We begin in the French town of Le Havre. The town’s French character does not meet the eye obviously, with the city eschewing both Paris’ famous Haussmannian architecture and the sunshine endemic to the southern reaches of L’Hexagone. Its football is no saving grace. Never having the support to rival established centres such as Marseille and Lyon, its club flirts regularly with promotion to Ligue 1, before all hopes are lost to the city’s raging winds in the final weeks of the season.
In the midst of annual disappointments, the city contents itself with the fame of the club’s past, with the likes of Riyad Mahrez and Paul Pogba having taken their first steady footballing steps at the Stade Océane. One wonders if the club awaits a sudden eruption, in a curious homage to the volcano-like structure attracting tourists in the heart of this Normandy port.
So why do we begin here? During a talk held here in 2015, a well-known journalist claimed that with the rise of FFP, football clubs would financially come to resemble Arsenal, a club held up as a model for financial restraint in Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski’s celebrated work, Soccernomics.
In hindsight, the expert seems a poor prophet. Reams have been devoted to Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City’s exploits in the transfer market, while fees across Europe continue to shoot up, driven mostly by Spanish and British clubs. Even plucky Arsenal contrived to break its transfer record twice in the short span of a few months in January 2018. Despite the Premier League attracting lower bids from television houses this year, frugality seems foreign to most European clubs.
However, another aspect of Arsenal calls for a closer look. Part pantomime and part tragicomedy, ArsenalFanTV continues to attract attention, with fans and detractors alike eagerly waiting for the next round of drama at every step. In a world filled with hashtags and selfies, ArsenalFanTV is an enduring reminder of the club’s social footprint, particularly in the way the channel’s antics sharply polarise Arsenal fans while providing entertainment for the rest.
The 21st-century club: a social animal
For all their travails in recent years, few clubs have mastered the art of announcing a marquee signing as well as Manchester United. #POGBACK went far beyond a mere announcement of the return of a prodigal son. It served as a statement of intent, with United confirming its ability to wrest the world’s brightest talents away from the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid.
Not content with the one-off announcement, United repeated the feat with Alexis Sánchez, with his announcement video giving a unique perspective into the Chilean’s life beyond football. While both campaigns attracted mockery due to the middling performances of the men in question, one can argue that even that attention showers United with unsolicited publicity, ultimately feeding revenue.
United are far from the only innovator on social media. Clubs across leagues and nations routinely announce line-ups, signings and team news on Twitter, with German clubs also proving masters at ribbing their adversaries online even as the match is on. Players have proved equally adept at taking to social media, using such platforms to further both their engagement with their clubs and bolstering their personal brands and marketability.
These tendencies towards social engagement predate today’s 4G era. Ever since the early 2000s, clubs such as United and Real Madrid sought to expand their footprints into Asia, with summer tours to the continent becoming a much-maligned fixture. While Madrid banked on international stars such as David Beckham to attract renown in the region, United deepened their influence on the continent, signing Park Ji-sung amongst others.
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The easy availability of European football on Asian television helped, and streets from Bangkok to Delhi and Jakarta to Seoul were littered with jerseys of Messi, Beckham, Zidane and Ronaldo by the end of the decade. In this vein, social media can be simply seen as the next step of engagement, where fans can use their devices to follow their team beyond the pitch, while also decreasing the publicity costs for the clubs involved.
In the present day, there are growing indicators that club presence on social media remains in no way the one-way street to the promotion it once was. In giving the fans a voice as well, social media permits them to ask uncomfortable questions of the clubs, either by direct means or by calling attention to them in the mainstream media.
For instance, the Barry Bennell sex abuse scandal put leading clubs and figures in the spotlight largely due to the voice social media had given to both the victims and disgruntled fans. The ensuing backlash against Crewe Alexandra Director of Football Dario Gradi, doubtlessly fuelled by disgruntled fans taking to Twitter, eventually caused the mainstream British media to devote space to such voices, garnering the League Two fan base publicity it could have scarcely have dreamt of.
Growing transparency about how clubs are run from the boardroom now causes intrepid journalists to ask if the style of play is all that matters. Manchester City has been a high-profile subject to such questions in recent times, with analysts wondering if Pep Guardiola’s scintillating style of football suffices to excuse the ownership’s dodgy links to Qatar. In a similar vein, the role of Red Bull in the running of RB Leipzig divides Germany.
The one way in which clubs may come to resemble the businesses they were compared to is in terms of social responsibility. Despite being thrust into the spotlight, the staff at Manchester City have been among the earliest to recognise that such platforms also permit it to broadcast or endorse causes of its own. The same was evidenced by Guardiola’s wearing of the yellow ribbon last winter, in solidarity with the Catalan independence movement.
