why so many want to hitch their star to their wagon. What winds people up about many clubs is that they take advantage of that brand loyalty when it suits, but then try to pretend they are no different to any other business when it suits too.

So what’s your point?

That unique business model needs to be recognised at every level. And a key part of that is viewing the relationship between clubs and fans less as transactional and more as emotional. Remember the great cliche of ‘football without fans is nothing’. It’s truer than you think. Because without the loyalty and commitment of fans, without understanding that comes from the accumulation of shared culture and experience, football is just 22 people chasing a ball around a field. However beautifully they do it.

But do we have to call it a business?

I know why that grates. The Premier League itself is a little too fond of saying how brilliant it is without acknowledging where it fits in – to coin a phrase – to the bigger picture. But many in the game, and the supporter movement, are also a little too eager to knock it down.

It can be unloveable, arrogant, and it can certainly appear greedy, and the Premier League’s inability to recognise or understand how it comes across not only doesn’t help it, it actively contributes to how poorly it is perceived. But, as in every area, there are good people who recognise the need for change. Their more progressive efforts are not helped by the tendency in some quarters to see the Premier League as the enemy.

This is sport, and so those in it naturally want to get to the top. I’ve never been entirely convinced by the fans of lower league clubs who have argued they have no interest in their club getting to the top. One of the attractions of the system we have, and an attraction fiercely defended by fans, is that there is at least the possibility of a team rising through the system to the top. Which, it is important to point out, expressly does not mean I don’t recognise the joy that can be drawn from competing at a diferent level.

Let’s face it, the days when teams rose or fell simply on merit are as far away as when you could buy a ticket, a programme and a bag of chips on the way home and still have change from a fiver.

That’s evocatively expressed, you should really think about writing in some kind of career. The point is, though, that the principle of progress on merit still exists, and the battle is to prevent us moving further away from it than we have. Attacking those who are at the top at the moment only fuels the argument – almost always advanced by those who want to keep the current incumbents at the top – that criticism is fuelled solely by envy. We’re not against success, we’re against the efforts to prevent success.

So we’re back to football being a different sort of business, then?

Spot on. A business is driven by the need to maximise its chances of success and to eliminate the opposition. In the football business, guaranteed success eventually reduces the appeal, and competition is a requisite. The big club owners who seek to ensure only their clubs ever have a chance of winning are just doing what an unfettered free market system drives them to do. That’s why we need some kind of independent regulatory body to preserve competitive integrity.

State control of football! Steady on comrade, I don’t want my taxes paying for Burnley’s left back.

No one’s suggesting that’s what it means, apart from the people who peddle the nonsense about the politics of envy. Or football being the ballet of the north. But I’ve just said why the club owners have little choice but to pursue a course that’s ultimately not in the interests of the football business – just their business. A truly progressive and smart government would establish a body that could regulate to preserve competitive integrity, prevent the accumulation of too much power in too few hands, and in doing so preserve the value and potential of the business as a whole. And a body with the vision and power to establish an effective governance system is the key to any progress.

You’ve mentioned governance and I’m starting to glaze over. What does it mean? And make this brief as it’s been 5 minutes now.

Governance just means how the game is run. It needs a shake up so that the governing bodies aren’t only accessible to people who don’t have to work full-time – a part of the diversity agenda too often overlooked. It means establishing as a basic principle recognition of the fact that football clubs are unique business institutions. It means giving the people who play the game and the people who make up its audience greater influence on the key decisions, while maintaining a proper separation of influence and control.

So how are you going to do that?

By making sure that this latest review of how football is run doesn’t end up like all the others, kicked into the long grass after the vested interests and egos grind the policymakers down. Football is too important to be left to carry on as it is.