The world game’s handling of the fan crisis is in a world of its own

Andrew WoodwardWith the FFA facing a major fan revolt Andrew Woodward looks at how it has handled the crisis communications, and how it is likely to play out in the coming weeks.

In 2009, as CEO of National Rugby League, David Gallop, launched the season with a television advertisement featuring one of the rising stars of the game, Brett Stewart. Not long after, the Sea Eagles’ grand final winning fullback was charged with sexual assault (and later acquitted).

He was banned from the first four rounds of the competition by the NRL for drunkenness. The NRL had to pull its ads. The Nine Network made replacement ads for free. It was high drama at the time.

In 2015, as CEO of Football Federation Australia (FFA), David Gallop, launched the season with passionate fans at the centre of the campaign. The passionate fans are what’s known as “active supporters” – those who passionately sing, dance and chant for their team behind the goal posts, waving their scarves, flags and banners. The ads in Sydney, for example, feature fans from “The Cove” and the “Red and Black Block” – the active supporter groups of Sydney FC and Western Sydney Wanderers respectively.

Three months on, active fan groups are walking out of matches en masse mid-game in protest at the FFA and are threatening to do it again, including this weekend. For David Gallop, the star of his show has ‘shat in the nest’, again. David Gallop has more déjà vu in Australia than any other sports administrator.

FFA season opener video

Screenshot from FFA Season 2015/16 launch video with reference to active fan groups

As with anything football, it has lots of sub plots. As with anything News Corporation, the agenda isn’t always immediately apparent. As with there being four major football codes in Australia, there’s always the ‘mine is bigger and better than yours’ carry-on. It doesn’t come at a helpful time for the FFA when it is about to embark on a new broadcast deal; when it is looking to arrest poor ratings and, when it is looking for a Socceroos sponsor.

Then there’s all of the the other issues facing ‘the beautiful game’, domestically and internationally.

The ads are still on air. The FFA has to pull the current campaign. Whether they’re ever seen again is another matter. It all depends on how things play out over the next two weeks.

If there’s an outbreak of peace in the next week, things will quieten down over the Christmas New Year period and football will get back to its mid-season patter. If the fire burns until the end of the year, the campaign is dead. To bring them back prematurely or indeed ever could be akin to rubbing big chunks of salt into very deep wounds. As the Fairfax football writer Sebastian Hassett said – the divide between active fans and the FFA has widened from a minor crack to a major chasm.

In the meantime, the FFA should replace them with something that showcases the product – the reason why the fans go to the matches and get so excited. This crisis will pass – its length is in the hands of the FFA. The Christmas and New Year period traditionally in an issues or crisis communications sense is a circuit breaker. An issue goes from “that’s been running for months” to “that was last year”. It’s complicated in football, however, as it plays through this period.

What’s it all about?

The offending Sunday Telegraph front page

The offending Sunday Telegraph front page

The fans claim they have been sold out by the FFA when it didn’t immediately jump to their defence when News Corporation’s Sunday Telegraph went on a bombing raid against football, or soccer as they prefer to call, by publishing details of nearly two hundred people banned from matches for what is considered to be anti-social behaviour. (See ESPN FC non-paywalled story for background). Macquarie Radio’s Alan Jones did the second bombing raid and managed to weave ISIS and the recent Paris terrorist attack into the story.

When he opened the Mumbrella Sports Marketing Conference in Melbourne in September, Gallop spoke of the fans in glowing terms. It was reported by Mumbrella at the time that Gallop spoke of football’s ambition to become the most popular sport in the country.

He said the “unique atmosphere, colour, the chanting and the noise” in stadiums is unparalleled in Australian sport and “something we need to capitalise on over the next couple of decades”. Well, the star of his show has gone temporarily AWOL. Capitalise, indeed.

The sub plots:

The list of the banned and damned: For League, Union, AFL, Rugby and Cricket – there are lists of fans that are barred. Indeed, some sports have pictures of fans at the gates to help security personnel identify them. The fact there is a list is no big deal. Every sport and venue has them.

The leaking of the list: What’s different here is that (1) someone leaked the football list and (2) the Sunday Telegraph decided to give it front page treatment. Why? That’s what tabloid newspapers do! That’s what News Corporation papers do! What’s new? There are ten venues in the A-League – any one of them, the security companies involved or the law enforcement services could have been the source of the leak, deliberately or accidentally.

The media involved: The Sunday Telegraph journalist in question is Rebecca Wilson and she is strongly identified with Rugby League. She cohosted Nine’s NRL “Footy Show” briefly. Sadly, she has subsequently been the recipient, reportedly, of death threats and elements of her personal life have been made public. Alan Jones, again, is strongly identified with Rugby League and extreme commentary in his echo chamber is an hourly occurrence. There’s nothing new there. Herald Sun columnist Susie O’Brien also had two lashes at fans and the FFA in two columns.

