Recently the Chief Exec of NZF, Andy Martin made these remarks at Eastern Suburbs AFC…
“What we’ve had in the past is a sort of Premier League that has been out on a limb. What we need to see is all the kids coming through the Whole of Football plan, all the volunteers, all the referees, the coaches and the pinnacle teams all connected so they can aspire to play but also to get community rivalry, tribalism and banter going.
We want to see people start to tease each other about the game at the weekend. We see what football does around the world because we (in this room, in the game) know, but a lot of people in New Zealand don’t know.”
There is 1 mention of ‘supporters’, 9 mentions of ‘fans’ and 16 references to ’attendances’ in the 2015 Rob Sherman administered competition review. NZF wants crowds of 1000+ at NZFC games in high quality stadiums once the league expands to a three round format for the 2018 – 19 season. There are questions about why supporters aren’t engaged in the NZFC, notes of anecdotal evidence about low attendances and related evidence relating to the standard of the league in comparison to available foreign leagues online and on TV (Looking at you, A League).
There is not a single mention of supporters, fans or attendance in the Whole of Football plan.
There are passionate, committed and frankly quite obsessed football supporters in New Zealand. Many of them also volunteer for their local clubs in one capacity or another, because there’s always lots of work to do and there are never enough people to do it.
Part of the issue with the NZFC being ‘out on a limb’ is because NZF wanted it that way in 2004. The feeder clubs for the franchises had relatively modest support bases, but were distinct entities. With many supporters also being volunteers, and only so many roles available at the new franchises, there were bound to be those who didn’t see any tangible connection with the new top flight side. No connection, no attendance. It’s that simple, isn’t it?
The point about clubs being the pump primer for creating supporters doesn’t entirely hold up either. How many kids play juniors but don’t go to see the Men’s and Women’s first teams for their clubs at NZFC or Regional League level? How many are retained as supporters when their personal playing pathway ends? Also, interestingly, is ensuring that every kid, coach and volunteer at a club attends their local NZFC game the height of NZF’s ambition regarding increasing attendances in the National League?
It seems NZF has a curious relationship with supporters in New Zealand. They recognise that supporters are an essential part of the live experience of football. They also know that, traditionally, Kiwi sporting crowds are somewhat reticent to get involved. But looking at the NZ Football website, there is no section for supporters other than the shop and encouragement to buy tickets. Supporters are managed in terms of a commercial relationship. They’re also managed in terms of ‘football people’, as in ones who already have links to NZF through clubs and participation.
Like Martin almost says, people in football know about football but people outside the room don’t know. And it seems like there’s very little effort on the part of NZF to let them know, instead placing that onus on the clubs themselves – many of whom are already relying on hours of volunteer work to run matchdays and kids programmes and the day to day life of the club.
There’s also a feature of the way NZF operates that may prove the most problematic. They’re not the biggest fans (ha!) of criticism. Why’s that a problem? Because banter, rivalry and tribalism is all about criticism. We’re better than you. No you’re not. It’s not the most complex dichotomy, but everything stems from there. Gleefully seizing upon a rivals bad result, slagging off their players for being rubbish, cheering as it all goes wrong for them – that’s about looking for weaknesses and even if you can’t find any bloody weaknesses, finding something. We’re an older club, we’re a bigger club, our supporters are more authentic etc etc etc
A few years back there were initial discussions with NZF about forming an organisation to directly address and encourage supporters, The Football Fans of NZ (FFoNZ). However, everything ground to a halt when NZF and Martin wanted to know how the organisation would ensure that NZF were not directly criticised, either by the FFonZ (Ayyyyyyyyy) or its members.
There are some certainties in life. Death. Taxes. A minimum of 4 minutes added time when you’re hanging onto a 1 goal lead. But above all is that football supporters and football clubs take a dim view of their administrative overlords. That’s irrespective of their competence regarding eligibility or using a fax machine. When NZF went and examined European leagues while putting together it’s competition review, they must have entirely missed the relationship supporters have with their football associations, club owners etc. They didn’t miss the fact that more supporters mean more commercial revenue, that was included in the Sherman review.
So, Andy Martin wants clubs to be rivals, to be tribal, to exchange banter. NZF wants more supporters, even if it apparently hasn’t got a single idea about how that actually happens in either of its two keystone documents. But they also want those supporters to be amenable towards NZF, or at least to be under some sort of soft control of their clubs.
There was an opportunity to join up the pockets of passionate supporters within New Zealand, there was a chance for a more organised presence at All Whites games, knowledge and skills exchanges between groups and better communication between clubs in different federations. Andy Martin has praised the Waitakere City and Birkenhead United supporters at the Chatham Cup Final 2016 – and all of the good things those clubs do could have been made available through better organisation and coordination of supporters. Because there’s an awful lot of ideas and talents out there, but it’s not connected up in any meaningful way.
But the opportunity and benefits were outweighed by the fear that organised supporters, the paying punters, would question and criticise NZF. I thought the customer was always right?
It’s healthy for an organisation like NZF to be questioned. Federations certainly do it, clubs definitely do. Whether or not NZF listens to either of them is probably another debate entirely. It seems absurd that they appear to want an increase in active, engaged supporters promoting the NZF brand on their behalf while simultaneously paying for the experience and yet not want them to have an independent voice of their own. Particularly when that voice can be used to attract more supporters.
Maybe, before they encourage it in others, NZF needs to examine its own tribalist tendencies first. And yes, I’m aware that’s criticising them. I’m fine with that. They should be too.
John Palethorpe lives in South Auckland which is very far away from Fratton Park and Champion Hill. Having been told there was no football in New Zealand, he was delighted to find that there is.