Engaging with the fans

Richard Keeling asks the powers that be to carry on consulting.

Villa’s owners have done a great job so far of turning round our recently failing club and they probably feel they can manage without advice from supporters. However, the Premier League published a Fan Engagement Standard document in March which claims to be “setting new standards for meaningful engagement with fans.” Premier League Chief Executive Richard Masters states: “It is vital we ensure the voices of supporters are not only heard in the stands, but also when it comes to having a say on key issues relating to their clubs.” Well, they are asking us to cough up an awful lot of money to follow our clubs, so it doesn’t seem unreasonable to me.

The Fan Engagement Standard requires each Premier League club to set up a Fan Advisory Board, and this is what Villa have done, replacing the Fan Consultation Group. The Fan Engagement Standard is structured around five themes: Leadership and Culture, Listening, Collaboration and Participation, Sharing, and finally Learning and Improving. All those abstract nouns activate my bullshit detector and it remains to be seen whether the initiative is just a gimmick (and small beer for an organization that has recently concluded a £6.7 billion TV rights deal) or whether it will result in useful dialogue.

A meeting between members of the Villa’s Fan Advisory Board and club officials was held on December 20th. The Fan Advisory Board representatives were members of existing supporters’ organizations. I was pleased to receive a copy of the minutes recently and several topics were covered, among which were Villa Park redevelopment and the new crest.

I was very surprised to read that the club has decided to drop the North Stand redevelopment and spend the money on other ground improvements as I was under the impression that redevelopment plans are well advanced, while I have long thought that the North Stand is overdue for redevelopment. I was even more surprised to read: “strong reasoning given for the change in redevelopment plans is that Villa Park is not selling out. Average 200 unsold for Premier League games, and no sell outs for European games.”

My impression for the last year or so has been that all the home league games sell out and that there is a long waiting list for season tickets, so it seems that I have been mistaken. I suppose it is logical not to increase the capacity of the ground if you can’t sell what you have already got, but it is depressing that the owners seem to think they have now saturated the market for seats, at least at the prices which they want to charge.

According to the Planet Football website, Villa Park’s capacity is 42,682 and the average attendance for Premier League matches this season is 41,046, which means that on average the stadium has been 96.2% filled, a slightly lower figure than last season, but the seat prices have gone up. This figure is 14th in the list of percentages, with Luton top, averaging 100% and Liverpool bottom, with Anfield 92.3% filled. So, success on the pitch obviously does not guarantee that you will fill your stadium. Perhaps the seat pricing has something to do with it.

I have stood at Villa Park in a crowd of 70,000 on many occasions for a big match. That was before the Premier League arrived and you didn’t need to take out a bank loan to get a ticket. People turned up in their droves for certain matches in those days. I have even been in a crowd of over 48,000 at Villa Park for a Division 3 game. A lot of people were standing of course, but at least they turned up. I very much doubt that the market for seats at Villa has been saturated, but the West Midlands is not the wealthiest of areas and many people have a lot of financial commitments other than paying fancy prices for football tickets.

The other topic in the minutes which caught my eye was the new crest. It is not something which I generally bother about much, though when I first started going to Villa Park and saw that the club’s motto was ‘Prepared’ it used to raise a smile. Not only was it the same motto as the Boy Scouts, but it was patently untrue.

On this occasion, it seems that the club has undertaken a survey of supporters in order to develop a proposed new design for a crest but has upset the new Fan Advisory Board by failing to involve it in the consultation. In fact, the minutes state: “It is not satisfactory for executives that have been at the club a matter of months to create a badge that ‘they believe’ is what the majority of fans want, without getting supporter approval first, as per the new FA rules.”

The purpose of the new crest is “to signal a new future for the club, and to break away from recent serial underachievement.” I certainly wouldn’t disagree about the serial underachievement and a better future is what we all crave. To me, the shape and colour of the club crest is very much a secondary consideration to results on the pitch, while the more people you ask the larger the range of opinions you will get. Perhaps, though, the club should make an effort to keep the Fan Advisory Board onside. Otherwise old cynics like me might think it is just a PR stunt.