The leaker: Bad plumbing occurs strategically, accidentally, or through process (for example, freedom of information requests), malice or theft. Conspiracy theorists are about. The NSW Police and Sydney Cricket Ground Trust (manager of Allianz Stadium (Sydney FC) and Pirtek Stadium, Parramatta (Western Sydney Wanderers)) deny being the source of the leak. So has the FFA. Why would the sports governing body leak it? There’s no upside in all of this for the FFA.

The complaint by the fan groups about FFA: Fans are upset on two grounds. First, that the FFA was silent after the list came out and, second, they have used the airing of the issue to claim the appeals process against barring is flawed.

The FFA’s silence – News Corporation: The FFA is about to enter broadcast rights negotiations with News Corporation. This comes after News Corporation allocated huge sums of cash and in kind support to both the AFL and NRL. Also, Fox Sports Australia just lost the rights to show the English Premier League to Optus. The A-League benefits from the EPL on Fox Sports as it builds interest in the game. So, News Corporation’s bank account is down to its last few billions and the the A-League has just lost its hot looking bestie to another dance. Do you really think Mr Gallop is going to come out swinging against News Corporation? No.

The FFA’s silence – fans: At the heart of this is the banning of nearly 200 fans for anti-social behaviour. Put yourself in David Gallop’s position. As someone who is trying to attract broadcasters sponsors, viewers and families to the game, do you really think he is going to come out ‘hard’ in support of the banned or criticise a media organisation for ‘naming and shaming’? No.

The fan groups: They will be back. They will protest again this weekend and make their point.

Then Christmas cheer will come and we will be back to normal publicly. They will support their teams. Behind the scenes is where the issue is.

Behind the scenes: The FFA and its leadership of David Gallop and the head of the A-League, Damien De Bohun, have much work to do with the influencers of the game:

Les Murray speaking at Mumbrella's Sports Marketing Summit

Les Murray speaking at Mumbrella’s Sports Marketing Summit

Les Murray (SBS): “Reaction to the splash in the Telegraph by the FFA has been disappointing. Most of all these pathetic comments by the head of the A-League, Damien de Bohun.”

Lucy Zelic (SBS): “After developing a reputation for being a ‘crisis CEO’ during his tenure with the NRL, Gallop’s notable absence during a time when the game needs him most, has many questioning his capacity to manage the situation.”

Kevin Airs (Four-four-two): “In times of crisis, leaders emerge who inspire, unite and bring change. FFA Chief Executive David Gallop is… not that man.”

Last week, the voice of football, Simon Hill (Fox Sports) says the incoming FFA chairman, Steven Lowy, must act – a view shared by Ray Gatt (The Australian): “Surely, this was a great chance for new FFA chairman Steven Lowy to quickly stamp his authority. Yet the silence has been deafening.”

This week Simon Hill went straight for David Gallop: “Never have I been left so disappointed by such a limp display as on Tuesday… but yesterday’s press conference by David Gallop takes the biscuit, the cake, the chocolate gateaux with cream, and a cherry on top.”

Mark Bosnich (Fox Sports) has been savage, emotional and vitriolic on camera.

Craig Foster (Fairfax), Michael Lynch (Fairfax) and Michael Cockerel (Fairfax) have been the same in print but on News Corporation and the New South Wales Police.

Anthony Di Pietro, the Chairman of Melbourne Victory, the league’s biggest and most successful club, was blunt yesterday: “The A-League cannot be content anymore with mediocrity. We’re sick of it here. There are key challenges that the FFA must resolve to get the A-League back on track.” (Source: goal.com)

Sydney FC Coach, Graham Arnold, told the ABC this is the biggest issue ever to have confronted the A-League and SBS reports Socceroo and Brisbane A-League player Matt McKay saying the players side with the fans on this.

Football fan blogs The Roar, Outside 90 and Ultimate A-League are, as you would expect, scathing.

Under fire: Gallop

Under fire: Gallop

Looking at this from an issues management or crisis communications perspective, I think the FFA would like its time over again. First, it took them a few days to front up after the Sunday Telegraph story ran and Alan Jones added his special sauce. The story broke Sunday (21/11) and David Gallop first commented on the Wednesday (24/11) – about ten news cycles (assuming three a day).

