Commercialisation of sport is nothing new and something that many are resigned to as being part and parcel of the modern game. As a result, the role of the fan in the game as an interlocutor in the direction of the game is becoming less and less as their commercial value increases.
Without fans as spectators, viewers, and consumers professional sport ceases to exist. Can anything be done to halt the metamorphosis from being the heart and soul of a club to merely a number in database of metrics? Perhaps more importantly than this question is, do we want to be more than a number? On some level, people have to be comfortable with being led blindly as opposed to having any say in a process. This growing lethargy amongst the general sporting public has allowed for removal of sport from the hands of the people and into the hands of organisations.
Football is the most popular sport in the world and is played at various levels by people from every background in every corner of the world. Naturally this will bring up many exceptions to the rule. Club ownership has both privatised models and community models and everything in between. Certain football associations, leagues and clubs around the world have made a concerted effort to maintain an inclusive relationship between club and fan.
UEFA have played an important role in keeping the connection between fan and club strong and helped back the establishment of the Football Supporters Europe in 2009. They’ve also supported the work of SD Europe which are active in assisting fan groups in becoming owners and involved in the running of clubs. Whether or not this is an altruistic endeavour by UEFA or a recognisation of the overall importance of fan engagement for it’s financial benefits is up for debate.
“Fan engagement” are two words we often see especially in Australia where the Aleague and their clubs are faced with the challenge of getting the public to invest in their product. When engagement is interpreted as getting people to attend or switch on, the point is being lost. Engagement in this respect can be fleeting, or represent nothing more than a passing interest. Clubs, even today, need to foster loyalty and commitment that goes beyond a trend, fad or mood.
Engagement should be replaced by the word “involvement”. Making a fan feel involved in the club by offering real options available to them to help shape the direction is how you create a lifelong and generational connection. Giving fans a way to be more than a customer by investing time, money and their passion into the club is how many clubs around the world got started. The biggest football clubs in the world were at some point nothing more than a group of individuals who wanted to share their love of the sport coming together for a bit of fun and recreation.
From these humble beginnings, these global sporting entities have sprouted but at the end of the day the connections developed and handed down by generation to generation have seen to their lasting strength. Fans though aren’t merely there at the beginning of the journey, they are often there at the “end” too. When the money men run out or run out of money, the fans are the ones still there for the club. Fans have been the ones that have ensured the survival and rebirth of clubs by creating phoenix clubs which are inspirational examples of fans not allowing their clubs to be killed off.
Real Madrid, Barcelona, River Plate, Boca Juniors, Bayern Munich, FC Porto, Benfica, Galatasaray, Hajduk Split are just some clubs who are run by ownership models where members are integral. Real Madrid and Barcelona have very powerful and rich people runnning them but at the end of the day much like how countries run in democracies, they are answerable to the members through an election process.
By giving members voting rights when it comes to electing the boards of clubs, it goes a long way to encouraging that the board meet certain requirements that fans hold dear be it on the pitch or off it. At the very least, it gives the members a sense that they have a real connection to the club that they’ve grown up with and therefore foster a loyalty that becomes unbreakable.
Bayern Munich has 277,000 members which is a remarkable effort for a club that for most of their early existence where the second team in Munich. It’s this massive member base that has allowed the club to remain so long at the top of German football and a perennial force in Europe. This is a good time to differentiate between “season ticket holder” and “member”, as we can see by the numbers that Bayern members are not guaranteed seats at every game.
Australian football uses the term “members” to describe “season-ticket holders” because the illusion of belonging is preferred to the reality of giving fans real involvement. Being a member means being involved beyond the 90 minutes, it means your voice not only can be heard but must be listened to, it means that accountability becomes more important than accounting, transparency isn’t a wish but a right.
With big changes ahead in the football landscape, member-based/privatised hybrid models must be explored. If we are going to create a football ecosystem with many links in the chain, we need to create a united effort. We need to create a system in which “clubs” and “members” are not just buzz words that invoke feelings of what these words used to mean, but a system that restores these words to their true meaning and the unwavering loyalty they inspire.