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May 3, 2012
Over the last few years a debate has emerged on the importance of involving supporters in football governance structures. Some examples of that discourse could be the creation of Supporters Direct by the British Government, the unequivocal case made by the Independent European Sport Review of 2006, UEFA’s support of fans networks or the creation of the clubs’ supporters liaison officers as part of UEFA’s licensing system. Most people seem to accept that fans have a right to have a say on how their clubs and their game are governed. But, come to think of it: why? Back in 2008 over a very amicable chat I challenged the representatives of the supporters attending the European Sports Forum in Biarritz: why should supporters have a say on football if, for example, Madonna fans are not involved in how she runs her career? It may seem trivial, but serious academics are well advised never to take anything for granted, aren’t they?
Of course, a very easy escape could have been to pass the ball back to me, like any risk-averse average footballer would do, asking: why not? But I owe fair play to people such as Antonia Hagemann, Daniela Wurbs or Dave Boyle, from Supporters Direct and Football Supporters Europe: since then, they have taken on the challenge to make their best intellectually convincing case, when they could simply have relied on the favourable wave of the moment.
A blog post cannot do justice to the arguments in favour of supporter involvement, but at the very least one needs to recognise them for daring to take the challenge. The case for supporter involvement refers to the importance of football clubs for the community. But it also argues that fans possess a wide and diverse range of expertise which they are willing to offer to the club in return of very little. Certainly, issues of democracy and transparency also come to mind. But it is perhaps the concept of ‘fan equity’, as articulated by Sean Hamil, among others, that best blends the traditional views of football as a community asset and the modern commercial game. The argument can basically be summarised in saying that fans are an asset for their clubs. And they are both a social and financial asset, for a large fan base has the potential to generate important income streams. Thus, by making sure that fans remain engaged and on board, a club is only preserving its social and financial capital.
Of course, one might disagree. The case against the involvement of supporters will focus on the commercialisation of football, and the American model of sport, where spectators and fans are seen as customers. Football clubs should, therefore, ensure high levels of customer satisfaction, but this need not include their involvement in governance.
As it usually happens in these governance debates, there is probably no right or wrong answer. In FREE we have set ourselves the task to find out, over the next three years, the extent to which football supporters are satisfied with the way their game is governed and the perception they have of different options of governance. And we want to do this by asking not only those supporters who are currently actively engaged with football structures, but also the more general public who simply loves the game.
Let’s hope we will ‘live to tell’ whether football supporters are really different from Madonna fans: are they only ‘material girls’ or do they have something ‘like a prayer’ to address to the current governance structures?