In earlier times, such incidents would have died down with the FA’s obligatory rap on the knuckles, but the infinite memory of social media means that such acts are still debated, furthering awareness about social causes through the relatively universal language of football.
What remains abundantly clear is that we are at the crest of an engagement wave, wherein the count on the turnstile is no longer the sole thing which matters. In attracting fans from all over the world, and encouraging dialogue between supporters themselves or between the supporters and the club, football clubs will have to reshape their identities. The act of supporting a club could in future provide a valuable window into the principles and values the fan base endorses.
The primary concern of most fans, however, remain matters on the pitch. Should fans be allowed to influence on-pitch matters?
The case for greater fan influence
At the dawn of the 2000s, Arsène Wenger predicted that a day would come when the team for a game would be selected by public voting. Fortunately for him, that day is yet to arrive, even as he vacates the Arsenal hot seat after 22 years in charge. What he did not predict, however, was that these very fans would play a major role in eventually closing out his tenure at the Emirates.
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In addition to the fickle circus that is ArsenalFanTV, Gunners fans took to all possible media outlets to weigh in regarding an overstayed welcome. From the zany move of flying banners over the Emirates to forums and radio phone-ins, a section of Arsenal fans maintained concerted pressure for a change in the Emirates dugout, with their voice getting particularly notable after the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson from Manchester United.
This section eventually got a major fillip after Arsenal legends such as Ian Wright began endorsing their stance in 2016. Particularly critical after Wenger was granted a contract extension in 2017, it is fair to say that this group played a role in the man deciding to quit.
The case of Arsenal remains particularly groundbreaking due to the fans successfully acting as an external pressure group to effect change particularly close to on-field matters. Fan involvement in the boardroom has long been a staple of shareholder-owned clubs, such as those in Germany, yet fans exercise precious little control in decisions affecting play from week to week, such as managerial appointments. At most, as is the case with Barcelona, presidents are elected with a mandate to execute a certain campaign over a set tenure.
The reluctance to extend more effective decision-making power to the fans is well-grounded in two fears. Firstly, it is believed that the extension of decision-making to the fans will expose their fickle nature. Fans may not show patience with innovative moves, such as promoting new managers or young players. This will cause irreparable damage both to the stability of the clubs and the morale of the players in question.
Secondly, it is rightfully argued that most fans lack the insider information most clubs utilise to take decisions. A YouTube highlights reel tells precious little about the young player’s performance markers, mental readiness and other critical factors gleaned by watching week in week out at games and at training. It is feared that the extension of decision-making to the fans will cause clubs to focus too much on established stars, rather than identifying people who fit their projects and show appropriate talent. It is inconceivable that the Barcelona fanbase as a whole would have rooted for promoting a Guardiola in 2008, outside of the few who had seen the B side grow under his tutelage.
It is, however, possible to advance two arguments to mitigate such fears. Firstly, fans having a say can be useful in keeping clubs honest. As noted by a journalist on The Guardian Football Weekly podcast earlier in 2018, Stan Kroenke’s association with teams has often led to declining performance in the long-term. The same is not only true of Arsenal but also of the NBA’s Denver Nuggets and the Colorado Rapids.
It is conceivable that it stems from Kroenke’s view of teams as profit-generating vehicles first and trophy-generators second, a prioritisation most fans would hotly contest if given the adequate role in decision-making. It would encourage clubs to balance sporting excellence and fiscal responsibility, rather than put one far above the other.
Such a move would also permit us to identify thinkers and analytical heads early, who can then be groomed to play a role in the club’s inner workings. Such grooming would not be too difficult for most established clubs.
These changes would speed up football’s embrace of analysis, creating in its own way the footballing equivalent of the sabermetrics movement in baseball. It will also render the entry of non-athletes into football far easier, as opposed to the convoluted routes followed by Arrigo Sacchi and André Villas-Boas into football analysis and management. Clubs, the media and sports analysts will benefit from such a democratisation, as they will all have larger pools of talent to select from.
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Lastly, the change could also provide a valuable starting point to break the gender divide in football analysis, since both men and women can be appropriately groomed in their formative years, breaking the heavily male-dominated nature of football and sport analysis as a whole.
The potential benefits to subjecting clubs to greater fan influence are fairly clear, in addition to noting that the same would be a natural next step to increase social engagement on the part of the clubs. Before proceeding to how the same may be carried out, it is important to be mindful of the challenges which could be posed by the defenders of the status quo.
In the process of democratising the game, as outlined in the previous section, a certain degree of opposition is to be expected.
Quite obviously, the first threat to such change will be the cult of the manager. In their current capacity as a pressure group acting on the outside, the media and the fans often remain at loggerheads with the managers, which has caused the managerial community to gradually withdraw from free interaction with the press in recent decades.
