First published February 2016
- Much has been written on social media over recent days that echoes what has been written for recent months and even recent years and it all serves to highlight the dilemmas fans and club owners both face – although there are different solutions on either side.
- What are these dilemmas? Let’s look at it from the fan’s point of view first; the dilemmas stem from supporting Leeds United as a team week in, week out when performances and results bring little pleasure during the match and leave the fan feeling flat at best for the following days.
There seems little doubt that fans are dissatisfied with performances on the pitch with the team often being roundly booed at half-time and again at full time. Even our coach said he’d rather watch paint dry than watch a recent match where we were unable to make any inroads into a well-organised defensive opposition. Even when we scraped a win our coach said “it wasn’t the best performance by any stretch”. Fans, both home and away, are witnessing a game of two halves where the team produce distinctly different performances in each 45.
Results are leaving fans similarly disappointed. We currently lie 16th in the Championship table having played 15 home games and 15 away. Our points tally puts us 11 points above the relegation zone and a continuation of our mediocre form should see us start in the Championship next season.
The reaction to performances has been varied; some resort to booing and barracking players on the pitch, others choose to stop going to matches, there are some who advocate protests, others who seek change at the top and yet others who choose to hope that stability through maintaining the status quo will lead to a change in fortunes. I make no comment as to my support of any of these different approaches but seek to analyse the dilemmas raised by some of these reactions.
There has been, in my opinion, a marked change in how fans support the team during the match. In my rose-tinted memory, matches of old were exciting affairs and always resulted in a win but in the deep recesses of my mind of 45 years ago I can recall the rainy trudges to the off licence in the evening after a match to buy a green ‘un to confirm that other people saw a match as bad and depressing as I felt I’d witnessed. What I think was different way back when was that fans used to blindly support the team on the pitch until the final whistle, fans always felt their efforts on the terraces could make a change “on the grass” and few booed until the ref blew for time; now it seems that fans boo each slip or mistimed pass, a missed tackle immediately summons an adverse, voluble reaction from parts of the crowd for the rest of the match – players are left in no doubt how they are being perceived as the match progresses.
This presents a problem; fans are unhappy and are entitled to express their displeasure but in doing so they are contributing to a poor performance, worse still, they are actually sustaining the poor performance. Is this just my opinion or can it be sustained by evidence? Well I think the evidence is there. We are at a unique point in the season where we have played 30 matches of which 15 have been played equally at home and away. Anyone who has witnessed a Leeds United away day will know the atmosphere created by our fans. There is no doubt that the atmosphere is loud, expectant and fans are proud of being “Leeds United” and let the opposing fans know this throughout the game.
Does this have an effect on the team? Yes, it does as can easily be seen by looking at our league position when only away games are taken into account – despite being 16th overall we are 10th in the table of away games. This is the same team, same coach, same skill sets, same endurance; some may argue that team tactics change home and away but I’d suggest that player performances are far more significant.
By the same token, the negative, accusative atmosphere at Elland Road has produced team performances that put us 21st in the home league table. Same team, same coach, same skill set, same endurance, different tactics maybe but most of all a huge crowd that is quiet at best and expresses loud dissatisfaction at worse. The difference between 10th and 21st place is significant and not just a quirk of the season.
And there we have the first of the fan’s dilemmas; to suppress dissatisfaction during the game and cheer on and support a team performing badly or exercise the right to complain and boo at the risk of making the performance worse?
There has been much talk of protests recently and they are not a new addition to the fans armoury in seeking change; protests have been made for decades with greater or lesser effect. Across football in general, fans blame players for not being skilled enough, coaches/managers for making poor tactical decisions and owners for not investing in new (perceived as better) players. Protests take many forms from trying to embarrass owners in the media, through marches and demonstrations to bull blown boycotts of matches. There has also been much talk recently from advocates of stability who accept that, whatever the past rights and wrongs, we are where we are and to move forward fans should accept the situation as it is now and trust that stability and time will effect change. I can see the logic behind each of these approaches and make no comment as to my support, or otherwise, of any of them.
