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What does a supporter director add to a professional football club?

This is a story from the SD archive – the FSF and SD merged to become the FSA in 2019.

Question: What does a supporter director on the board of directors add to a professional football club?

Answer: Plenty, as new research from Michael van’t Hoff outlines…

For his thesis at Rotterdam School of Management student Michael van ’t Hoff interviewed 8 past and present supporter directors of professional football clubs in England. You can read Michael’s thesis here

The results make for fascinating reading with encouragement and learnings for us all. The highlights of the study are extracted below:

Supporter Directors are valued

All except one supporter director can influence topics discussed during board meetings. Topics range from operational, what to do with the manager (in charge of day-to day football trainings and the matchday coaching) its contract, to strategic, like stadium development. Moreover, supporter directors can submit topics to the chairman of the board which they would like to address during a board meeting, for the board’s agenda. Thus, supporter directors can operate like any other director on the football club’s board.

Supporter Directors are valuable

Supporter representatives provide the bigger picture for other directors to consider, primarily based on local perspectives, what the average fan of a football club might think of the (important) topic that is discussed. Even though supporter representatives can contribute to all topics discussed during board meetings, they do report to be most active on long-term strategic issues,as they share the same purpose of making sure that the football club exists in twenty, fifty years’ time.

Results show that English supporter representatives are able to bring in valuable knowledge and social network ties. Moreover, results show that supporter representatives can deliver critique as director whenever they feel necessary to do so.

Supporter Directors need clarity

Most supporter directors were not aware of their actual role, due to the lack of supporter director role descriptions and communication, causing mismatches between prior and actual expectations. Directors are mostly not aware of the role and the expectations they must fulfill and are barely verbally informed by football club directors as well as Supporters’ Trust directors.

Supporter representatives have a hard time deciding what to communicate and what not to communicate.

Whenever the owner or the directors of the professional football club decide to allow fan-representation on the board of directors,they should make sure that the supporter director role is clearly demarcated and communicated to the supporter representative, as well as to the Supporters’Trust, who have a major role in the recruitment of supporter directors.

Supporter Directors need time and thick skin

Having time, local knowledge, communication skills and being approachable and frequently seen on match days were reported as the most important qualities of the supporter directors. Some supporter directors also reported patience and being thick-skinned as their qualities.

Supporter Directors can do operational but crave strategic

Instead of discussing primarily operational matters, brought up by fans, supporter representatives do plead for creation of long-term strategy as well as for stadium developments, when they are active in their supporter director role. Moreover, supporter directors can contribute, at all clubs, to everything discussed during board meetings and operate on an equal basis with the other directors, however they are not always consulted by the other directors on football matters.

Some supporter representatives, for example,indicated that moving stadiums wasn’t really what they wanted, but were fine with it, as long as moving stadiums didn’t mean moving out of a local area and the club benefited from it. So, data says that supporter representatives aren’t conservative on strategic changes and make a careful assessment before deciding what to do.

As with all Club Directors the owner (s) still holds the power

Although rarely at board meeting in person the influence of the owner was crucial in the contribution of supporter directors during board meetings.

Time to consider making Supporter Directors mandatory at English professional clubs?

Supporters Direct, the Football Association, English Premier League and English Football League are encouraged to speak to each other, given the positive contributions supporter representatives can make, and to seriously think about making fan-representation a necessary requirement for football clubs active in the English professional leagues.

More support is needed to help Supporter Directors, Supporters Trusts and Clubs

Supporters Direct, are encouraged to draw up exact recruitment protocols for Supporters Trusts and football clubs (including the communication process – when to tell what) together, as well as define what exact role a supporter representative is supposed to take on when joining a football clubs its board. Clubs are then there to decide upon what can be communicated, and what cannot. Clubs are advised to also make a general statement about what their supporter representative can tell, and what not, to the stakeholders of the football club on what’s generally discussed in board meetings.

A response from Supporters Direct

We are pleased to say some of the best practice recommendations from the thesis with regard to the supporter director role are covered in the supporter director section of SD’s ‘Engage!’ guidance (pages 23 – 27) as well as appendices 5 and 6 (pages 41 – 43), but more can be done, including the one to one support we provide.

We’d like to thank Michael for his excellent thesis and drawing attention to an important method of supporter engagement, as well as highlighting the fantastic work of supporter directors in what is a challenging but ultimately valuable role in professional football that more clubs could benefit from.

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