Even though managers have learnt to live under such scrutiny, it must be understood that a big part of this compromise lies in the fact that the media and fans can only apply ideological pressure and wield no executive power themselves. They can merely criticise the likes of Wenger and Louis van Gaal, but the power to remove them stays only within the club hierarchy, itself made up of a small base of people. It is imaginable that the gradual extension of some executive power to the fans will be met with strong reluctance by the likes of the League Managers Association in England.
And it wouldn’t be without reason. Apart from England, Spain remains well-known for its low patience with managers, with many often being subjected to the humiliation of waving white handkerchiefs every year. The extension of this impatience to the boardroom could hinder a club’s smooth functioning in two ways.
Firstly, a manager may never get sufficient time to implement their ideas at a club, particularly when the same constitutes a departure from the team’s established style of play. Secondly, assuming that clubs would now include fans in the decision-making process, a project itself could be harder to evolve, with different factions pulling in different directions. The result could well be shorter tenures in a field already rife with them, and not particularly known for tending to the mental and emotional well-being of managers out of work.
However, there are numerous ways in which such confusion could be avoided. One way would be to carefully model the manner in which fans are extended executive power, and the ways in which the same can be exercised. Such modelling chiefly concerns the orderly monitoring of voting media, and the introduction of critical points at which major decisions – say the hiring or firing of managers – may be considered.
It is arguable that clubs nowadays already put managers in such danger. Managers have exercised diminishing authority over the years, as clubs modify their chain of command to increasingly reduce managerial responsibilities to the purely tactical. This has permitted some clubs to maintain or reach a higher level of excellence, even in the face of high turnover in the dugout.
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Examples of this nature abound in mainland Europe, with the likes of Borussia Dortmund and Lyon being the leading lights – the latter winning seven straight Ligue 1 titles with four different managers. Such thinking is being slowly embraced in England, with the likes of Arsenal recently appointing a sporting director. Other salient examples include Southampton, where the manager seems a consequence of the project rather than the other way round.
To a certain extent, even Manchester City’s success owes much to this thinking. Their emulation of the Barcelona model may be dismissed as a long-term project to attract Pep Guardiola, but the model itself remained remarkably resilient when in the presence of Roberto Mancini and Manuel Pellegrini.
As a result, in the newer world of fan authority, managers may turn all the more like players. They may move from club to club peddling a certain methodology but staying subordinate to a longer-term project determined by higher authorities. Having fulfilled their task at club X they may simply move to Y, which now demands their specific skills.
A second threat is regarding the club’s conduct itself. Despite a gradual increase in transparency, fans of most clubs know precious little about their inner workings, leading to a strong reliance on journalists supplying news. However, this makes the journalist in question beholden to the club, which may choose to shut off access anytime.
The kind of information received is also inherently unreliable. The wide split of opinion regarding the same club across news publications points to the possibility that sports pages are mostly filled by leaks, keeping fans in a perpetual state of confusion about the true state of their club.
It is imperative to acknowledge that extending executive power to fans will be of little purpose without an overhaul of existing information channels. The dissemination of the concerned information may be suitably targeted only to stakeholders with requisite involvement in decision making.
While the same opens the possibility of leaks to a far larger scale than seen today, one must remember that not all information reaching fans may necessarily damage the club. On the contrary, it may further spur debate and reflection, which the new stakeholders can deliver to both the fans and the club.
Should the aforementioned change not be implemented, and the newfound executive power continue to rely on dodgy information channels, decision-making risks becoming excessively splintered, with new decision-makers protesting against mooted changes or developments based on information of doubtful veracity.
Since the extension of executive power to fans is both a consequence and expression of transparency, it is important that such change is built on a foundation of transparent information-sharing itself. Due care must be taken so that both these changes work in parallel to reduce the possibility of ill-informed fans wielding a large amount of power, particularly in the early years of reform. Such care in the early stages is critical to achieving the aspiration of grooming analysts and experts.
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At first glance, the aforementioned problems put us in an intractable position with regards to further extending decision-making power. It risks reducing football clubs to political caricatures, driven by fans baying for the blood of their adversaries. Happily, this possibility is perfectly avoidable, and for the purposes of further encouragement, precedents do exist even if imperfectly.
We can look to the example of shareholder-owned clubs, de rigueur in the Bundesliga, and indeed present in some other leagues. It must be noted that due to the information channels noted earlier, such shareholding clubs remain imperfect iterations of what they could ideally be, and do not harness the potential social media offers to their specific nature.
A concerted effort towards change, doubtlessly led by these examples, will help establish that the difficulty of this problem is no argument against attempting to solve it. Clubs must realise that the vistas of opportunities afforded by reform and the full use of social media promise far more than the extent to which such problems hold them back.