When it said something, no matter what it said, it was never going to be enough. At the best of times, football administration is a tinderbox. The wildfire had started. It was too late. Admittedly, Mr Gallop was in India at the time. He really should have been out Sunday afternoon with a statement and put up a local spokesman to talk. Second, once it got out of control, the new chairman, Steven Lowy, needed to step up, particularly as he had just replaced his father, Frank, in the role. This was his first test in the job and many say he has failed. It was a time for leadership. When you have multiple and large fires burning – as we here with general media, football media, commentators, club boards, coaches, players, law enforcement and more – you need to get the top guy on the case.

Rebecca Wilson in a Daily Telegraph piece last Friday (27/11) said she was told that Steven Lowy, would not reply to her phone calls because this “was not a chairman’s issue”. Bad move.

The third problem for the FFA is that this rumpus will bring people with other grievances out.

There’s nothing like kicking someone when they’re down. As one football tragic put to me: “The whole shenanigans with the FFA has also brought other issues to the surface with which the family groups are unhappy: namely, player registration costs, poor grassroots policies and implementation, lack of playing fields, perceptions of top heavy administration (FFA has a massive staff)”.

Where to now?

This has gone from being a short term damage containment exercise to a medium term repair and restore activity. The damage has been done. It is messy. The road ahead for the FFA executive and board is lots of meetings with all off the aggrieved parties to develop an agreed way forward.

There are five groups in all of this: the FFA, News Corporation, football friendly media, active fans and non active fans (mainly families). In my opinion, David Gallop is playing the long game. He doesn’t want to upset the people with the most money – News Corporation. He doesn’t want to side with the barred. He wants to side with the families who are most likely to fill stadiums and encourage their children to play the game. These two elements are the long game. He’s prepared lose some capital for the short game. His corporate credit card will get a hammering over the next few weeks with active “stakeholder management”.

The “active fans” will be back and keep snarling at football administrators as they have done and will continue to do for decades. The relationship has always been testy. The challenge is to rid the game of idiots but ensure an exuberant and fun atmosphere remains. This is good for grass roots participation, big match crowds, sponsorship, broadcasting, media coverage and merchandise. Maybe brand football can come out stronger if supporter groups, administrators and law enforcement can agree on acceptable behaviour and speedy appeals.

We have two A-League seasons – pre-Christmas and post-Christmas. The mood will change. We have the Socceroos likely moving onto the next round of qualification for the 2018 World Cup in March. There’s the A-League finals in April and May. The European teams will come on their play and loot runs through Australia in May, June and July. Football will be back to normal soon.

Behind the scenes, however, there’s a bit of explaining and making up to do. None of this helps Mr Gallop with his big issues – broadcast rights, ratings and sponsorship. The beautiful game isn’t always beautiful. That’s why it is beautiful.

  • Andrew Woodward is a consultant at www.partnershipmarketing.com.au

Disclaimer: Andrew Woodward is a Sydney FC member and an occasional visitor to The Cove (and is not on the banned list).

Update: The FFA has held a press conference to address issues surrounding the banning of fans and Andrew Woodward has given his perspective below.

This morning in Mumbrella I wrote about the PR rumpus involving Football Federation Australia (FFA) and its active supporters, most of whom will boycott this round’s matches. In my piece I said (1) the FFA waited too long to stridently respond to the original claims in the Sunday Telegraph; (2) the Chairman needs to come out and speak (after a ten day silence) and (3) they need to have lots of personal engagement with “key stakeholders” to get a way forward and clarity on acceptable fan behaviour, sanctions and appeals.

This afternoon, (1) they admitted they got their media strategy wrong and waited too long; (2) the Chairman led a news conference and made numerous other concessions of error on their part and, (3) set out a plan to meet with key stakeholders of the game. You’re welcome.

The new Chairman, Steven Lowy, defended the overall fan base, distanced football for those barred and said the appeals process for the barred would be reviewed. The review is due to be considered by the next FFA Board Meeting in February. What the FFA did today (Thursday, 3 December 2014) should have been done ten days ago (on Monday 23 November), the day after the Sunday Telegraph went to print. Certainly, the chairman and CEO, David Gallop, were in India and remote administration is difficult at the best of times. That said, a strongly worded print and video statement or telephone conference call could have averted the drama of the last week and the subsequent multi-lateral medium term damage.

Everything that was said today was what needed to be said. I don’t think, however, this issue can wait until February for resolution. People will accept that it is the Christmas and New Year period but surely a special board meeting could be called for mid-January to consider the review. The timetable should be at the stakeholders pleasure and not the board’s pleasure.

So, today in an issues management sense, the issue has bottomed out, it will bump along the floor for a few days; nine of the ten supporter groups will boycott this weekend’s matches and, the ascent will commence next week. And then something else will happen. That’s the beautiful game.

You can watch the full news conference and excerpts here.

FFA summary here



Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing.