The charade of transparency

“When is supporter outreach not really outreach at all?”

That’s the question I’ve been left pondering following the latest line of events at Bloomfield Road. On October 24th Karl Oyston met with BSA members in another one of their ‘mini-forum’ events. Fans were there, questions were asked and answers provided, but is this really supporter engagement?

Nature of the forum

Open forums used to be a regular event in the not-too-distant past and other clubs do these events, including recently the much-derided Blackburn Rovers. Yet this type of event held by Blackpool has a very different air to it. First of all, it is a BSA-only event, which immediately excludes around 95% of the club’s fanbase, if not higher. Then there’s the number of places available, capped at just 20. The event was oversubscribed, in which event BSA state “a random draw will be conducted”. The methodology of this random draw is unknown.

Now, no accusations are being made here, but by limiting numbers to 20 and a draw deciding which members get an invite, BSA will inevitably face questions of the transparency of this method. Looking from the outside, it’s impossible to tell whether a draw was entirely random or whether certain people with certain affiliations the club don’t approve of have been purposely excluded. That’s the nature of this more secretive type of event – right or wrong, adopting the approach they have done will invite examination.

Sifting through the questions, there are some useful nuggets of information that can be gleaned from Oyston’s answers, which in the minds of some will justify the evening. Some information is better than no information, right? Of course, to an extent this is true. On the back of the evening, we’re aware the new training ground hasn’t been completely forgotten about (despite the glacial pace of progress), seats will be changed (finally), the East stand won’t be changed (although a North East corner remains a small possibility), Oyston still doesn’t like agents (the irony!) and he doesn’t have a five year plan (despite claims that promotion to the Premier League would allow him to do this).

But is it enough? And are some of the responses that Oyston provided acceptable? The answer, given the title and existence of this post, is a unaminous ‘no’ in the opinion of Measured Progress.

Supporter Liaison Officer (SLO) role

A specific concern is the closed shop siege mentality the club has adopted, with the behind-closed-doors nature of this forum being a prime example. Paying close attention to the questions focused on supporter issues, the club make their stance very clear. Oyston was asked about the Supporter Liaison Officer (SLO) vacancy, a role which has been introduced internationally to try and improve dialogue between clubs and their supporters – the idea being that this person is impartial and an advocate of both sides, the club and supporters. His response offered little ambiguity as to his views:

“We haven’t got one, and we aren’t going to have one. We are old fashioned and if we have any problems we take the complaints directly and reply. That’s how we do things here, I distribute issues and problems to my staff who deal with them. I think it’s a stupid idea and it won’t be happening here.”

It’s difficult to know where to start with Oyston’s obstinate answer, but the notion that a club chairman should be responsible for micro-managing individual complaints is preposterous and perhaps speaks to an explanation of why there is little high level strategic planning at the club if his time is occupied by relatively trivial manners which should be below his remit. That’s even before Oyston’s views on the SLO role are taken into account.

Measured Progress spoke to the Football Supporters’ Federation (FSF) for their view on Karl Oyston’s comments. The FSF said:

“We’re firm believers that, given the necessary resources and respect, Supporter Liaison Officers (SLOs) can have a really positive impact for both club and fan. That’s the experience of fans on the continent where this role has been around for decades.

“SLOs are part of UEFA licensing system so it’s not like it’s just naive fans calling for “a stupid idea”. SLOs are backed by people like Michel Platini, the Premier League and the entire Football League! As far as we’re aware 91 other clubs think it’s a good idea – what does Mr Oyston know that they don’t?

“Lastly, if there’s any fans (or chairman, cough cough) reading this thinking what the heck is an SLO? What’s the point? Please spend a few minutes checking out where there’s a full explanation and case studies showing how it should be done.”

It’s disappointing that Blackpool FC could not have a more open-minded attitude towards this role, with the club also not choosing to send a delegate to a recent North West SLO meeting, in which many ideas and recommendations were shared between those present to contribute to the improvement of supporter engagement at their respective football clubs. By taking this stance, Blackpool FC are also in breach of the Football League’s regulation 20.5, which states:

20.5 Each Club shall designate a member of staff to act as a supporter liaison officer who shall:

20.5.1 have responsibility for the delivery of the Club’s policy with regard to its stakeholders insofar as that policy concerns supporters;

20.5.2 act as a point of contact for supporters; and

20.5.3 liaise regularly with the Club’s management (including, without prejudice to the generality of the foregoing, on safety and security-related issues).

It is believed the Football League are looking into this breach, but any resolution to this is as yet unknown.

Idea of a supporters’ trust

In a similar vein of discouraging fan outreach, Oyston was dismissive of the idea of a supporters’ trust being established. This is a route that SISA are currently pursuing, the importance of which was played down by Oyston:

“We looked at it with BSA and spoke to Supporters’ Direct. They said there’s no pressing structural problems at this club which need addressing and we’d be wasting our time and money forming a trust. So we decided not to bother. I would need to have a major problem, spend all our money and plunge us down the divisions before a Trust would become relevant. So there’s no point. It’s more of a calamity recovery thing, not for clubs which are in reasonable shape. There’s things we can better spend our time doing.”

