With just five games of the season remaining, relegation to League One is becoming an ever more distinct possibility. Regardless of the eventual outcome this season however, the club is facing a difficult task in retaining supporters with the likelihood being a sharp drop off in season ticket sales. No information has yet been released by the club relating to pricing or deadlines, but here are a few suggestions the club might wish to consider to avoid losing a significant number of fans…
1. Admit that mistakes have been made
The time for bullishness is over. No longer can chairman Karl Oyston stick to his guns that his approach is the right one and that fan pressure will never make him change his ways. The day-to-day methods employed by the club have been exposed as short-sighted and the club is now paying the penalty for that strategy.
Sadly, the most recent comments from Karl suggest he is not about to go down this route. In an interview last week with the Blackpool Gazette, Oyston made clear his feelings about money not being a major factor in success:
“Money isn’t the only factor in success because it can be spent very ineffectively and very unwisely. Conversely, you can spend it sparsely and do well. It’s not about money. I’ll never be convinced otherwise but that’s the thing which is always thrown as us when things are going badly.”
To some extent, Karl is right that it is not all about money, but to downplay its importance entirely is plain naive. Year after year there is a strong correlation between then number of points a team achieves and their wage budget, whatever level of football you care to look at. To deny that proven link is dishonest.
Not only have Blackpool spent at the lower end of the spectrum in the Championship with the lowest wages to turnover ratio, it has also been spent poorly with a haphazard transfer strategy and no long-term planning. For the second consecutive season the team will need to be overhauled in the summer with only a handful contracted beyond the summer. Success cannot be built on such instability.
Publicly admitting bad choices have been made, and with humility, is just one step the owners can take to begin reversing this dire situation. Of course, such has been the breakdown in trust from the supporters’ side that at this point in time words carry little value from Karl, and this leads us into the second suggestion.
2. Step out of the spotlight
At first, this may seem counter-intuitive, but after making a humble apology and acknowledgement of failure, the best thing Karl Oyston could do is take a step back. Surely communication on how he plans to turn the situation around is needed? Well, communication is needed, but not from the chairman. He is now tainted beyond repair and many will no longer believe a word he says, regardless of how earnest he may be this time.
Karl needs to extricate himself from the limelight as he has shown a recurring knack for putting his foot in his mouth. Whatever message the club want to deliver to the supporters, if Karl is the messenger, they may as well not bother. An antagonistic attitude he has displayed on a regular basis is not conducive to building bridges and the latest stunt posing with the “Oyston’s Cash Cow” banner only serves to emphasise the fans’ perception of him. If Karl cannot help himself belittling supporters by referring to them as being ‘peculiar’ or calling them a ‘mob’ then he ought to just not speak at all. It will be better for him, better for supporters and better for the club.
Likewise, the club need to get the rest of their house in order and begin behaving like the professional club they should aspire to be. Don’t let the rest of the Oyston family take to social media to goad supporters and don’t let other club employees get into arguments on there either. Mediation can only be successful if the club ensures they act with compassion and understanding from here on in.
3. Embrace the Supporter Liaison Officer role
But if Karl Oyston is not going to be handling media duties and communication with the fans, then who will? Handily, the UEFA regulations stipulating all clubs should have a Supporter Liaison Officer (SLO) provides the club with just such a person. The Football Supporters Federation (FSF) explains the role of an SLO as follows:
“An SLO is an employee of the club who is responsible for building bridges between the club and its fans. SLOs might communicate fans’ opinions to a club’s board or senior staff members and should also liaise with stewards, police and counterparts at opposition clubs.”
Currently Blackpool’s attitude towards this role has been to treat it with contempt, with Karl himself undermining the necessity of it. When the chairman met with a group of BSA members back in October, he had the following to say on the role:
“We haven’t got one, and we aren’t going to have one. I think it’s a stupid idea and it won’t be happening here.”
Given the SLO role is a Football League requirement and bearing in mind what an SLO could achieve if given the right tools, it was disheartening to hear this. In fact, the club have appeared to make a mockery of this job by first trying to appoint the chairman’s PA, then the chairman of BSA, before finally settling on appointing the club’s in-house journalist to the role. However, with a full-time job to attend to already, it’s unclear how this can really allow much time for the work expected of an SLO.
If ever there was time in which bridges need building between the club and its supporters, then that is surely now. Take the role seriously and embrace the benefits it can bring. Ensure the SLO speaks to the full spectrum of the fan base including organised fans’ groups, individuals and local and national media. Bring in an expert who can be a professional face for the club and someone supporters can empathise with. Messages from the club coming from a fresh face can begin smoothing things over.
4. Get the season ticket pricing right
Last season, as means of an apology for a season of turmoil, the club made a bold move and reduced season tickets to an unexpected low price of £195.30. It’s almost certain this quelled a mini-rebellion and most who were on the fence about renewing at the normal £360 price point were pacified enough to renew. However, pulling the same trick again after another trainwreck of a season could be more difficult.
Returning pricing to previous levels is clearly not an option, and at the very least, the club have to stick to the same price. This is surely a bare minimum, but even at just under £200, many will not feel compelled to renew. It might be that the club have to reduce prices further, to say £150 or even as low as £100. It seems a bit spoilt to go as far as demanding such rock-bottom prices, but with such unrest, fans will take some arm-twisting.
