One of the less heralded elements of UEFA’s FFP Club Licensing Rules (introduced in 2010 and ‘going live’ in 2012/13) is the creation of the Supporter Liaison Role (SLO). Ostensibly to encourage better communications between clubs and supporters, I believe that it can have an even more positive impact on future sustainability than the financial governance rules that have all but squeezed any mention of SLOs from the back pages.
Given that challenges vary across Europe it’s likely that in many countries the focus will be on safety and security, ticket allocation and travel. However, if we see financial stability as an urgent priority we need to articulate a SLO role that complements these governance requirements and drives growth.
The opportunity presented by the SLO becomes clear once you look at the factors stifling growth. As often as not, football is hamstrung by its tendency to believe in two principal growth strategies: winning and (when that isn’t possible) discounting. The former is only open to a select few these days and the latter only serves to diminish the brand.
That’s not just idle speculation, but a compelling conclusion based on our work in the industry over the past seven years. By exposing the real experiences of (particularly) new families (whose particular needs serve to highlight the narrow view football has of what its product is and who its customers are) we have been able to help clubs identify and address ‘gaps’ but also created a catalyst for the development of a different mindset – one that offers clubs the possibility of building growth on fan engagement.
There’s some historical baggage at the heart of the issue. Football has paid lip service to fan engagement over the years. Beyond the regular ‘fans evening’ there’s no real evidence of commitment to working in partnership with fans (outside of the member-owned group of clubs, like FC Barcelona) before Lord Justice Taylor’s report in 1989. He talked about the ‘safety and well being’ of fans and (I paraphrase) how these needs had been ignored for far too long. Safety has certainly been addressed by then, but it was only examples like Norwich City, from 1997, who saw that there was an opportunity to strengthen their future by engaging in proper, responsible consultation, who truly pursued the ‘well being’ agenda.
In recent years, the advent of the Football Task Force and the IFC (Independent Football Commission), the creation of Club Charters in the Football League and Premier League, the emergence of more fan-owned clubs and, it has to be accepted, a growing expectation of transparency from consumers more generally, that has led to football taking a longer look at how well it engages. The SLO is a fantastic opportunity to increase the pace of change.
Football has, in recent years, opted to undertake more surveys, with a view to understanding what matters to fans. However, the enduring tendency to do this as a ‘one off’ exercise and to resist deeper engagement creates its own problems. Historically football hasn’t pursued a ‘partnership’ with fans, so one can understand the reluctance to engage from both perspectives, but by only doing occasional surveys and not getting the full input of fans (with their attendant insights into club identity, heritage and meaning) the resulting improvements tend to be operational in nature (quicker, faster, cheaper, better refreshment quality, etc) – only serving to increase the homogeneity of the experience and to diminish the identity of individual clubs.
By engaging more fully with fans and making them a key constituency in the improvement process, not only do things get better, but they also get better in ways only your club could imagine. Clubs often see their product as the football, the advertising hoardings, etc, where the fan sees the magic at the heart of their generational relationship: the club that lets a youngster steward the players’ car park as a surprise treat taps into this; the club that reacts to complaining fans by inviting them in, walking them through the changing rooms and sitting them in the dug out before asking them what the problem is – and the club that reconfigures its entry system to highlight fans who are celebrating their birthday.
This is therefore the big opportunity for the SLO. Leading a fuller approach to fan engagement. Let’s articulate a role that goes beyond simple surveying and starts to structure feedback: create representative online panels to set the improvement agenda, introduce face to face consulting groups to ensure the improvements reflect the club’s identity and develop measures that realistically reflect the relationships different fan groups have with your club. For example, new families are objective enough to be asked whether or not they would recommend your club, while long term ‘core’ fans will tell you how valued they feel.
Who should fulfil the SLO role? The temptation is to appoint an existing member of staff, but how about considering bringing a fan into the fold? Apart from an injection of objectivity and passion for the subject matter, they will surely see the role differently. For example, would an internal appointment naturally result in the appointee travelling to every away game so they could truly commune with the customer? I doubt it. Appoint a fan and they will do that instinctively – it’s the right thing to do.
Look to some of the job titles in the US: fan retention manager, customer service director, fan engagement manager, etc. Their roles are structured to drive growth. The SLO offers us the perfect chance to complement the much needed governance rules. If sustainability is our aim, then let’s learn from leading organisations in other industries. Governance is vital, but it’s a given in the majority of organisations. It’s in the quality of customer engagement that sustainability truly resides.