In the fallout from the disastrous launch of football’s European Super League proposal, many have sought to understand the motivations driving the Clubs to launch it. One area that has not been so well discussed in this analysis is what was revealed within clubs about their attitude to their fans. Many professed themselves to have been taken aback by the bitterness of the reaction from their fans. This reveals a fundamental disconnect between fans and owners.
“Stand Up if You’re a Legacy Fan”
We have heard, for some for the first time, the expression “legacy fans”. The fans who go to the stadiums, who hold the season tickets, who live in the town where the club is situated;- they are increasingly described as legacy fans. They are perceived to be the boring fans left behind in the dull old Premier League. What the clubs were seeking to attract with the Super League were millions of new, younger fans in the growing markets of the Far East and South America.
The expression “ legacy fans” to describe existing fans is not new. Many of the new owners of Premier League Clubs and their marketing advisers have been using this expression for years.
The fact that it was used as a justification for this European Super League proposal demonstrates an alarming disdain for the fans of the Club.
Governing Bodies and owners of Clubs are frequently accused of taking their fan base for granted. But a deliberate policy that partitions fans into “legacy” and “new” reveals a chilling disregard for their fans and perhaps explains why the clubs so miscalculated the reaction.
The Impact of US Sports Ownership
So, how did they come to this line of thinking? It is illustrative that many of the driving forces behind the European Super League proposal were those Club owners who also own US Sport franchises. In US Sport, the relationship with the fan base is much more transactional, more distant and the fans are a significantly less important stakeholder in a club. The owners made the mistake of believing that English fans of football would be like fans of US Sport.
Franchises in US Sport
In the US sporting world, it is not uncommon for clubs to “up sticks” and move to a different city or part of the country. They have also been known to change their name completely.
The Dodgers’ move in the 1950’s from Brooklyn to Los Angeles is the most famous. But in the NFL, the Cardinals have been in St Louis and Arizona, the Houston Oilers became the Tennessee Titans, the Indianapolis Colts were once in Baltimore. The current Baltimore Ravens were once the Cleveland Browns. The Raiders have been bounced between Oakland and Los Angeles. The Chargers moved from San Diego to Los Angeles. And Arsenal’s Stan Kroenke’s Rams have moved to Los Angeles from St Louis.
In each case, the club moves out of town, the fans left behind protest, but the new franchise starts up with a fan base that soon grows.
So, finding new fan bases is very common in US Sport.
Not here. English fans hate the idea of franchising- of owners moving a club from its traditional stadium or even, heaven forbid, from the town in which it was created. Whilst Stan Kroenke might have satisfied himself that Arsenal once moved from Woolwich to Islington, even retaining the name of the Woolwich Arsenal factory from which they were formed, he will have forgotten the lasting bitterness and rancour that lingers still from the move of Wimbledon to Milton Keynes to become the MK Dons.
The Importance of Fans to the Broadcast Experience
Perhaps they also persuaded themselves that the fact that they had played nearly a whole season without fans without a drop off in broadcast revenue meant that the fans in the stadium were less important. Again, this is a dangerous miscalculation.
There are few decisions that a viewing fan of a game has to make when watching a game on the TV whilst matches are behind closed doors. One such decision is whether to watch the feed with artificial crowd effects or not. Broadcasters recognise that the noise of a crowd is a fundamental element of the game. Most viewers prefer to watch the game with artificial crowd noise pumped into the broadcast. That is because the broadcast experience is enhanced by a loud and raucous crowd reacting to the action on the field.
When I worked in broadcasting, it was accepted wisdom that the viewing figures and viewer enjoyment would be greater in a full stadium. Even the finest game in the world feels flat in a half empty stadium. In fact, there was a time when Clubs were being encouraged to reflect this by significantly reducing ticket prices to encourage full stadiums so as to better service the broadcast coverage.
And it is not just a stadium full of any fans. The crowd has an atmosphere that can enhance the broadcast. The reactions, the gasps of despair, the tingle of excitement at a developing attack, and the chants and songs from a crowd, all enhance the viewing experience. If you are to transplant a match to a wholly neutral stadium, something about the crowd effects changes and this intangible “home effect” is as sought after by the broadcasters as the action itself.
“Home Field Advantage”
Clubs should not disregard the advantage that comes from a home match in the League. Statistics from this season, played behind closed doors, have shown far fewer home victories and many more away victories than in previous seasons when there have been full attendances.
We hear often about how a crowd can provide an advantage to the home team. We hear players talk of the intimidating atmosphere for visiting players at Elland Road, Leeds. Legend recounts the advantage that a packed Anfield can bring to Liverpool on big European nights. Fans talk of The Kop being able metaphorically to “suck” the ball into the net in tight games.
On the corollary, many of us have been at matches where there is a poisonous atmosphere, where the crowd might be protesting the manager or the ownership. Just as a positive crowd can enhance a team’s prospects, so a negative atmosphere can intimidate the home team.
Owners who risk jeopardising this loyal, home crowd advantage, really are tinkering with the on field success of the team.
Fans are Part of the Brand Heritage of the Club
Owners come and go just as individual fans come and go. But the “Fans” in the sense of the fanbase of the Club, is embedded in the heritage and the brand values of the Club. An owner has to work hard to embed their values into a Club. Very often, the brand values are deeply influenced by the fans and the reputation that they contribute to the Club.
The owners of the Super League clubs, whose solemn “mea culpa” talked of miscalculating, revealed their fundamental misunderstanding of the extent to which their fan base underpins the soul, values and heritage of the Club. Not only did they take it for granted. Worse than that, they allowed themselves to believe that they could introduce a new fan base and potentially lose their existing base, without impacting the brand of the club. The owners fatally disregarded the importance of their existing fans and the legacy that they bring.
It is to be hoped that the owners were jolted to awareness of the importance of their fans to the success of their sporting enterprise. To try and pigeonhole their fans as “legacy fans” and to allow the impression to be created that such fans were unimportant and represented the past, whilst the new fans in the Far East and elsewhere were the glittering prize, was reckless and patronising. One wonders how the owners and their advisers allowed this “group think” to develop. Even the lightest consultation with their fans should have snapped them out of such thinking.
Let us hear no more talk of “legacy fans”. The expression should be banned. It should be consigned to the same dustbin to which the European Super League proposal went this week.