Perhaps the most important element of any football club is its fanbase, without which they would cease to exist. With that in mind, we were eager to find out more about the various supporters groups at Blackpool FC – who they are, their purpose, what makes them tick and how they respond to any criticism they receive.
Continuing our series of interviews with a number of Blackpool’s supporters groups, we spoke with the newest group in town SISA (Seasiders Independent Supporters Association). Interim committee member, Kevin Boroduwicz, took time out to answer our questions…
Measured Progress: SISA have only been around for a short time, so would you like to begin by giving us an overview of who you are, and how the organisation is structured?
SISA: We are a supporters group, formed by a number of Blackpool fans who felt that much could be done to improve the relationship between the football club and its fans. The lack of information pertaining to the removal of massive sums from the club’s coffers, the plethora of unexplained business dealings that Blackpool FC were part of but seemed not to be benefiting from, concern regarding the ownership of the ground and the rest of the club’s physical assets as well as the extraordinary saga relating to last season’s managerial changes at the club all played a part in creating an environment from which SISA emerged.
SISA exists to safeguard the club, our members are fans who support the club and want to act in the best interest of Blackpool FC. The committee and membership work voluntarily to benefit the aims of Blackpool fans, the local community and Blackpool Football Club. We passionately believe that a football club belongs to, and is an asset of, the area it represents. A football club often acts as a focal point for its local community and is something that people from the local area can say is unique to the place they live in or come from. We are a constitutionally democratic body with an elected committee serving the interests of members.
MP: What was the reasoning behind your formation? Was it to strive for an independent fans’ voice given BSA’s close ties to the club?
SISA: We were formed as a pro-Blackpool FC organisation intending to secure improved communication between the fans and the club with the express aims of encouraging the club to be more open, responsive and accountable to its supporters. SISA also aims to increase the level of influence the supporters have at BFC – most likely through forming a Supporters’ Trust. We intend to work to put the football club back at the heart of the community whilst establishing the community at the heart of the football club.
In the past few years it has become an increasing concern for many supporters that we are neither properly consulted nor fully informed by the football club. The questions that many fans were consistently asking about the football club did not appear to be being addressed or, if they were being asked, the supporters were not privy to the answers provided or even details of the discussion. Blackpool have 10,000 season ticket holders, the vast majority of whom are barely informed about what is happening at the club. SISA members want information to be more freely and regularly shared – they want reasonable responses to reasonable questions. They want to feel more deeply involved with the club – that their commitment and contribution is respected and valued. We want all Blackpool supporters, not just a few, to have close ties to the club and that’s our raison d’etre.
MP: Aside from being an independent voice, what else are you able to offer supporters? Are there any plans for away travel and events, or do you see your aims as being focused elsewhere?
SISA: We don’t intend to provide any transport or other such services unless our members really want that. BSA, the club, FY4 and various other groups provide for those needs particularly well. Our aims are likely to be focussed on representing and publicising supporters’ views, attempting to ensure the club’s continued well-being, improved communication and transparency from the club, working closely with other fans’ groups, helping the club to develop closer ties with the local community, enabling supporters have more influence in the decisions that the club makes, and finally, developing some level of fan ownership of the club.
MP: In terms of your committee, how has this been formed to date? Have there been formal elections or is this a process that still needs to take place given the short time SISA has been in existence?
SISA: In January 2013, a notice was issued on popular Blackpool fansites and social networking services inviting anyone who was interested in helping to form a supporters’ association to attend a public meeting to be held at the No 1 club in Blackpool. About 30 people attended that original meeting and were made aware of the available positions within SISA. Those who were interested nominated themselves in writing for whichever position they were interested. The founders then contacted all those who had expressed interest and offered them the positions for which they applied. This ‘interim’ committee has been operating since that time with the focus of arranging democratic committee elections by the start of the 2013/14 season. Any member can nominate themselves for any post – SISA’s first AGM will take place on 10th August and all committee positions will be voted upon by members at that time.
MP: It’s believed that SISA currently has over 1,000 members. Can you confirm this, and does the fact that membership is free de-value this figure in any way? Would operating an annual fee give more validity to your cause, as at the moment it’s possible members signed up online once and have then become inactive members?
SISA: SISA currently has 962 members – the membership number is publicly available on our website for those interested. The original purpose for having free membership was to ensure that everyone could afford to join regardless of their financial circumstances – we wanted to make SISA as accessible to Blackpool fans as possible, as one of the main reasons for its existence was to give voice to the supporters’ opinions. The proposal was passed unanimously at our inaugural AGM back in February of this year but the committee can introduce fees in consultation with the membership, if SISA does form a Trust, some fee is likely to be introduced. At the beginning of SISA’s existence, we had nothing to exchange for any subscription other than membership. Almost all groups that charge fees offset the subscription fee by providing some real benefit or help the organisation to meet its expenses. So far, we have met our expenses by donations alone.
