Why supporters are often complicit in their club’s lack of ambition
If you’ve ever had the “pleasure” of listening in on a conference call with company executives, analysts and shareholders, the findings of a recent study quoted in the Financial Times last week won’t come as much of a surprise to you. Academics at four US universities found that these question-and-answer sessions are often heavily stage-managed.
But Managing The Narrative: Investor Relations Offices And Corporate Disclosure also uncovered unexpected evidence of a secret understanding between companies and institutional investors that at first seems counterintuitive. Many large shareholders, the paper showed, were doing the directors’ work for them by downplaying earning expectations.
Investor relation officers reported that these institutional investors were even putting pressure on analysts to lower their forecasts, by getting directly in touch with them. “They beat them up on the phone,” one participant to the study revealed. As a result of these PR efforts, easier targets were set, met or exceeded, with everybody feeling good about being part of such a success story.
Does that sound familiar? In the age of social media and blogging, many supporters - let’s call them emotional investors - are likewise eager to attack journalists/analysts publicly for being too demanding of their football club’s leadership and insist that the bar should be lowered. That reframing of expectations - by way of lengthy “net spend” essays, for example - makes stagnation more palatable and the achievement of “success” far less arduous.
You could call it an emotional insurance policy, or a coping mechanism. The more militant faction of online fans will simply regard extending the “defence” of their club from the terraces into the discursive realm as their duty. Either way, it’s a pretty rational way of dealing with the problem of being irrationally tied to an enterprise over which one has little to no control.
There’s also a lot to be said about putting a club’s fortune or misfortune into context and providing a careful, nuanced picture beyond the “fantastic”-“abject” binary that dominates much of the airspace. A big problem arises, however, if the emotional investors’ willingness to lower expectations of their own volition meets rank incompetence and/or a lack of ambition at the top of the club.
Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal, who have re-packaged stasis as stability so successfully for their (imagined) shareholders that the latter have taken thirteen years to wake up to the self-serving nature of that narrative, are the poster boys for a leadership thriving in an environment low, undemanding expectations.
But it’s at more ordinary, less glamorous clubs where this unspoken complicity between supporters and the board is most damaging. From the top six in the Premier League down (with the possible exception of Everton), supporters are constantly warned by boards, managers and pundits about the dangers of too high expectations, about the need to abandon any sense of “entitlement”. (It’s worth recalling, at this point, that Spurs’ Daniel Levy was widely ridiculed for his unwillingness to accept the ‘top four’ status quo ten years ago).
Fans are essentially supposed to turn up and support their club come what may, which for two thirds of the world’s richest league translates into mid-table ennui at best. Getting supporters to accept so little in return for so much (time, passion, and money for tickets and TV subscriptions) is a trick clubs can only pull off because too many shareholders have conditioned themselves to adopt the ‘easy targets’ mind-set of the large shareholders in the aforementioned study.
Unfortunately, however, emotional investors neither enjoy the same tangible benefits as financial ones, nor can they ever sell and invest elsewhere. They’re stuck with that one, hugely important holding – and thus owe it to themselves not to simply reproduce the convenient narrative of the management.