Protests are aimed at an ego; they seek to embarrass someone into change. At Leeds United in recent years protests have been aimed at the owners and whether they have worked or not is best left to debate elsewhere. Some claim that protests have driven owners out although they took some time to be effective, others claim that owners left because they had managed the club towards bankruptcy and they needed to bail out or lose money; whatever the reality protests do drive a wedge between fans and the owner leading to owners becoming protective, risk averse and vindictive. Owners driven to such feelings rarely spend their way back into the hearts and minds of fans and it is credit to Liverpool’s very rich owners that they recently broke the mould and reacted nicely to a fans’ protest (although some say that they only reacted to stop income losses due to fans giving up attending).
And there we have the second of the fan’s dilemmas; to protest and risk alienating an owner so that investment dries up and tit-for-tat reactions ensue or accept whatever fate decides?
Ignoring the off-pitch situation and concentrating solely “on the grass” is another option for beleaguered fans. At Leeds United there are many thousands of fans who just want to watch football – yes, they’d like entertaining football from skilful players but football (and maybe comradeship and alcohol) is the reason they support Leeds United. Leaving the current club management to their job, whether they believe the management is the best and doing a good job or not, can bring stability and it is widely accepted across football that, whist stability does not bring success per se, stability is preferred to discord at a club. There are risks to this approach, of course, in that stability doesn’t effect change, nor does it guarantee improvement, but it does provide a basis for owners and institutions to invest into through loans and equity. In today’s football structure, despite financial fair play rules, clubs who spend above their income level by supplementing income with loans from rich owners tend to have the greater successes and condemn clubs living within their means to lower league positions.
And there we have the third of the fan’s dilemmas; to do nothing and hope that time and good fortune will bring change or accept whatever fate decides?
A major outcome of poor performances and results is falling attendances and support. Some fans advocate formal boycotts to “hit the owner where it hurts – in the wallet” and others just drift away to other, more entertaining pastimes. I’ve read some fans saying that this effect is small as most fans have Leeds United in their DNA and will attend regardless – in analysis terms attendance is said to be inelastic. However, the facts show the situation is not as simple as it first may seem, as analysis of data from the last four published seasons shows.
In the 2010/11 season we had an average league attendance of 27,300; as dissatisfaction grew under Bates’s and GFH’s tenures the attendance dropped to 21,500 in 2012/13, a drop of 21%. A drop of 21% in attendance over just two years is significant and definitely not inelastic – attendance has thus been shown to be highly elastic and very affected by performance on the pitch. This drop in attendance was disastrous for the club, owner and fans alike; the drop in attendance was matched by a drop in ticket money from £12.7m to £9.7m. Of course, £3m less income from tickets meant £3m less to spend on the players and their wage bill.
After this drop in attendance GFH took action and reduced ticket prices; it had the desired effect and attendance increased to 25,100 in 2013/14 – not quite back to the season under Bates but only 8% down on the Bates era rather than 21%. This shows that ticket prices, as well as being very affected by performance, are also very affected by price. Unfortunately even though the attendance had increased the lower ticket prices meant that yet again total ticket income fell to £8.6m – this is another £1m that cannot be spent on players.
And there we have the fourth of the fan’s dilemmas; to stop attending until things improve even though it means fewer and cheaper, less-skilful players will be employed or continue to go to Elland Road so the team wage bill can increase to compete with the top teams?
The Owner’s Dilemma
A football club owner has many dilemmas but I’m going to restrict myself to talking about dilemmas associated with those above. Some owners are genuinely philanthropic but even they recognise that clubs cannot lose massive amounts of money for a long period of time without running into the problems Leeds United did some years ago or Bolton have now. I’m going to take it as read that any Leeds United owner isn’t going to put money into the club without expecting it to be recouped when he sells the club.
There is a complaint amongst many fans at the moment, and indeed some fans have said the same for many years, that the owner isn’t putting enough money towards the playing squad. Leaving aside the notion owners should provide unlimited amounts of their own money, a la Bolton, owners must look to balance the books. This is even more important now that Financial Fair Play rules are in place and restrict, to some extent, what an owner can do. Most football clubs have an administration structure behind the scenes generating running costs that must be paid each year and the costs associated with this are difficult to change quickly. In simple terms, any income over and above the costs of the “behind the scenes” operation can be spent on players.
