Poll positions

Ian Plenderleith looks at Football Fans Census, a site that attempts to regularly examine the attitudes of supporters to a range of issues and to thereby influence the game’s authorities to take concerns seriously

The advent of the internet has done wonders for fan democracy. It takes very little effort to fire off an angry email to your club com­plaining that the ageing defence, the fumbling goalie, the clueless coach and the thick, sweet tobacco from the pipe of the old boy sitting in front of you all combined to increase your blood pressure to dangerous levels the previous Saturday and you’d like a refund NOW.

 The problem is, though, does the club ever listen? An unanswered letter was always something to be outraged about, but an ig­nored email is regarded less severely, es­pec­ially as it can be deleted as quickly as it was sent, and it’s hard to refute claims that a technical hitch meant it was never received. A few years ago I researched a piece on clubs’ cyber-accessibility for another football magazine and found that the overall responses to fans’ complaints or questions were negligible, at somewhere less than ten per cent.

Then there are the staggeringly pointless surveys beloved of all kinds of websites, be they official, commercial or fan-run. Should manager X be sacked? Will club Y be relegated? With conviction you press the button, as if slamming your glass on the pub table to make a killer, counter-argumentative point. The anti-climax upon seeing the results (99.9 per cent think either Rangers or Celtic will be Scottish champions) is akin to realising that everyone’s gone to the bar or is lying under the table, semi-conscious.

One outstanding website bucks this trend. The Football Fans Census is run by the cam­paigners behind the Can The Commercials initiative, which called for a boycott of ITV during the 2002 World Cup following the col­lapse of ITV Digital. They describe their site as “an independent and neutral forum” to provide an objective information re­source and a platform for fans to communicate their opinions to the game’s authorities, political masters, or just the world at large.

The process is simple. You register with the site and then they notify you when a new survey is running. The surveys cover issues such as franchising, salary caps, kick-off times, “Riogate” and the return of terracing. Each survey contains several questions on var­ious aspects of the topic and allows you five degrees of flexibility in your answers, as well as space to offer your own comments.

The current survey takes on the theme of club rivalries, but with more depth than hatred itself. “We want to find out the reasons behind rivalry,” says the site. “Why do we feel so pas­sionately about another team, what causes this feeling, where is it geographically strongest, what effect it has on the game?”

The questions are well considered and leave you space to elaborate your choice, al­though there ought to have been one that read: “Do you consider your attitude to your rivals to be borderline pathological and that you should seek medical help?”

After receiving acclaim from the Football League, the Professional Footballers’ Association, all 72 League clubs and var­ious politicians for the ITV Digital boycott, site co-founder Alex Burmaster saw a niche for pro­viding the games’ authorities and decision-makers with opinions and data straight from the fans. He says the recent survey on safe standing provoked “a number of responses” from MPs and “an extremely positive res­ponse” from a deputy chief constable.

“These are all early indicators that fans have the potential to influence various bodies,” he says. “We realise this isn’t going to be a short and easy process but we… are very committed to the goal of making sure fans are at the heart of the decision-making process.”

Burmaster adds that the numbers taking part – the last one had over 1,800 respondents – puts FFC surveys on a par with market research done by companies such as Mori and YouGov. He says the site now boasts over 25,000 members representing more than 120 clubs and membership is grow­ing at a rate of around 1,000 a month, mostly by word of mouth. “Symbolically we would like at least enough members to be able to ‘fill Wembley’ and we designed the website with that in mind,” he continues. “There’s really no limit.”

As for making the site commercially viable, Burmaster and his business partner have already put in 20 months of time and “all our savings” to the project. It’s free for fans, of course, but he believes any company involved in football should be listening to supporters and says: “If enough of these companies are prepared to make a small contribution to our costs by subscribing to our reports everyone’s a winner – the fans have more influence and we can expand the service.”

So save yourself the energy of firing a purple-faced missive destined for the chairman’s delete button. Have your say instead at FFC and, though you may not bring walls tumbling down at Soho Square, you can at least feel like someone’s taking your views on board. Which is about as good as it gets in a democracy and better than shouting in the dark.

From WSC 203 January 2004. What was happening this month