How to engage football fans?

by Joe Gorman

The inaugural Sport Business Insider Club Panel was held yesterday at the Business School of UTS in Sydney. The event brought together fans and key speakers to discuss how best to engage football fans at every level of the game.

Shane Harmon, Lyall Gorman, Frank Farina and Bonita Mersiades each spoke about their particular interest with regards to fan engagement, while the football anoraks in attendance listened closely.

The theme of fan engagement has certainly been ramped up by the FFA and the clubs this season, perhaps most notably at the Western Sydney Wanderers. The first eight seasons of the A-League proved that the concept of engagement remains somewhat nebulous and elusive as clubs conflate marketing and hype with the nitty gritty of building lasting fan relationships.

Shane Harmon, the bloke in charge of the 2015 Asian Cup, was first to speak. He discussed the various challenges and opportunities that hosting the Asian Cup represents, before moving on to talk about his own personal view of how football can best grow its fanbase.

Shane’s speech was peppered with jargon such as “crowdsourcing” and “top-down fan-centric charters”, but he touched on several important points, particularly with regards to the Asian Cup. Apparently, his committee is already looking at how to market the event so as to tap into Australia’s rich multicultural fan base. Jokingly, he suggested that he was praying for China and Lebanon to qualify, due to the large Chinese and Lebanese diasporas living in Australia.

The Asian Cup presents a cultural opportunity for Australia as a nation, not just a financial one. Our integration with Asia has been lagging for a long time. Too often, we as football fans look straight past the continent on our doorstep in favour of traditional links with Britain and the continent. It would be hopeful in the extreme to think that the Asian Cup will change this attitude. Still, there is no harm in trying, and Harmon does seem intent on making the event a harbinger for change.

Next up was the man of the moment, Lyall Gorman. His speech began with a video of ‘Wanderland’, which, as it turned out, was a good indication of his topic for the night. Gorman is an eloquent and passionate speaker about the game and the Wanderers, however his speech was perhaps a little disappointing for those wanting to here about the challenges, not the successes of the fledgling club. On this topic, Gorman’s speech was a little light on detail.

Still, the overriding impression is that Lyall Gorman clearly understands how fans relate to their clubs. He seems to intrinsically believe that a football club should be something which is built by fans, not simply for fans. “It’s not ‘build it and they’ll come'”, Gorman explained, “it’s ongoing.” To many, this is now accepted practice, but for those who like to link the past with the present, this presents a fundamental shift in the nature of A-League clubs. Set up in haste in 2004, the eight foundation clubs perhaps didn’t have the luxury of “crowdsourcing their identity”, as Shane Harmon would say.

It is to Gorman’s eternal credit that this shift has quickly become self-evident. In this regard, the Wanderers CEO reminded the audience that the club “stands on the shoulders” of the old NSL giants from the region, and are “proudly west.” Still, as I have stated elsewhere, the ‘Wanderers’ name is not without its problems. It’s one thing to include your history into the fabric of the club, but memorialising a club which nobody cared about from over a century ago does conveniently skate past the more difficult and recent history of the game in Western Sydney.

In any event, these criticisms are mostly academic. One topic that I’d hoped Gorman would acknowledge was the silent protests by the Red and Black Bloc a fortnight ago. Members of the Wanderers fanbase were up in arms that the fans banned by the FFA weren’t given a right to appeal their punishments. Moreover, they are – like many fans groups around the nation – sick of Hatamoto. Lyall Gorman has clearly worked wonders out west, but there is still some hard work to be done in regards to “true fan engagement.”

The next speaker was Frank Farina, who MC Tracy Holmes introduced as having a “death wish” for wanting to be a coach. With his slightly stooped walk and oversized suit, Farina smiled and replied simply that it was “past his bedtime.”

For those in attendence, however, it is lucky that Farina pressed on. His speech, without a doubt, was the highlight of the evening. Say what you will about ‘cranky Franky’, he sure knows how to hold a crowd. And after the two very polished and professional speeches by Harmon and Gorman, Frank’s trip down memory lane was a nice way to break up the evening.

Instead of the expected platitudes about the importance of fans, and always giving your best shot, Farina took us back to 1985, to the infamous pitch invasion at Pratten Park. Farina was still a rookie at Sydney City when a derby between the Eastern Suburbs club and Sydney Olympic turned wild. Below is the SBS video of the riot:

The Sydney FC coach smirked as he recalled his experience with ‘real fan engagement.’ He then had the crowd in raptures with the punch-line. Apparently, Sydney FC midfielder Terry Antonis’ old man, who was a big Olympic supporter, had told his son about the riot. In fact, it was Antonis senior who had chased after Sydney City’s goalkeeper, Tony Pezzano with the other corner flag!

Farina then took us through other incidents of crowd trouble, from getting speared with darts in Belgium to ducking dead fish as Socceroos coach against Hungary in 2002. Then it was time for some more retro footage of the Brisbane Strikers, a club that Farina believes was “ahead of it’s time.” Indeed, what Farina was alluding to was the fact that fan engagement has actually had a long history in the game. His speech also touched on the important issue of the spontaneity and independence of football fans. Apparently, there is Sydney FC member who sits right behind Farina at every home game, with the sole intention of berating the Sky Blues’ coach for the entire match. “At least it’s not like 1985”, Farina laughs, “although I might need to watch out for Terry Antonis’ dad.”

Last but not least was the irrepressible Bonita Mersiades. The most fearless football writer in the country, Mersiades began her speech by praising the players and coaches in the game, saying that they were the least egotistical people in the game. It was a backhanded slap to administrators, and a statement of intent by the no-nonsense former FFA public relations officer. Mersiades proceeded to take the audience through her “fan framework”, which includes the product managers, the clubmen, the environmentalists and the associates.

In this framework, the ‘product managers’ are those that go to the football to see a good game. These people, who Mersiades cautiously labelled “old soccer” are hard to impress, and passionate about the game as an intellectual pursuit. The ‘clubmen’, on the other hand, are “new football.” Those who want to be part of something, and who will be there no matter what. Thirdly, the ‘environmentalists’ are mothers and women, who are influential in family decisions, and concerned primarily with the value and entertainment of the product. As Mersiades noted, “these people have other options on the weekend.” Lastly, the ‘associates’ are the type of fan who wants to be part of something that is trendy and successful. Mersiades beamed up a picture of a Juventus fan greeting Alessandro Del Piero at Sydney Airport to illustrate the point. What happens when Del Piero leaves?

While the framework does provide a useful cross-section of A-League supporters, the categories are clearly intertwined. In particular, the ‘environmentalists’ and ‘clubmen’ can in fact be closely linked, while some would argue that the ‘associates’ who turn up to see Del Piero are also ‘product managers’ at heart. Often these fans don’t come to football matches in Australia due to a deeply rooted cultural cringe about Australian football. You only have to be a fan of Sydney FC to realise that ‘associates’ are often actually well-versed on the finer points of the game, sometimes to a point at which it becomes blinding. I’ve sat near Juventus fans who simply won’t stop talking about the perceived low standard of the A-League, but turn up every other week to watch Del Piero. Are these fans associates or product managers?

By the same token, ‘clubmen’ and ‘environmentalists’ – if I am to understand Mersiades’ categorisations – are often cut from the same cloth. Wives and mothers are often the most loyal to clubs, based on the fact that it provides their family with a steady routine and a relatively cheap entertainment package. Like clubmen, whether it is young Terry Antonis, Alessandro Del Piero or indeed the second coming in the number ten jersey is not of great concern. Their first priority is community and family, not whether their sons and daughters are receiving the best football education.

Mersiades finished with a detailed assessment of the Socceroos attendences, before cutting her presentation short in order to allow for questions from the floor. The first question, from Tracy Holmes, concerned the under-representation of women in football, particularly in administrative roles. It is a topic Bonita Mersiades knows all too well, and one that our game needs to address sooner rather than later. Academics talk about the “add women and stir” approach to inclusion, which surely is something to avoid in our game. Importantly, gender equality in football needs to be a holistic approach.

The first question from the floor was about the costs of going to games, which Lyall Gorman hosed down by pointing out that season memberships can be as low as $10 per head. The second question, from the indomitable Les Street (whose research paper on NSL grounds is due to be published soon) was about marrying together “old soccer” and “new football.” A seminar topic in itself, Lyall Gorman proposed that fan engagement was the best way to tackle this issue. The prevailing winds seem to be towards recognising the history of the game, so watch this space.

Next, a fan asked whether television viewers should be disadvantaged to favour those in attendance. This used to be an issue for all sports, however in the digital age we are clearly moving towards the best possible television coverage, as Shane Harmon suggested. To round out the night, the last question returned to the opening theme of the Asian Cup. As the questioner put it, there needs to be a concerted education campaign by the FFA in order to properly engage fans with these visiting teams and the region as a whole. Indeed, it’s going to be an enormous challenge for Harmon to sell Uzbekistan versus Iran to a still-parochial Australian sporting public. How he and the FFA tackle this issue will be fascinating.

All in all, the inaugural Sports Business Club Panel, like all good forums, threw up more questions than it did answers. Each panelist spoke eloquently and with a passion for their subject. Football in this country has arguably reached its zenith, but with many structural problems still yet to be resolved and numerous challenges ahead, it was a good time to discuss how best to engage fans in future planning. Our game cannot afford to bask in the glory of this season. We must work harder than ever now to build on this season, to ensure that Del Piero’s legacy goes well beyond shirt sales, and the Wanderers aren’t simply a flash in the pan.

Follow Joe Gorman on Twitter @JoeGorman_89

Joe has written an in-depth article for Edition 0 of Thin White Line – details to be announced soon.