MatBB’s wrote an interesting to-do list for our future owners, it got me thinking. Fans are the most important resource that an owner can harness. And it’s this secret that could revive Leeds’ fortunes after a decade of failure. Talking about fans, and the importance of them, has been done far better, plenty of times. But reading over an old article from February, by Ouriel Daskal on soccerissue.com, it could have been a direct letter to Shaun Harvey and Ken Bates. The article is called ‘A Supporter Is Not A Customer‘.

Daskal’s article is effectively a written version of his opening statement for an Israeli F.A. meeting. He tells us that there is a big difference between a supporter and a customer:

In Hebrew, the words “supporter” and “love” are very similar. It’s not a coincidence.

The supporter, like a person in love, wakes up in the morning, and the first thing he thinks about is his club. The last thing he thinks about when he goes to bed is his club. He cares about what his team is  doing at any given moment. He checks news about it all the time. More than anything, he wants to feel like his team loves him back. When his team loses, he may go through the next day agitated. Maybe even  the entire week. When his team wins, he can walk around with a smile on his face for a week.

A supporter is not a customer, even if that’s what many club owners and football administrators would like us to believe.

A supermarket customer can go to a different supermarket if prices go up. The supporter simply can’t do that. His team has a monopoly over his heart. A supermarket customer does not tattoo the logo of the supermarket on his chest; A customer would not ask to bury himself covered in the supermarket’s logo; If the supermarket reports losses, the customer will not go into a customers’ forum to speak about its situation and how it could be fixed. A supermarket does not have customers driving hundreds of miles to make a purchase.

Simply put, a supermarket does not have a living, breathing community  around what it sells. Brain scans have found that a fan’s love for the team is located in the same area of the brain where one’s love for another human being is found. The shopping list you take to the supermarket is, surprisingly, not there.

Isn’t that amazing? If we scanned your brain today, your thoughts would about Leeds United would be up there with your partner, parents or kids! Daskal’s points are easily illustrated by Leeds. Despite the Premier League prices to watch a team struggle through the third and second divisions (with nearly 1/5 of the clubs income since 2007 spent on building development) fans have given up but have rarely chosen to watch rivals. The club’s crisis, highlighted in January by the sale of Jonny Howson, has likewise brought fans to blogs and forums to talk and debate what could be done and why we are in this mess. One independent supporters group, the Leeds United Supporters Trust, have grown from around 300 to around 7,000 members in a year. Fans not only travel hundreds of miles to watch us, but travel hundreds of miles to numerous matches through crippling pain, to watch us. Carlsberg don’t do fans, but if they did they probably couldn’t beat Martin Hywood.

Shaun Harvey, last March, repeated the football mantra “supporters support” in response to the L.U.S.T. future vision. The FSF (Football Supporters Federation) summed up the feeling:

Shaun Harvey told the FSF, “players play, managers manage, and supporters support”. Under Leeds United’s own peculiar set of rules fans are to be seen and not heard – and they certainly should not publish a Future Vision statement, even if its core sentiments are shared by thousands of fellow fans.

As Mr. Daskal said in his opening statement:

A lot of club owners are saying that “the only role of the supporter is to support”, but that’s not true. A supporter’s role is to love, and he wants to get something back from his team in return.

Owners own, and managers manage. There are boundaries and there’s a reason for that. But why shouldn’t fans have a voice at a club that they embody and pay for? Ken Bates bought the club in 2004 for a few million; the rumoured sale on the cards is worth about £40-50m. Ticket income alone since 2007 has given the club over £42m. Like it or not, the supporters are the key to the club – more so with the financial fair play rules.

The CEO’s reply seemed to me to suggest that fans should not have the audacity to worry themselves about the running of the club, it should be left to a former postman who would fail the fit and proper persons’ test had it been introduced a decade earlier, a former footballer who believes the best way to solve complaints about tatty carpets and curtains in a business committed to breaking even each year is to spend roughly £7m, and a chairman whose spending at Chelsea was rumoured to be almost as high as Ridsdale’s at Leeds. Thank God for Roman Abramovich if you’re a Chelsea fan.

And why does he assume a voice for fans would be a bad thing? Peter Lorimer was asked about his views on a voice for fans in 2004, and again recently. Each time he has been unequivocally opposed to this. Why? Because football is a results-based business, seems to be one of his answers. It might interest him to learn that the average English football club gains 1.4 points from each game. The average supporters-owned club will gain 1.65 points. Superior results come from clubs involving fans at the highest level.

Lorimer claimed that “that’s never worked at any football club“. As Moscowhite mentions on that link, Swansea City was on the verge of going bust in 2001, now with the hard work of the Swans Trust they are a mid-table Premier League side. It might be worth also considering that not only Osasuna and Athletico Bilbao are owned by fans in Spain, the Spanish giants Real Madrid and Barcelona are both owned democratically by supporters.

I’m not saying that Leeds should be owned by supporters, and I’m not saying I think they should run the club. What I am saying is that supporters should be listened to by whoever owns a club if they want success. This was one of Ken Bates’ major failures. It has been shown time and again that the way to be successful in the football business is to know football. Fans know football better than many owners or businessmen who take on the role of director, and clubs that fans become involved in tend to actually do very well.

And fans are an incredibly diverse lot. As Daskal writes:

This community is large and diverse – there are accountants, lawyers, doctors, construction
workers, students, children and pensioners. This crowd has an enormous ability that could be harnessed for the benefit of the club they all love…

Ken Bates didn’t use the fans. He didn’t even listen to them. Instead, Ken Bates insulted them, and spent the club’s money on programme notes and radio stations through which he could tell the fans why Britain was such a terrible place… from his pad in Monaco…

My little pipe-dream is of a future where fans have a member on the Leeds board and where their opinions are considered seriously by our owners. Maybe some day we could dream even bigger. The great Don Revie once changed Leeds’ kit to white to emulate the great Real Madrid. The rest is, as they say, history. Real Madrid’s fan-ownership model certainly hasn’t damaged their club. Maybe in time we could take another leaf out of their book?

And yes Peter, football is a results-based business. Here’s the result of over seven years of Ken Bates knowing better than the fans. They were our stellar replacements for Premier League Bradley Johnson and French Ligue 1 Max Gradel, in case you wondered:

  • David Wells

    Really enjoyed your blog. Been a lifelong Leeds fan myself and an accountant I’m watching closely the bid for ownership.