Robbie Lyle: “Clubs will have to work to bring the fans back”

By Will Entwistle

Exploring the changing nature of football fandom amid the pandemic with Robbie Lyle, fan-led media pioneer and AFTV founder

Football is not the same without the presence of fans. Fans, for better or worse, are synonymous with the beautiful game. Television coverage charitably masks empty seats with artificial crowd noises including goal-scoring cheers, fouling jeers, and the occasional ‘wheey!’. Yet, viewers with fond memories of matchday atmospheres are haunted by this innovation; “it just isn’t the same”, Lyle remarks.

The Premier League’s ‘Project Restart’ marked the return of football in England, allowing Liverpool’s first league triumph in 30 years, albeit in a deserted Anfield. Arsenal’s record 14th FA Cup win was similarly strange without the red-half of Wembley cheering whilst Aubameyang eventually held the cup aloft. So, do these hollow atmospheres highlight the importance of spectators and, therefore, wider fanbases?

AFTV teases out the elation, anger and intelligence within each post-match assessment

AN ENGLISH PROBLEM

Lyle founded Arsenal Fan TV (AFTV) in 2012, dedicating its social media presence to empower fans’ voices. AFTV has amassed 1.24 million subscribers on YouTube while bolstering its following elsewhere since its inception, notably with 444,000 followers on Twitter.

AFTV’s reputation is affixed to brutal honesty. AFTV, in part, represents the extent of a fan’s emotional attachment to their club by teasing out the elation, anger and intelligence within each post-match assessment. Lyle suggests that AFTV’s aim is to provide a platform for all fans; it is ‘By the Fans, for the Fans.’ AFTV, then, appears particularly relevant during this behind-closed-doors period.

English football, particularly within Premier League, hosts fiercely loyal fans each accustomed to paying too much for too little. Crucially, Lyle alludes to the German Bundesliga’s 50+1 rule which enfranchises each fanbase with the majority vote, effectively permitting each member a direct influence over the club’s internal affairs. Each fan, for instance, can affordably attend games while voting to determine the club’s future, including deciding their presidential elections. The rule deliberately protects the fans’ interests by reflecting the Bundesliga’s pre-1998 non-for-profit era, during which clubs strictly prohibited private investment and curbed attempts from outsiders to usurp fans’ influence.

AFTV’s aim is to provide a platform for all fans; it is ‘By the Fans, for the Fans’

“Fans”, within their respective clubs and “in the Premier League, don’t have a say”, says Lyle. Anguished fans are powerless to intervene with the apparent dishonesty present within their beloved clubs. For instance, AFTV captured the impassioned responses from fans directed overwhelmingly towards Arsenal’s former chief executive, Ivan Gazidis, during the 2016/17 Premier League campaign which affirmed the club’s slump under his dubious oversight. The question, then, is neither how nor why fans are overlooked by the Premier League and their clubs. Instead, we must ask if the league and clubs can afford to continually overlook the fans. “I wonder that when football comes back”, says Lyle, “will fans have more of a say?”           

RECONNECTING THE FANBASE 

“The whole dynamic has shifted because of Covid-19”, answers Lyle, when asked if fans deserve greater respect from clubs and league alike. “There will be people who went to football matches each week for years, almost habitually, that have had this habit broken”, Lyle adds. Attending football matches is a habit which, like any other, needs relearning when interrupted. Fans might reconsider attending, when officially sanctioned, for fear of infection. Indeed, “some might think”, Lyle suggests, “that ‘I don’t think I need to go every week!’”

English football, particularly within the Premier League, hosts fiercely loyal fans each accustomed to paying too much for too little

Football behind-closed-doors has exposed clubs’ reliance on matchday revenue, much of which derives from ticket sales. Arsenal is particularly reliant on ticket sales since they charge the most for regular and season tickets in Britain. In this case, fans are an indispensable commodity. So, will clubs like Arsenal consider giving-back to the fans?

When asked this, Lyle responds immediately, “I don’t think so. They’ll just lay some people off instead!” He refers to Arsenal’s recent announcement detailing plans for 55 staff redundancies alongside wage cuts to existing employees, including a cut to newly promoted Mikel Arteta’s wages of 12.5% in April. Despite the aggressive restructuring, we do not know if the club plans to ingratiate itself with its fanbase. Elsewhere, Borussia Dortmund’s CEO, Hans-Joachim Watzke, suggested that the “German spectator traditionally has close ties with his club…And if he gets the feeling that he’s no longer regarded as a fan but instead as a customer, we’ll have a problem.” While Watzke refers to fans within a German context, the suggestion is nonetheless relevant to Lyle argument.

In the Premier League, anguished fans are powerless to intervene with the apparent dishonesty within their beloved clubs

Lyle, amongst others, personifies the latter part of Watzke’s claim as he acknowledges that his value to the club is as much financial as it is sentimental. “The majority of the Premier League fans are treated as customers”, he laments. Despite plans to usher fans back into the Emirates during October, Lyle hints that clubs “will have to work to bring the fans back…it won’t be automatic.” After all, many will hesitate to pay unattractive prices for tickets amid inauspicious economic conditions. 

REFORMING ATTITUDES WITHIN FANBASES

Fanbases could, paradoxically, reform from within because of the behind-closed-doors period. “It’s been a leveller”, says Lyle. The current restrictions have confined us “to our homes—we’re all armchair fans”, he adds. As such, fanbase hierarchies are now irrelevant; it renders arbitrary markers of “real” fandom, like long-running attendance, redundant. “We’re all in the same boat”, he summarises.

Lyle insists this attitudinal shift extends to fans based overseas. “I used to have a backward attitude to foreign fans”, he confesses, often “calling them tourists.” Now, Lyle thoroughly dismisses that perspective recognising that foreign fans are “sometimes…even more passionate than those over here.” He recalls meeting Arsenal fans while visiting Australia, realising the additional sacrifices each make to follow the club. Lyle mentions that “they’re awake at ridiculous times to watch the team play”, claiming that “their knowledge is sometimes better—some know everything about the club!”

Football behind-closed-doors has clarified that “real” fans are fictitious. The pandemic, then, has revealed the truth underlying the excesses of the Premier League. Namely, that fanbases are essentially egalitarian because they are bound by the same sentiment: the love for one’s club. “No fan is less important than another”, Lyle stresses. Comparably, no club is more important than its fans. “Surely, they must now realise just how important fans are.”

Images: AFTV

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