There’s a couple of strange points made here by Oyston, first of all being the notion that clubs should have any involvement in the formation of a trust. The whole idea is that these organisations are fan-led, not by the clubs themselves or by the club using BSA as a proxy. It is also startling for Oyston to insinuate that supporters’ trusts are only of value to clubs in crisis and suggest Supporters’ Direct stated this outright. The following statement from Supporters’ Direct pours cold water on that:

“There seems to have been a bit of a misunderstanding about the role of a supporters’ trust, but it’s not uncommon to find that, simply because some of the highest profile work we’ve done helping the takeovers at Portsmouth, Exeter City, or the crises at Coventry City etc.

“But we work with myriad groups in the Premier League and Championship – Manchester United, Spurs, Leicester City, and Charlton – none of which could be said by any stretch to be in crisis. In fact, the supporters’ trusts at those clubs are doing some excellent work, often with the club, to ensure that the independent voice of supporters can be heard.

“Look across the Championship, Premier League, and the rest of the pyramid, and you’ll find that this is true: in fact supporters of around 70% of all the clubs in the top four divisions have formed them.

“So, whilst what Karl is doing in not paying agents, running the club to a budget, being financially responsible is good, we think that variety is the spice of life, and that independently organised, self-funded groups of supporters – supporters’ trusts – can bring something different to the life of a club, and most certainly that includes Blackpool.”

It’s disconcerting that the chairman would try to put words in the mouths of Supporters’ Direct with regards to the unsuitability of a supporters’ trust at Blackpool, when it is clearly not a view they hold and only strengthens the case for not accepting verbatim what communication is put out by the club. It is absolutely necessary that there is an independent means of holding the club to account and fact-checking their statements. Once more the club have come up short, and ultimately have not been held to account for this by either the official supporters’ club, or the Gazette who ran with the transcript of the forum.

Exclusivity with BSA

SISA are in the process of establishing a supporters’ trust, but regardless of their status, it would seem that Oyston will continue to ignore them, despite SISA’s claims of now being Blackpool’s largest supporters’ group with over 1,000 members. Oyston had the following to say on speaking only to BSA:

“I see absolutely no other reason to involve any other group. If people want to set up other groups, then that’s up to them. But they do so in the knowledge that we won’t have anything to do with them, now or in the future. So if they wish to set up groups, they can’t bemoan us not having contact with them. That will be the case as long as I’m chairman.”

Once again it’s a disappointing stance for the club to take and only isolates the club further, when open engagement could help build bridges and improve communication. How SISA now react to this will be key, and it is for them to overcome the challenges posed by being cast out. For all of the groundwork SISA have been laying in both signing up members and exploring the trust route, eyes will now be focused on them to make themselves heard.

Up to this point there has been criticism of inactivity, and SISA, like any other organisation that puts themselves in the public eye, is there to be a shot at. Questions are already being asked: what have SISA done? Why have SISA been so quiet lately? What’s the point of SISA if the club won’t deal with them? These are all issues for them to face, be it making a bigger song and dance of what they have achieved and hope to achieve, or working out how they move forward now the club’s view is crystal clear.

The unasked questions

Going back to the forum itself, once more it was disappointing to see that many of the most deeply disturbing issues at the club went unchallenged. Such questions may not seem as immediately relevant to the short-term running of the club, but are a much bigger part of the legacy many Blackpool fans hoped for in the aftermath of promotion to the Premier League and its associated riches.

Questions about the £11m payment to Zabaxe went unasked despite previous answers being totally unsatisfactory. The Travelodge land deal went unmentioned, whereby the club paid more than 10 times for a plot of land it had sold to the Oyston family only years prior. Nor did anybody ask Oyston about the various loans going out to his family’s companies and how this can be the best use of the club’s money – the loans being interest-free and unsecured to companies who are mainly loss-making and without the ability to repay in the foreseeable future.

These questions, and many more, should have been asked and pressed if the answers were deflective or not satisfactory. It may be that BSA do not want to risk their relationship by pushing too hard on these issues, but if they are not willing to do so, then they need to create some wiggle room (formally or informally) for someone else to take up this task. For all the excellent work they do on away day travel, events and fundraising by a hard-working committee team, their exclusivity with the club and refusal to liaise with other groups does them a disservice.

The future

Realistically, it’s difficult to envisage significant change in the short-term. The club and chairman are notoriously stubborn and are unlikely to change their stance unless forced to do so by the footballing authorities. For the silent majority of fans, the current on-the-pitch status will placate most. However, supporting the team and craving improvements off-the-pitch do not have to be mutually exclusive.

It is important that the club are reminded of their duties to supporters, without whom the club would not exist. Karl Oyston may like to think of his and the club’s approach as being quirky, but there is nothing quirky about treating fans who want the best for their club with contempt – it is pure pigheadedness.

In the near future, Measured Progress will be revisiting the important questions that the club should be answering, yet are not. Hopefully these questions can one day be put to Oyston, behind closed doors or otherwise.