Contracts are commonplace in football. Barely a day goes by where we don’t hear about a new contract wrangle, or a football star that has just signed a new contract that makes him the ‘xth’ highest paid player in the world.
But I haven’t yet seen an example of fans being strong armed into signing a contract, outlining how they can support the club that they love. That was until I saw the letter Charlton FC sent to a fan, attempting to renew his season ticket.
Big clubs are often accused of being out of touch with their fans – who, after all, are the lifeblood of the club. Even this year, there have been significant fan protests against owners, who insist on increasing ticket prices, despite the ever increasing revenue streams that football clubs are earning. Our own Future Fan research indicated 79% of fans believe tickets to see live sporting events are overpriced and this protest from Liverpool fans from back in February is a prime example.
It’s another in a long line of examples of the club taking its fans for granted and forgetting what football, in its rawest form is really about – passion, support and feeling part of a group.
However, the above letter, sent from Charlton Athletic is the worst example I’ve seen of the ever growing gap between clubs and their fans, and the lack of understanding from those in charge. For those who can’t read the letter, it is addressing a Charlton fan who has applied to renew their season ticket.
It informs them that the club “Appreciate their continued support”, but goes on to ominously reference “Issues that we experienced towards the end of last season”. At this point, I was expecting to read about a fan that had been abusive or violent at the ground and thus was being informed that they would not be allowed to renew their season ticket – entirely reasonable you might think.
However, all this fan was guilty of was posting “not particularly constructive” comments on social media regarding the team and its performance last season! In a move George Orwell himself would have been proud of, in order to receive their season ticket, they would need to meet a club official in person at the ground and sign an “Agreed Behavioural Contract” restricting them from posting any “derogatory comments” about the club online or on social media.
This is a remarkable step for a club to take. Being a fan is all about the ups and downs, the wins and the losses, the good runs of form and the bad runs of form – our own research reveals that this eustress is something that fans crave. Venting about results, player performances, manager performances and the general running of the club is a fan’s right.
Presumably the club is more than happy for fans to snap their praise when the club wins, or Tweet when their star striker scores a 25-yard screamer to win a game?
Clearly, if this fan has been guilty of any sort of serious offence in his posts, such as racism, homophobia, sexism, threatening behaviour etc. then the club are well within their right to take action – however, I would argue offences like that should be met with a banning order, not muting them on Twitter.
A great example of a club that understands the club/fan relationship is Wigan and their fan, who famously came up with the “Will Grigg’s on fire” chant that could be heard from every corner of France during Euro 2016. His YouTube video celebrating Wigan striker Will Grigg, took the world by storm, so Wigan rewarded him with a free season ticket.
The relationship has to be a two-way street. Fans give so much to clubs and clubs need to return the favour. Rather than try and silence their critics, would a better approach not be to tackle them head on?
As is referenced in the letter, the club was well aware of the discontent last season among its fans. Rather than issue de facto gagging orders, wouldn’t a better approach be to identify the most vocal (and passionate) fans and invite them along to an open forum with club officials to discuss the issues and iron out what the club is doing to tackle them, as well as how the club feels the fans could deal with the situation better?
To me, that is a far more productive and fan-friendly approach and one that might actually prove productive for both parties. Anything a club can do to involve their fans and make them part of the decision-making process (or at least feel like they are) is a positive and will go a long way to making fans feel part of the club again.