5. Don’t put a deadline on pricing
Perhaps even more important than the pricing though is the timelines set on the purchasing of season tickets. It’s common for most clubs to run their best deals as an early-bird offer, and this was the case again at Blackpool last season. This probably worked as a means to inducing the transaction, given how many have said they would not have renewed had they known what the club’s summer recruitment had been like.
This time around, the club have forfeited any right to put time pressure on the supporters, and whatever pricing point is conjured up should not be time-limited. Those with season tickets this year should have their seats reserved right up until the first game of next season. Let’s face it, it’s not like there will be a huge queue of people lining up to buy those ‘reserved’ seats in the meantime and by not setting a deadline, the club puts the onus on themselves to prove to the fanbase that they will do things differently this summer.
Season ticket sales are often important for clubs in seeing them through the close season from a cash flow perspective, but given Blackpool’s cash reserves this should be no issue either. If supporters do see a tangible change of tack from the club’s leadership, and the price is right, the majority will renew. However, put a short deadline on renewing with no ability to see if there is any material change before having to commit, and many will not put their faith in the club putting football first.
Of course, this runs the risk that a poor summer of player recruitment and off-the-field development will see a huge fall in numbers, but it is now up to the club’s owners to show they are committed to putting things right and fans should not have to feel pressured into parting with their hard-earned cash if the Oystons cannot make much-needed investment in the football club themselves.
6. Put a proper structure in place
The seeds for many of the problems at the club were sown long ago, when the Oyston family seemed to prioritise their personal wealth over continued growth of the football club. However, considering the nature of football it has only been when results have dropped to such disastrous levels that the feeling of revolt has truly exploded. Nonetheless, it is time these underlying issues are addressed and that real signs of progress are visible starting right now.
Addressing the football structure has to be a priority, and for too long now the way recruitment has been coordinated has been amateurish. With no overall football strategy in place, signings have come and gone at the whim of the manager, who themselves have been operating on a revolving door basis in the last 18 months.
The mere mention of the director of football role seems to scare more traditionally-minded fans, but the club does need someone at a level higher than the manager / head coach to oversee a more long-term approach to how the squad is assembled. The idea that this would cause conflict between the coaching side and the recruiting side should be negated by the aim that you would bring together like-minded individuals working to an overall strategy, rather than lurching from one extreme to the other.
A player recruitment specialist, combined with a manager appointed on a permanent basis, should then be given the freedom to work to a sensible budget befitting of a club of Blackpool’s resources. Major re-building work is required on the squad and unlike last season it has to be done swiftly, with no petty haggling over small differences of opinion on wages and transfer fees.
Such has been the reduction in quality and quantity, a big push is required to sign virtually an entire core of a squad that can be in place for the next two to three years, including some younger players with future re-sale value. Gone should be the days of the Michael Chopras and Robert Earnshaws of this world.
Furthermore, the training ground situation has to be resolved and communicated. Dropping mention of background developments that are ‘commercially sensitive’ every now and then is no longer sufficient. ‘Pool fans have already waited too long for this legacy project to be delivered. Additionally, a regular maintenance plan of the stadium should be adopted immediately. With the resources at the club’s disposal, a scruffy image should not be tolerated.
7. Pray for a miracle on the pitch
Despite all of the above, for many the biggest deciding factor on whether to renew or not will come down to which division Blackpool find themselves in next season. With that in mind, surviving the drop takes on extra significance. Following defeat to Derby, the gap to the relegation zone is the smallest it has been all season at just three points
At this point, with only five games left to play, replacing Barry Ferguson is unlikely, but still shouldn’t be ruled out. Team selections and formations have been wildly inconsistent and listening to the former Scotland captain struggle to account for poor performances in his press conferences has been a concern. The expected post-Paul Ince bounce never materialised and with the outlook bleak, a last-minute change might spark a result or two Blackpool so desperately need.
It’s more likely though that Ferguson will remain in control of first team affairs, and this weekend’s trip to Leeds assumes huge significance. Three tough-looking matches against teams with Premier League aspirations follow before a potential final match showdown against Charlton. A minimum of three points will be required one would expect, and possibly as many as six or seven. Right now, it’s hard to imagine how this team can manage that.
The events of the last few days have seen many supporters resign themselves to League One football in 2014/15. The club’s owners must hope that the playing staff can shake off their similarly defeatist attitude and rouse themselves to avoid the drop. Otherwise, Bloomfield Road could quite feasibly be half empty and playing host to Fleetwood Town next season.
These are just seven things the club could do to try and repair the damage that has been done, but in truth this is probably only the tip of the iceberg. And even if all seven steps outlined above were carried out, would it be enough for some? Probably not. There are some, including longstanding fans of many decades, who are set on giving up unless the Oyston family were to move on.
With the prospect of the owners’ departure fairly remote, there is a lot of work to be done for them to begin winning people around. The club have backed themselves into a corner through simple neglect, for which many will not be able to forgive. Will the Oyston family realise that they now need to put football first?