If we go back and look at real published data, as before, we find that ticket money decreased by £4.1m from 2010/11 to 2013/14. This is a direct reduction in the money available to be spent on players of £4.1m.
There is a further element associated with falling attendances and poor performances on the pitch; falling commercial revenue. Our commercial revenue fell from £8.4m in 2010/11 to £6.7m in 2013/14. This £1.7m fall in revenue means £1.7m less was available to spend on players.
In total, our income fell from £32.7m in 2010/11 to just £25.3m in 2013/14; a reduction of £7.4m which has a direct impact on the amount available to spend on players.
This season’s figures will not be known for another 14 months but we do know that, to date, this season’s attendance is 23,100 (down from 25,100 in 2013/14) and there has been no significant change to prices since 2013; I’d expect ticket revenue to be down again possibly below £8m (around £5m less than in the Bates era) taking around another £1m from the club’s income. We also know that we have missed out on commercial revenue now that we no longer have a shirt sponsor and the East Stand has failed to provide commercial revenue since Hesco’s sponsorship ended.
What can our owner do about it? This is a difficult question to answer, naturally. However, there can be little doubt that, given the current football funding structure and Financial Fair Play rules, he has two choices; invest new money in the form of both loans and new equity, sell high value players to pay the wage bill and cover losses or batten down the hatches and cut expenditure.
The first option (invest and spend new money = loans or equity) is risky for both the owner and the club in that it if it doesn’t bring success then he could lose a lot of money and the club be saddled with debt for years to come – Leeds United fans know this well from the Ridsdale and Krasner years and more recently under GFH – the FFP rules, which demand an owner injects equity to cover losses, ensure that an owner is less likely to get away without losing his own money than owners in previous years.
The second option of battening down the hatches and restricting investment and expenditure will ensure that the players’ wage bill is lowered and players of lower ability and performance will join the club so that attendances will fall again; hopefully an owner following this option can strike a balance between low attendances/low income and league position in a way that many other lower league clubs have.
And there we have the owner’s first dilemma; spend money now (and continue into the future) in the hope that on-field performances improve and result in increased attendances at increased ticket prices, increased commercial revenue and merchandise income at the risk of losing his money if there is no performance improvement or accept that the club will shrink and be relegated.
In a similar vein to the first option, an owner can bring cash into the club by selling assets, notably up and coming players in the case of Leeds United. Certainly this is a policy that has been followed by many clubs to secure their short-term future and Leeds United has done the same in the past; Alan Smith reputably sold at the request of the bank to reduce the overdraft is one significant time that comes to mind. It is clear that such sales will reduce the quality of the playing squad and on-pitch performances will suffer unless other players are able to improve quickly (Charlie Taylor is a prime example).
And there we have the owners’ second dilemma; live within the club’s means by growing assets and capitalising on them or foster a stable and improving team growing in capability and on-pitch success.
In the recent transfer window many fans called on the club to invest in a new striker or two based upon the lack of scoring chances they have witnessed at games. The data backs up these calls in that, after 30 games this season, we lie plumb bottom of the league ranking all clubs’ attack ability in a solid 24th place. Conversely, we lie 12th in the league ranking defence ability despite some notable failures over the season. Of course, buying a new striker doesn’t guarantee that we would move up the league of attack rankings since feed from the mid-field has an effect and there is the need to integrate a striker’s style of play into the team in general.
And there we have the owner’s third dilemma; to risk his own or the club’s money, and the club’s future, in an attempt to integrate new and unknown players or stick with the current squad and accept lower league positions.
The current situation at the club is difficult to improve.
Fans want money spent to improve the playing squad but are staying away thus reducing income available to buy players.
Our owner has a broken relationship with many fans and the Football League. Investment could cause the club to progress but investment is on hold until the Football League clear him. An improvement in the owner’s relationship with fans could increase revenue reducing the need for outside investment.
I am working with LFU to try and improve the fans’ relationship with fans.