The fan’s club: decentralising decision-making
When thinking of direct fan involvement within the team, evolving further from the shareholding models already followed by some clubs, one naturally envisages fan participation through traditional social media. This conception of the world would base decisions on Twitter and Facebook polls, with information relevant to the voting being provided by the club in question. The results of the polls, coupled with all relevant tweets or comments coming in, could be used as a barometer of fan opinion by the club, which in turn would guide decision-making.
Start with the media considered. While the likes of Facebook and Twitter would prove highly responsive, the low barrier of entry is a major issue. Being able to vote on Facebook or Twitter polls is usually as simple as following the concerned account. This makes it fairly easy for non-fans to hijack a club’s poll, a fairly frequent occurrence with fans looking to embarrass a certain rival club. In order to use such procedures, it is important for clubs to be able to differentiate between fans and pranksters.
The same can be carried out in multiple ways. Firstly, clubs can restrict such polling to their websites, forcing interested parties to navigate to and through the website in question instead of the simplicity of Twitter. Voting can also be restricted to certain categories of club members, making it hard enough for bots to go through it all just for a laugh.
In another possibility, such fan registration could be carried out on the league’s website itself (the Champions League and Europa League could also count as distinct leagues), with the ability to vote limited to one club in a given year’s league campaign. For illustrative purposes, a person may be able to simultaneously vote with Borussia Dortmund and Barcelona, having chosen them for the Bundesliga and La Liga.
However, given that the Champions League would be distinct, the fan will have to choose between the said clubs for that tournament alone, in order to keep voting as honest as possible. At the end of the year, fans may choose to renew their rights or switch clubs. Such monitoring by the leagues themselves would point out conflicting interests far quicker than clubs operating on a standalone basis.
This, however, brings us to another problem. Someone with sufficient time on their hands may contrive to gain voting rights with multiple clubs, using different email or social accounts for instance. This is where the community’s role comes in. The community formed as a result of voting rights distributed earlier can essentially become a self-policing mechanism, highlighting trolls and malignant interests through sustained downvotes. Since the parent website can track user conduct over time, a critical point of misbehaviour can be identified beyond which the account in question is investigated, and possibly suspended.
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Such an approach, reminiscent as it is of Reddit, can eventually serve additional purposes. Apart from weeding out trolls, it can turn into a valuable forum for fan discussion, setting itself apart through the fact that the club would also be following and drawing from it. The forum can also highlight promising spokespersons or analysts through a consistent record of upvotes, which the club can then groom for positions within the club hierarchy.
Obviously, plucking out such talent would require the element in question to have displayed a track record of loyalty to the club, which can also be ascertained through the model of vote allocation seen earlier.
A better evolved also permits us to address another issue. How would decision-making by fans be reconciled to key decisions such as hiring and firing managers? One envisages a provision for no-confidence, which can be moved by a sufficiently high mass of the fan base. Once moved, a vote can be conducted with the decision being taken in accordance with the fans’ wishes should a given threshold be met. To prevent misuse of this provision, its use can be limited to a certain number of times a year, or initially restricted to a certain set of decisions.
The provisions outlined above provide a valuable starting point to involving fans in decision-making, which can be modified as a result of deliberation or further evolution in the game. It brings the cycle of growing fan engagement to its natural apex. It also rewards the ability to think about the game by developing a process through which the fan can easily make a difference, and provides check mechanisms to ensure that the best interests of the club, whatever they are considered to be, can be truly safeguarded.
Properly implemented, it can become the best extension and homage to Germany’s majority shareholding rule, allowing fans a say where it truly matters.
At the beginning of this piece, we considered the role of the fans in bringing Arsène Wenger’s era at Arsenal to a close. Next season will see a new man take charge in the Emirates dugout, a change many football fans will indeed see happen for the first time in their lives.
This new man will affect change in so many ways, and while the initial excitement and optimism will afford him time, eventually the old cycle, so natural to most of Arsenal’s rivals, will begin again, wherein the club’s choices and decisions provoke debate amongst a passionate fan base. This cycle never truly ends; it is only the nature and impact of the contested decisions that do.
This feature is merely an attempt to transpose this cycle to the present day, taking stock of the abundance of possibilities available to channel the energy we often admire in the stands. While the resulting change will be slow to arrive, and certainly not predate another switch in the Arsenal dugout, I personally hope that fandom eventually incorporates a notion of effecting change within, rather than merely following a club.
Football was long due an enlightenment, which is now upon us due to the happy intervention of evolving communications. Will we now use it to cause an ideological revolution?
By Avtansh Behal @Avi4296