The ‘cause’ of SISA will not be invalidated whether fans pay a membership fee or not: in that regard a fee is irrelevant. It has been argued that the membership numbers are not a true reflection of people’s commitment or the level of support that SISA benefits from. However, until other groups become free to join and make the membership application so convenient, it will remain a moot point. These are churlish claims at best and an attempt to undermine and dismiss at worst – it is hard to imagine any active Blackpool fan at this time being unaware that there is, and has been for a while, some large degree of discontent and disaffection amongst supporters – that reality will not be diluted by the lack of a SISA membership fee.
There is far too much factionalism and divisiveness at our club and that is another thing that SISA want to change. The problems at our club are shared and supporters and owners alike need to begin taking responsibility and acting differently if real change is to occur.
MP: Forming a Supporters Trust looks like being one avenue being pursued by SISA, with many league clubs now having supporters’ representation on their respective boards through this method. What exactly would this process involve? Is the amount of work in creating a Supporters Trust, and the sums of money required, in any making this option appear unrealistic? What benefits would SISA have by attaining Supporters Trust status?
SISA: The process involves becoming an incorporated society able to hold assets such as shares. We met Supporters Direct representatives who advised us that the costs were not prohibitive and that they would help us with many of the details and processes – reducing initial costs to a minimum. Finance is certainly not a problem. SISA would have to ask members to pay an annual fee of some sort but we would hope to keep that cost at a level people could easily afford. There is a lot of work involved and although we have a small number of dedicated volunteers, it is this area which is likely to be most challenging. We hope to get more people involved when the elections take place and in subsequent months leading up to the creation of a Trust – if that is what the members want.
The benefits would be that the Trust could own shares in the the club, own the ground or hold other property in safekeeping for the club etc. We could also have a fans’ representative on the board and ensure supporters have a real say in how our club is run. We would be able to examine the club’s finances more closely and ensure that any future owners or investors remained accountable to the supporters and that the best interest of the club and the community were central to any plans that they might have.
MP: The goal of most Supporters Trusts is board representation or even majority / full ownership. Given the current ownership status, what potential is there for this to take place? Would a future SISA Supporters Trust aim to buy shares in the football club off minority shareholders initially?
SISA: Very few people have any idea what the current owners’ plans for the club may be in the medium or long term. SISA is a long-term project that we hope will outstay not just our current owners but also many owners to come. If, for example, the Oystons sold the club tomorrow, SISA would continue in the same manner – we are not dependent on the owner for our existence but on the fans. SISA is not simply a response to the Oystons, although certain actions of the club executive helped to bring the group into being, SISA is an expression of the desire and hope that the fans of the football club hold for its future.
We would hope that there are various routes that we could take if we were to become a Trust that would help to safeguard the future of the club. We have already been offered some shares by minority shareholders and we would work towards developing some level of ownership of the club if we were to become a Trust. SISA intends to prevent the club being open to any kind of fiscal abuse in the future by, as already described, acquiring a degree of ownership, securing a place on the board, as well as availing ourselves of on-going developments at governmental level that encourage community involvement in local football clubs.
MP: At one of your recent meetings, both Karl Oyston and Glenn Bowley (BSA chairman) turned up to observe, but the overall turnout was low. Have you found the lack of physical bodies at your meetings to be in any way disappointing? How can you combat this perceived apathy and get larger numbers to your events?
SISA: We have averaged about 40 people at our public meetings so far. Our secretary was expecting 15 people for the meeting that Karl Oyston and Glenn Bowley attended, so we felt that the numbers, thanks to those two in particular, were unexpectedly good that evening. We have been really pleased by the numbers that have turned up and the amount of people that have provided support or shown interest in SISA. There is a huge amount of passion for the club in this town. We may not have enormous numbers but in terms of commitment and feeling for the club, we can match any other team in the land.
Blackpool fans are not apathetic but part of the problem that SISA wants to address is getting the club more involved with the support and encouraging BFC to improve its relationship with the fans. It is this reluctance to fully engage with the fanbase that in our opinion, has led to a stoicism that is often confused with apathy. SISA is continually growing in size and as we become more established and better organised, so attendance at meetings may improve. However, for us, the most important thing is that the fans feel involved and that the committee is responsive to the members, whether it be in cyberspace or in person.
