Absent Leader Syndrome

Friday 7th March 2014 at 8:10AM

One of the barriers I’ve noticed in sport is the ‘absent owner / chairman’ concept. This manifests itself in a number of ways, but always has the same effect. Some chairman many be geographically absent from their club: for tax reasons perhaps, they may reside abroad. Others may be psychologically absent. They just have other fish to fry too. Your club may represent a small percentage of their overall holdings, for example.

Sometimes it’s simply a question of the time taken to ratify a desired improvement and sometimes, I’m sad to say, the absence is intellectual. They just don’t get it. They see their club as a plaything. They’ll choose the name of the match day programme, the music played on a match day, the extent to which concessions are allowed to grow as a percentage of overall ticket sales and, as we’ve seen in recent times, not only the design, but the colour of the your team’s home shirt too.

The result of all of this is that, often, decisions are slow to be taken, especially in this quick fire, fast response world.

While you may be anticipating a paean to supporter ownership here (and it would address many of these problems), what I want to focus on are club values.

Recent blogs have focused on a definition of fan engagement (sustainability through the creation of fan value and enduring emotional loyalty) and also on football’s (and other sports’) curious unwillingness to ask the question ‘why?’, to uncover the deeper identity of the club and use that as a catalyst and unique selling point (USP).

In recent weeks, speaking to students at Manchester University, UCFB (Burnley) and Huddersfield University, I’ve set out my ‘reverse Starbucks’ analogy, explaining that Starbuck’s meteoric rise is undeniably a result of the way they use their brand and customer experience to create enduring positive associations. After all, they just sell coffee: a commodity. Football, on the other hand, has a starting point of possibly the world’s most emotionally powerful concept and yet, prefers to sell this as a ‘ticket’.

I could ask you what it would be like at your football club if Starbucks ran it. We’d probably have a fairly serious conversation based on how the club’s identity would come alive at various important touch points. Your name would be used a lot. You’d be able to use your smart phone to do most of the your business. If you turned up to the least attractive home fixtures, you might expect to get additional bonus points / rewards pinged to your device and then to use them to design your own club garment. You’d be very clear on a match day as to whom your club’s community partners are and you’d certainly know it was your club from the look and feel of the place and the way you are treated. Having said that though, I much prefer to spin that around and ask what would a Starbucks experience be like if it was owned by one of those recalcitrant clubs who still doesn’t engage with fans?

We have three entrances, but we’re closing two to save money, so you’ll have to queue in the rain. You can have coffee, but not without milk. And it wouldn’t taste very nice. I’m sure you could add many more hilarious examples.

At clubs like Doncaster Rovers or Middlesbrough, there have been wholehearted efforts in recent seasons to get a detailed understanding of what the clubs mean to their communities, to articulate this identity and then to separate out the various strands of the, in this case, red and white DNA. At Boro, honesty has emerged and this has influenced the design of several new initiatives at the Club. At Donny, on the other hand, a clear sense that the club’s followers don’t take themselves too seriously looked like a clear point of differentiation.

So when an 8 year old applied for the vacant manager’s job in January 2013, the club’s chairman interviewed him and the youngster attended a press conference, telling Sky Sports TV that he would achieve promotion to the Premier League in 3 years. I recall is someone posting on an independent forum words to the effect that ‘it felt like my club again today’.

But what both of these examples show is the potential of identity, DNA and values to be used as a filter (perhaps in the afore-mentioned ‘absence’ of the owner / chairman) to ensure that when opportunities arise, the right decision is made and when challenges emerge, there’s an instinctive understanding of the available remedies available.

Obviously supporter consultation, engagement and partnership are important pre-requisites here. It’ll take some time before the mist clears and some clarity emerges but by encouraging people to take the time to consider what their club means to them and to express this in terms of how it would be reflected on a match day and in the wider fan relationship, you’re emulating clubs like Seattle Sounders and Borussia Dortmund, whose immense growth and phenomenal levels of engagement are a direct result of their comprehensively detailed ‘brand wheels’: the mechanism by which each and every potential decision affecting fans is ‘road-tested’ first.

Given the immense emotional power of sport, it’s not only wrong, but also perhaps unfair to expect the leadership team (especially if members of it are not brought up in the area) to always make the right decision. However, by investing time and resources in uncovering your club’s natural, true identity, much more often than not, you’ll make decisions that not only feel right to you, but to the club’s wider community too.

After attending 30 matches at 15 different clubs in 2006/7, my wife (this being her first experience of live football) noted that there was little to differentiate the various clubs visited in terms of identity. I recall she put it like this: ‘same song, different lyrics’.

When football (and wider sports) mean so much to the community that comes together on a match day, it seems a real shame we can’t each have a different tune too.

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