King Charles III’s first King’s Speech confirmed the creation of an independent regulator for English football (IREF) and the introduction of a regime of licensing for clubs that will require high levels of fan engagement. This is implementing the vast majority of the Fan-led Review of Football. West Ham’s owners were most vociferous in arguing against regulation. The Premier League lobbied hard against it.
Doing too little, too late, back in March this year, the Premier League published its Fan Engagement Standards (FES).
The PL stated: ‘Prior to the start of season 2023/24, for the first time all clubs will publish a Fan Engagement Plan, setting out their own approach to FES activity throughout the season. The strategy at each club will be led by a nominated board-level official to oversee fan engagement and the operation of the Fan Advisory Board (FAB).’ It will come as no surprise to any Hammers fan that no such FAB is yet operational at West Ham.
On October 27, the club sent fan groups three draft documents for a proposed FAB: Terms of reference, Code of conduct and Confidentiality agreement There is also meant to be a compulsory equality, diversity and inclusion statement, which is referred to within these documents, but nobody has seen a draft of this yet.
If the drafts were accepted, the rest of this page of Blowing Bubbles would be left blank. The draft code of conduct says fan groups must publicly communicate in a manner that promotes the aims and spirit of the FAB, and respect the FAB as a functioning fan representation and engagement construct, making no negative or abusive comments at meetings, on social media or in the public domain.
This article is going to be critical of the FAB. WHUST will be critical for as long as is necessary. Fan groups must not kowtow to such censorship. It gets worse. The draft confidentiality agreement states: ‘Any member or representative of the club can request that something be considered as confidential information and as such will be treated as confidential by the other members of the FAB.’
WHUST has made clear that the principle should be that everything discussed is public unless in a tiny number of specific incidents there is a proven need for confidentiality. Any request for confidentially must outline the nature of the material to be kept confidential, the reason confidentiality is requested, the length of time that confidentiality must be maintained, and the factors that would automatically end the need for confidentiality.
We believe the confidentiality agreement also needs to list specific things that are never confidential, such as ticket prices. If the club wants to increase season ticket prices by 10%, let’s have that argument in public. WHUST’s objections are based on a manifesto we set out earlier this year laying out what the best fan engagement would look like.
We asked the club to skip the half-hearted Premier League standard, the FAB, because it will be superseded when IREF is formed. We asked the club instead to introduce meaningful consultation and listed what that included. One concern we have is that the club wants one member from each group it has identified to be on the FAB for three years.
WHUST believes that is too much work for one person and there is a range of expertise across its board.
The club must surely understand the principle of using substitutes and changing the starting line-up for different tactical reasons and to give star players a rest. This would also match with one of the positives in the FAB – the list of who will attend from the club. This includes the Vice-chair and/or nominated board level official for fan engagement, Head of supporter services, Director of ticketing, Director of stadium and operations, Head of operations, Head of communications, Director of safeguarding & inclusion, and Head of marcomms operations and projects.
The club also says: ‘Other representatives will be invited to attend based on agenda items topical to their role.’ WHUST wants the same. Another concern for WHUST is the club wanting to set the agenda. It has pulled this trick in the past, meaning issues fan groups wanted to raise got bumped from discussions and ignored.
Our manifesto asked for agendas shared ahead of all meetings with the fanbase and these agendas to be fan led. The club also wants to take the minutes and circulate their cut-down and sanitised version as and when they are ready.
Currently the club can delay publishing minutes for weeks. WHUST disagrees. Our manifesto said: ‘Minutes of all meetings should be shared within seven days of each meeting with the fanbase. The minutes should list attendees as well as detailing actions and timescales and identifying the person or groups responsible for each action. Where possible, measurements of success for each action should be listed. Minutes to be taken by fans and published. This should help with transparency.’
There are lots more areas for negotiation. Fan groups are dealing with a club that doesn’t want to talk to fans and will only do so if it has to. West Ham recently trumpeted being awarded the highest possible level in the Premier League Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Standard (PLEDIS).
We understand that even that report mentioned the club could do better on engaging with fans. Last month it joined a rainbow laces meeting with LGBTQ+ supporter group Pride of Irons and it has called a meeting to look at women’s safety at night. Perhaps, a change is coming?