Mihir Bose: Clubs should treat fans not as customers but investors

The sorry Liverpool saga about season ticket prices, increasing prices, fans walking out, then price rise rescinded, has once again raised the question of what is the place of fans in modern football.

The moment the question is asked the answer comes there can be no football without fans. But this is as much a cliché as taking each game at a time and the various other sound bites football managers and chairmen come up with.

The fact is the role of fans has changed since football became a business and neither clubs nor fans have really appreciated that.

The first point is that for all the honeyed words addressed to the fans the owners and executives of football clubs, at least most of the big ones, know that they could run their clubs even if not a single fan turned up. Of course it would not look good on television and they would not want television to advertise empty stands but in terms of income, fan income is a very small part of the revenue. Unlike even 30 years ago most of the income of clubs, certainly the big clubs, comes from television, marketing and sponsorship. And let us not forget in other sports like cricket, rugby, tennis you have major events being shown on live television where stands are far from full. Television does not like to dwell on the empty seats but they can be seen.

Football has avoided that, certainly in England, and that is because clubs have been successful in massaging the change by pretending that fans are still the most important element of the show they are putting on. They are always called supporters when in the last 30 years they have been turned into customers who are treated no differently to the customers who go to a supermarket or any high street shop. And just as a supermarket lure customers by offering glitzy products so do clubs.

So witness the hype that takes place when a new player is signed. The club photographer takes a picture of him kissing the badge of the club, itself a fairly new branding exercise that was developed in the 80s, as if he is joining some sort of Masonic lodge. The player is pictured holding the club shirt looking for all the world like a model showing off a new dress and the club television interviews him where he says how much he is aware of the love the fans have for the club, how dedicated they are and how he will do everything to show that he loves them and truly belongs to them.

In reality the kiss and the words of loyalty to the fans are meaningless because the player is a mercenary who when a better opportunity comes along, and this almost invariably means a higher wage packet, will move, kiss some other badge and declare his devotion to some other customer base.

Football fans have accepted this because, in a world where many of the old ties that linked communities together and provided reassuringly secure points have disappeared, a football club, and in particular a season ticket for a particular club, provides something the fan can cling on to certain whatever else changes this symbol of a community will not. Clubs have exploited this marketing branded goods that have nothing to do with football confident that fans will buy them as a means of identifying with the club. Yet even as they have done that they have tried to make a club more like a business where the bottom line on a balance sheet, in other words how much profit a club makes, is the most important consideration.

So what can be done? And here it is worth quoting what Harry Redknapp said after the Liverpool owners were forced to shelve their price rises. Redknapp said: “You can understand the frustration of the fans. The money that’s pumped in now through Sky and you have players’ wages, managers’ wages, coaches’ wages — everybody’s having a slice of the pie. The fans really should be getting the biggest slice. If there’s a bit to give out they should be helping the fans. It’s an expensive game for people with kids. There are a lot of people out there working all week just to afford taking the family to football.”

It could be argued that this is what the Liverpool owners have done. However if you read their statement carefully it is clear that what they have done is treat their fans as if they were customers. Just as a supermarket reduces prices when it feels it is losing customers so Liverpool have decided to, in effect, reduce the price. But football fans are not customers. They are not going to abandon a club they have always supported because another club down the road is cheaper. Can anyone imagine Liverpool fans switching to Everton because the prices on the other side of Stanley Park is less?

To make a real change what football needs is to accept that fans are not customers but shareholders. And look at what companies do with shareholders. A company making money of course declares dividends. However companies also do more. When a company makes good money it will give money back to keep shareholders happy and not be tempted by offers from those wanting to buy the company. And in the corporate world this has worked and worked very well.

So what a football club should do is in a year where it has made good money it should declare that a certain proportion of its surplus will be returned to the season ticket holders in proportion to the price they have paid for their tickets, those paying more getting a little bit more. It may not amount to a lot of money but it will be a gesture to say fans are, to use the phrase now so common, stake holders in the club and have a call on the club’s profits.

I realise this is not going to happen. Club owners see the money they get as “their money”. They may see themselves as custodians of the club as the Liverpool owners described themselves but they are, in effect, feudal landlords except the words they use are more soothing and meant to make them sound better. And unless their basic attitude changes and they see fans whom they profess to idolise as shareholders in their business, fans will continue to be treated as customers and when the time comes asked for more money and ever more money.

Mihir Bose was the first sports editor of the BBC. He has worked for various media outlets and launched the Inside Sport column for the Daily Telegraph. Now a freelance journalist he has written 29 books. His most recent books are The Spirit of the Game: How Sport Made the Modern World and Game Changer: How the English Premier League Came to Dominate the World. Follot Mihir on Twiitter @mihirbose