In the 2006 book The Elusive Fan: Reinventing Sports in a Crowded Marketplace the authors address the paradox of commercialisation that emerged over the prior 20 years between sports as a business and sports as a game. Fans often associate the game with the innocence of youth, the spirit of competition and the integrity of the game. Yet sports operate in a multi billion dollar business in which sports are products and administrators and owners view fans are consumers.
Since 2006 I’d argue that the “products” are no longer just the athlete or the action on the field. Fans themselves have become equally important for teams and leagues in their marketing. AFL clubs’ massive membership bases, the A-League’s active support groups, the Seahawks 12th man and Manchester United’s 700m global fan base all represent huge potential customer bases. Without large, engaged and passionate fan bases, there are no sponsors, there are no lucrative TV deals, and there are no paid professional athletes. Fans are therefore as important to sports as star athletes in being commercially successful.
Yet the commercial era has been littered with too many failures in corporate governance, bad business practices and disengaged and ultimately betrayed and disenchanted fan bases. The task of the sports administrator is therefore to balance the integrity of the sport with an increasingly commercial culture that on one hand grows revenues and rewards players while at the same time ensures an engaged fan base. This is best achieved by involving fans in decision making and incorporating direct fan interaction into the governance of the organisation.
There are a number of teams and leagues around the world doing great things in this space. None better, in my option, than the Seattle Sounders. From the very beginning, and before the club played its first MLS match in 2009, the Sounders made a conscious decision to be different. All of the Sounders interactions with fans are driven by the notion of empowerment, and ensuring fans are invested in the team regardless of performance.
The Sounders achieved this through the establishment of the Seattle Sounders Football Club Alliance (or simply “The Alliance”), the club’s official members association which involves the fans directly in the decision making process of the team.
The idea of the Alliance stemmed from part-owner Drew Carey’s (yes, that Drew Carey!) desire to see Sounders FC members vote on either the retention or dismissal of club’s General Manager every four years. The Alliance was formed to create a structure to make this possible. In short, the Alliance represents the voice of the fans. The goal of the Alliance is to provide fans with a voice in the overall direction of the organisation.
In addition to the vote, the Alliance has the right to decide on two of the Club’s charitable partners annually, the right to advise on matters regarding game-day experience and other matters that primarily affect supporters fan experiences.
So what can we learn from the Sounders model?
A defined framework for governance and fans
The Sounders have paid a lot of attention to the specifics of governance.
The Alliance is represented in its dealings with the club through the Alliance Council. Council members are elected on a biennial basis, with terms extending up to two years. Alliance Members interested in participating on Council must receive a minimum of 25 votes from other members of the Alliance.
The bylaws have evolved over time. In fact the Alliance are working with the club to alter the GM vote as the authors did not anticipate what would occur if the GM changed between the voting cycles.
Fan Engagement is not a buzzword
Too many pay lip service to the notion of “fan engagement”. Surveys and giveaways are all great, but at the Sounders democracy is baked into the organisation. The club often canvas the views of fans, via the Alliance, on certain decisions, and have regularly reversed those decisions based on the feedback from fans.
Likewise the forum gives the club the opportunity to explain decisions and gain fans support for some decisions which may have caused angst if simply launched without consultation.
Be prepared to disagree
This structure is not for the faint-hearted. Such a structure does not mean that the Alliance and the club see eye-to eye on everything. However it does give supporters a formal structure in which to air grievances.
It is also important to recognise that the Alliance is not seen as some cynical attempt by team owners to put all fans in one box. The Sounders FC recognises four different active and independent supporter groups; Emerald City Supporters, Gorilla FC, North End Faithful and Eastside Supporters. Each of these groups are located in different parts of the stadium, have their own values and match day rituals, all of which add to the match day experience and all of which are embraced by the club.
And with any active supporter group, there will always be tensions. Active supporter groups will not be taken for granted, nor support being exploited as a marketing prop. And the relationship between the Sounders and their active supporter groups will always be a work in progress.
I certainly recommend visiting the Alliance’s website for its perspective on its relationship with the Sounders but also to see how it conducts the business of managing the Alliance as well as some of the challenges it faces around resources.
Issues and opportunities through listening
In Mike Gastineau’s book Sounders FC: AUTHENTIC MASTERPIECE: The Inside Story Of The Best Franchise Launch In American Sports History, Drew Carey says about the Alliance; “If something is going on, we want to know about it. They’re our canary in the coalmine. We can hear way ahead of time any inkling about anything”.
This is gold for teams and fans. Get ahead of the potential issues and take advantage of an opportunity by listening.
The Alliance not only gave fans the opportunity to vote on the GM, but has become a true voice in a variety of issues relating to how the club is run. Rather than pay lip service to fans concerns, they recognised that by bringing them inside the tent from the very beginning, they could achieve something that start-up teams lack, and active, large, engaged fan base from the get go.
Keeping owners invested in their fans
Adrian Hanauer, part owner of the club and the then General Manager who’s neck was on the block for the the fans vote says in Gastineau’s book “The whole notion of democracy in sports is a very well-formulated, well-structured way of asking for it and forcing it upon us. Its putting our money where our mouths are. They can affect things in our business and it will evolve over time”. (Adrian survived the first four-yearly vote in 2012 receiving 96% in favour from over 12,000 votes cast!)
Good governance and fans are not mutually exclusive as the Sounders show.
Footnote: My interest in the Sounders stems from seeing COO Bart Wiley presenting the Sounders story at the Sports Fan Summit in Sydney in 2012 and again in 2015, and then following up on a threat I made to Bart that I would some day go to a Sounders game which I duly followed through with in July 2015. He is one of the unassuming superstars of our industry.
For more reading on the Sounders and their success off the field check the following links: