Redefining fan relationships

On 5th May, fans of Manchester United made their way into a near-empty Old Trafford – a ground they had not been able to enter all season due to the Covid-19 pandemic – ahead of their biggest home game of the year against Liverpool.

Those fans did not leave for some time. Kick-off was delayed and the match was eventually postponed amid the most extensive – and often fractious – of the supporter protests that followed April’s attempts by the owners of Manchester United, Liverpool, and ten other European clubs to create a breakaway continental competition, the Super League.

A drift in communication

Similar demonstrations have taken place at other clubs, especially in the Premier League. At Arsenal, owned by the Kroenke family who also run the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams and the NHL’s Denver Nuggets, there were calls for a change of leadership inside and outside the Emirates Stadium on the final day of the season. Fans there were able to voice their disapproval in the presence of director Josh Kroenke, who was, like them, able to make his first appearance at a match in several months.

While political intrigue and emotive coverage of the Super League project, and its subsequent collapse, has informed perceptions, the issues at hand run far deeper. At the core is a drift in communications and considerations between club owners and fans, with a common refrain having been that those pushing for the move had been surprised by the vociferousness of supporter opposition.

Recognizing the vital role of fans

Several executives and ownership members have stressed as much in their communications after the event, although the most startling comments came from the chief executive of JP Morgan, which provided a $3.5 billion guarantee. “I’m not an expert in European sports,” said James Dimon, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, “but obviously it is a lot of fandom.

The response from some of the teams involved has been to investigate new ways of involving fans in decision-making processes, such as reserving seats on their boards. At the same time, in England at least, a ‘fan-led’ review of football governance is planned to seek more lasting structural answers and address concerns about other actors in the game.

However, there is a role for every part of the sports industry to play in improving relationships with fans. The first element of this is to develop a richer understanding of context. The central failing of the Super League scheme was that it ran counter to established ideas within European football about an open sporting pyramid, while there is an ongoing tension between the interests of private owners, community-rooted fanbases, and multi-stakeholder tournaments.

A period of development and relationship building

That is not the same context as every other sport in every other region. Some sports have less storied or defined competitive structures or place limits on the opportunities for the best athletes to take on one another. Investment and commercial growth will help other communities to flourish but consultation and partnership are essential.

This is a fluid period in the development of the sports business, with changes in media consumption and technology affecting how games are watched and played in physical and digital spaces. For all the opportunities that emerge, difficult decisions will also follow.

There will always be differences between those running sport and their fans. Nevertheless, those brands and organizations that aim to provide solutions, improve access and demonstrate real commitment to shared causes have a chance to bridge the gap.