The response to our online surveys and votes tends to be really impressive. This is a societal change and one that SISA really has embraced, we want to offer myriad ways of involving people with their club, be that emailing us suggestions, voting online for their choice of agenda items or physically attending a meeting.
MP: Moving on to your relationship with BSA, what’s the latest? Initially they refused dialogue with SISA, but has anything changed since? How do you feel the two organisations can benefit from close cooperation?
SISA: The BSA committee’s position has remained the same and they are currently choosing not to enter a dialogue with SISA – we hope that this is something that might change soon. The question for us is not how or whether close co-operation will benefit the two organisations but how such co-operation might benefit the club and its supporters. We feel sure that closer co-operation between the groups will help to improve the type and level of information that ordinary supporters will be able to access. It will also help to ensure that the club gets a much broader spectrum of feedback from supporters on issues that fans are genuinely concerned about. It would also likely mean that many more Blackpool supporters might become more actively involved with the club if they felt that they actually mattered to it. The club enjoys an excellent relationship with a very small number of fans but the vast majority of us it seems, at best, indifferent towards.
The question SISA is attempting to address is, ‘How can we encourage the club to work more closely with a much larger proportion of its fans?’
MP: There is an argument that as the club will only deal with BSA, anything SISA does or attempts is futile. How would you respond to this? Can SISA ever achieve anything without the ear of the football club? Have local media been receptive to your group and is this a potential area where you can make yourselves heard?
SISA: The club is restricted by its’ own Charter and couldn’t speak to SISA even if it wanted to without being in contravention of these rules! We have already achieved some significant progress, the appointment of the Supporters Liaison Officer was partly as a response to the supporters efforts. The increased communication from the club is also a response to the supporters’ requests of which SISA is part. The club’s ear can never be entirely closed to the supporters without experiencing deafness and a dangerous loss of equilibrium that accompanies hardness of hearing. It has never been about the achievements of SISA but about the club’s responsiveness and accountability to the fans.
The local media have given SISA some degree of coverage but we think that the fans issues need to be covered more regularly and in greater depth, There are genuine concerns and questions about one of the town’s most valuable and iconic community assets – more needs to be done by the media to highlight such issues and assist supporters in obtaining answers.
MP: There may be some members who have signed up to SISA hoping for a more hardline stance including protests and the like. Indeed, the accusations have already been thrown your way that SISA is all talk and no action. Is protesting something that SISA would ever be open to, and if so what would need to happen for things to reach this stage?
SISA: It is easy to imagine why people might feel frustrated with what might seem like slow progress from SISA, we sometimes get frustrated ourselves even though we are fully aware of the effort put in and the distance we have travelled. We are restricted in what we can achieve directly by the club’s and BSA’s apprehension and suspicion of SISA, and thereby many ordinary fans – this is symptomatic of the issues at the football club. The systems in place have taken years to establish and there does seem to be an enormous resistance to widening the small group of people that are privy to the internal workings of the club. Even the tiniest slither of seemingly inconsequential information can be extremely hard to obtain for ordinary fans.
Of course, in the absence of facts, speculation and suspicion are sure to thrive and this has a deleterious impact on the relationship between ordinary fans and their club. It seems that all but a few of the club’s fans are trusted and so we have a very fine balancing act to perform of being true to the members requirements and attempting not to alienate the club. That may well be a futile task but we are not going to be drawn into the stereotyped role that some would seem to want us to occupy. We are sceptical and we do want to ask questions, but that type of agnosticism and enquiry is the very thing that leads to ‘progress’ which for SISA is not just a word on the ‘badge’ but an inducement to act.
We’re not sure that protests in themselves satisfy a ‘hardline’ stance. In the UK we have a fairly long tradition of democratic demonstrations taking place when people feel that other means of expressing their opinions do not exist or have failed to convey their message. SISA will organise protests if required to by its members, where fans feel that this is the most effective way of communication. The main concern around protests is the effect that might have on the players. In organising any protest our aim would certainly be to attempt to ensure this did not impact the players. Perhaps the departure of a publicly discontented employee, removal of further monies form the club, or most likely poor results, would lead to protest.
MP: Finally, and on a lighter note, what do you think (or hope) Paul Ince and his squad can achieve this season?
SISA: It is 83 years since Blackpool won a divisional title so we are long overdue a Championship side. We just need a number of good quality loan players and a couple of unexpected gems to be unearthed and another season of astounding success awaits. Prediction: 18th (Editor’s note: submitted 22nd July)
We would like to thank Kevin Boroduwicz and SISA for their willing participation in this project. Anyone who wishes to join or contact SISA can get in touch with them in the following ways: