NEW YEAR, new era of openness, communication and engagement? All the signs are that after several aloof years of damaging ivory tower estrangement, Boro may be inching towards a new healthier and more productive relationship with their supporters. And about time too.
Prompted by the inescapable visible impact of the spreading red desert of empty seats the club appear to be now facing up to a key question that could yet determine the future of “the Riverside Revolution”: how did the club fail to cash the PR blank cheque after Cardiff and Eindhoven? How could the long awaited, totally unprecedented and undoubtedly glorious high points of a long Golden Age be followed by such a profound crisis of faith and the mass desertion of so many vocally disenchanted Red Bookers? And how can the tide be turned?
The latest move towards a post Fordy Glasnost is the news that Boro are to hold a fans’ vote on the possible return of the White Band, a exercise in consumer democracy that is revealed today exclusively in the steam driver paper ink and paper format Evening Gazette.
My feelings on the iconic and eye-catching branding device have been made clear time and again (much to the annoyance of club commercial chiefs) and have been widely echoed by marketing savvy supporters and sentimentalists everywhere – but whatever the pros and cons of the shirt design the mechanism that has been chosen is a major step forward.
The shirt colours are highly symbolic and strike an emotional chord with supporters and clubs who are cavalier with such things face a backlash, as the club know from their mailbag after dropping the band without consultation or explanation.
In the past the club offered supporters a programme poll on the colours of the away strip, giving the chance to choose between a selection of lines from the Errea catalogue that had little relevence to the history of the club and which were then apraded around the pitch by the latest batch of Boro Babes and Beefcakes. This year, at the depth of the beleagured club’s isolation from the public, even that sop was denied.
So the notion of running a poll on such most fundamental aspect of the HOME shirt is a significant political development. Of course we can quibble: maybe a design competition among schools and colleges (possibly linked to projects on the cultural history of the shirt) may tick a few more boxes and offer a longer running PR campaign that reaches beyond the readership of the programme but that is for the future. For now this is a most welcome thaw.
Slowly the club are opening themselves up to the notion that the supporters have a stake in the club, an emotional investment of incredible importance and the powers that be are tentatively acknowledging that there are compelling commercial reasons to let the supporters have a voice in some aspects of the operation.
We all know the background to the current dysfunctional stand-off. Layer upon layer of small individual quibbles from shirt stocking shortfalls to Eindhoven tickets, some classic foot-in-mouth PR own goals, commercial cock-ups, the frosty relationship with the media (and especially the crucial local media), the perception of a club that does not acknowledge its mistakes and does not value the fans builds up into a mosaic of discontent and offers supporters a string of excuses to walk away, excuses that are invariably taken when the quality of football is poor and when the club really need them most.
The simmering discontent and feeling of alienation has left fans feeling estranged from the club they love – a contradiction described on here as loving Boro but hating MFC – and in the heightened emotional arena of football the smallest frustrations have become magnified into grounds for divorce. That is why long time diehards have walked away and wrapped in their Red Books – even the old precious S and Ts – citing as the deal-breaker what should be peripheral issues like the quality and tardiness of the shirts, kiosk prices, the smoking ban, queuing for away tickets, the seemingly arbitrary change of badge, the purging of populist dissident Bernie Slaven and, yes, the sudden disappearance of the white band.
The club to its credit has started to realise that not only do they have a responsibility in the breakdown of those relationships but they are the only ones with the power to repair them. And there have been some very encouraging signs of late that they are ready and willing to do that.
They have brought in new marketing guru, chief operating officer Neil Bausor, to review the entire ‘customer facing’ club structure with a brief to sharpen up the commercial and customer relations aspects of the set-up and bring in some elements of best practice from other business sectors. His first major decision was to prune Garham Fordy and advise the club to become more pro-active in its approach to the supporters who are the lifeblood of the club.
The first indication was the on-line poll on the coitus interruptus abomination that is goal celebration music. Again it was flawed – it was limited to the cyber constituency, there was no ‘don’t know’ option, there was no debate on the issue or comment on the grating choice of “Chelsea Dagger” of all things to prompt fans to react to a Boro goal, and it produced the worst possible result of a “yes” but by less than half a per centage point – but it was a start.
Then there was the move towards a new type of viral marketing with the release of the David Wheater ‘passion’ video e-mailed to 25,000 supporters, advertising that was not selling a product but a concept, asking not for cash but for commitment.
There will be more developments too. In a recent Hurworth meeting between Gareth Southgate and a delegation from fans’ group the Twe12th Man the question of what it would take to get the fans excited and engaged again was raised and in a far reaching discussion that covered a lot of points raised repeatedly on this blog over the years, Bauser was scribbling away on his club crested notebook. He will have had plenty of food for thought.
Ultimately whether Boro are a success and whether there is a good matchday atmosphere comes down to what they do on the pitch but whether there is a healthy, flourishing and dynamic relationship with supporters comes down to what they do off it. We must hope that Boro have resolved to deliver on both fronts in 2008.
Happy New Year.