Why smart football people need to consider how fans connect with the game in the new normal

Assuming a return to the way we were would be a mistake with serious long-term consequences

What will normal look like when we get back to it? That’s a question we are, if tentatively lest we get ahead of ourselves, beginning to think about as news of elderly relatives and vulnerable friends getting their vaccine appointments filters through. There are many variables, and much care to be taken in the message transmitted about what it is safe and wise to do once we reach a critical mass of vaccination. But more than a few thoughts must have been turned towards thinking about doing the things we used to do, like going to the match.

I’ve seen it mentioned a few times this week that the live events sector is gearing up for unprecedented interest once restrictions are lifted. The view is that pent-up demand will explode and we’ll all be desperate to get back to games and gigs and shows. That might well be the case. Or it might not. 

Anecdotal evidence is not the best foundation upon which to base a strategy, but it wouldn’t be wise to dismiss the murmurings that suggest everything will not simply go back to how it was. I’ve heard more than a few conversations among previously hard-core matchgoers which suggest the rediscovery of “things other than football” may lead to a permanent change in behaviour. Following your team regularly can cost upwards of £500 a month once tickets, travel, food and drink are factored in. After over a year of having that £500 back in their pockets, people may not be as willing to part with it again. A change in behaviour could be driven by other factors too, simple ones such as embracing a slower pace of life or simply realising that missing the odd game is no big deal. 

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This may be beginning to sound like the old ‘football bubble’s going to burst’ argument that has been going on since at least 1992 while the bubble stubbornly continues not to burst. That’s not what I’m saying. I’ve no doubt that fans want to get back to games as soon as it is safe to do so. What I’m saying is that the nature of the relationship between fans and the game may, in the long-term, be seen to have changed. And that gives the game the chance to address some long-standing problems. 

The new normal will come together in a world in which unprecedented levels of death have had a profound effect on many lives, and on the way we view what is important. It will emerge in difficult economic times, where income could be lower and less regular. And it will be forged when our patterns of living and working have fundamentally changed. On a less macro level, none of us really knows if, when the chance comes to go to that first live event, to be back in a crowd, that we won’t suddenly baulk at the prospect. Is it really safe? Can I trust the other people in the crowd? How will I deal with the reality of being so close to so many people after being so long apart from almost everyone? 

So going back to business as usual may not be as easy as all that. Savvy businesses knew pretty soon after the pandemic hit that people would remember how brands and organisations behaved during the crisis. That didn’t really seem to register with football, which has blundered far too frequently. People will remember. So it’s even more important the penny drops that how businesses and institutions act as the new normal comes together could also have a profound effect on their future success.

One mistake, for example, that it is entirely possible to see football clubs make is to decide to recover losses from the fans. Put the prices up to make up for some of the losses over lockdown. Too many of football’s decision-makers think that preparedness to pay equates to willingness to pay. It doesn’t, and grudging acceptance doesn’t provide fertile ground. 

When people don’t like paying as much as they do, it doesn’t take much for them to decide to take their custom elsewhere. So a further increase – one that will be seen as making the fans pay for the pandemic – would amplify the effect of the factors I mentioned above.

In short, what I’m saying is that to be savvy, football needs to stop taking its relationship with fans for granted. There is a resentment about much that has, and hasn’t, happened with the game during the pandemic. There’s a sense that priorities haven’t been right, that sectional interest too often hindered common good. Football, it has to be said, has not had a good crisis. And the way to address that is to embrace the reset, to use it to deal with some of the festering discontent. 

What that means more than ever, and of course I would say this, is that there’s never been a better time for genuine partnership. I think supporters are willing to play their part. But it takes two to tango.

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The English FA has published its strategy document for the next four years, Time for Change. You can read about it in this presentation. It’s easy, too easy, to dismiss these things as little more than slick PR. It’s good practice for any organisation to say what it intends to do and how it intends to do it. And those of us arguing for things to be better need to engage. 

My initial response to the document is that it doesn’t give me a clear idea of what the FA thinks it is. One of the problems the organisation confronts, as Two Circles founder Matt Rogan says in a very good discussion on The Unofficial Partner podcast that also features former FA CEO Alex Horne, is that its scope is huge. It’s important to acknowledge this, but that doesn’t stop me thinking the way to deal with this is to choose some key issues to focus on, the delivery of which would help define the organisation. 

I agree with Horne when he says that the aspirations of ‘FA For All’ and ‘90 seconds to change the world’, while noble, risk being vacuous. Is it the FA’s job to change the world? Or just to run football – something which, done well, could contribute to positive change in the world. And which it is in the FA’s power to do. 

There are some really good elements of the strategy. The commitments to “equal opportunities for every girl” and “a game free from discrimination” are important, not least because they show how issues once considered fringe – and which, we must not forget, too many still want to see moved back to the fringe – are now absolutely mainstream. It’s not that long ago since English football governance actively prevented equal opportunities for every girl. And the commitment to a number – 5,000 quality pitches by 2024 – is solid and uncomplicated. And needed. Of course there’s an argument that the number should be bigger. But starting with a clear commitment is positive. 

But there are some big elements missing. It’s true that everyone will have their own ideas, their own list, and that the FA has suffered losses due to the pandemic along with every other business so hard choices have to be made. But the two big holes, in my view, show a failure to recognise key areas where the FA has an effect on a lot of people. And understanding how you connect with your market is the most important part of any business.

The first is around the FA’s role in developing coaching and playing standards. It is unnecessarily difficult and expensive to get a coaching qualification in England, and recent cutbacks – such as withdrawal of support for futsal – have prompted despair. Add this to the continued failure to get hold of the issues created by the labyrinth of petty little empires that run youth leagues across the country and you don’t have an environment conducive to development. This is an area in which millions of people come into direct contact with the sport, and clear leadership from the FA here would boost its standing.

The other missing element is the absence of any attempt to be a guardian of the game’s clubs, from the top level down. Football clubs are rooted in notions of community and identity, they mean much more to people than most – any – other business. And fans want the FA to be the body that enforces rules that stop businesses and individuals playing fast and loose with them. The sad fact is not only that the FA does not do this because the clubs actively prevent it, but also that the FA actively colluded in them doing that.

That mistake is now recognised, but most think it’s too late. It might not be if the FA linked up more closely with supporters to make the promised review of governance work. Supporters want to see a strong governing body that has a clear vison and that protects the game and its assets, and they are willing to work with the game’s authorities to achieve this. For an idea of how this can work, listen to the very good Niamh O’Mahony of the Irish Football Supporters Network talking to fan engagement specialist Kevin Rye on The Fan Engagement Pod

Unfortunately, there’s one other omission from the FA’s strategy document. There’s not a single mention of working with supporters. 

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A little self-promotion to close this week. The book I wrote, along with football business guru Alex Fynn, about Mauricio Pochettino’s time at Spurs and the extraordinary journey to the 2019 Champions League Final, is being reprinted by publisher Pitch Publishing. 

One Step from Glory has been described as “a revealing love letter” by Henry Winter, and there are also endorsements from Patrick Barclay, Mike Collett, Jim White and Clare Tomlinson. It focuses on Spurs, but we tell a tale of how football connects with people, and we take a look at how the wider game and business works. I hope you’ll feel enthused to buy it, read it and recommend it.  

Post header photo by Hakan Nural on Unsplash