Boards’ ability to include and govern score points with fans

22 February 2010

New Deakin University research has thrown light on how football fans judge the performance of their club's board.

“Club members ultimately wield the power over elected boards, but until now very little was known about how they reached their conclusions as to how a board was performing,” explained researcher and consumer behaviour expert Associate Professor Heath McDonald.

In a novel piece of research, involving 20,513 season ticket holders, Associate Professor McDonald identified the factors which AFL and soccer season ticket holders use to evaluate their club’s board’s performance.

“The customer-led removal or challenging of board members and of entire boards of unsuccessful sporting clubs is a common occurrence worldwide,” Associate Professor McDonald explained.

“At Barcelona Football Club, which has more than 100,000 members for instance, board elections and dismissals rival political elections for intensity and drama.

“Only a small amount is known about the process by which customers evaluate boards but there is little doubt they form opinions and as history has shown, members often react once those opinions are formed.”

Associate Professor McDonald said there had been a false assumption that on-field success and financial stability were the overwhelming factors at play when it comes to dictating member satisfaction with the board.

“What our research has demonstrated is that while these areas are important, making members feel part of the club is also crucial to the board achieving high marks from the members,” he said.

“Boards are evaluated on their ability to make ticket holders feel part of the organisation.

“Successful boards have a unique ability to connect with their members and make them feel included.

“The season ticket holders’ views examined here have a sophisticated view of the board’s role and while they hold them accountable for on-field results they are just as concerned about strong financial management as well as the way they govern and manage the club.

“Past studies confirm this. Generally fans are realistic about the prospects of on-field success and accept the ebbs and flows of winning, but a club that is perceived as poorly run can face merger or dissolution which, for a highly committed fan is a big concern.”

Associate Professor McDonald said some aspects of ticket holders’ decisions about board performance remained unclear.

“We did wonder for instance how club members determined whether the board has managed funds appropriately? “he said.

“Our research suggests that media reports and other sports fans are the main source of information on board performance.

“Few club members read the dry annual reports or assess them in detail.”

Associate Professor McDonald said the implications for boards were numerous.

“In the absence of detailed and factual information direct from the board, club members will form opinions based on media reports and word-of-mouth,” he said. “It appears boards need to promote themselves carefully to the customers they represent, taking the time and effort to explain decisions, and make themselves accountable and open to scrutiny.”

Associate Professor McDonald said simple actions also had a large bearing on ticket holders’ attitudes towards boards.

“For example, board members seen at matches not wearing some sort of team merchandise (e.g., a scarf), sitting in sections not visible to the general public and not expressing clear emotional responses to match results are all seen as lacking commitment and the ‘common-touch’.

“While some clubs like Collingwood and Hawthorn rely on highly public, outspoken presidents to achieve this, other clubs like Adelaide have done well through simple adjustment to the language used in communications. Either way, boards should be aware that they are being watched and being judged by fans.”

This research will be published in the Journal of Sport Management later in 2010.

News facts
  • Boards should be aware that they are being watched and being judged by fans
  • Fan satisfaction with the board goes beyond on-field success and financial stability
  • Making members feel part of the club is crucial

Media contact

Associate Professor Heath McDonald
Deakin Business School
0417 547 658

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22nd February 2010