CASE STUDY: Safe standing survey

Image - rail seats in Hanover; horizontal bars prevent progressive crowd collapse and seats can be flipped down for all-seater European competition. (©Stadionwelt.de)

Safe standing is one of the Football Supporters Federation’s longer-standing campaigns but, in recent months it feels like thing have changed gear and there’s real momentum behind our arguments.

The Football League voted to “explore” safe standing in June while a recent Mail on Sunday report showed that 19 out of 20 Premier League clubs were “open” to it. Six of those top-flight clubs formally back our Safe Standing Campaign. 

This is all encouraging news but we believe there’s more fans can do to drive things forward. While we’ve spent a lot of time decapitating the authorities tetra-headed opposition to safe standing - “Fans don’t want it” (Not true), “It isn’t safe” (Evidence?), “UEFA won’t allow it” (Wrong!) - and disproved almost all of it. 

However, there is one more persistent opposition line that we’d like to demolish. Thanks to our work backing Roger Godsiff MP’s EDM 573 we were privvy to a lot of correspondence between MPs who opposed safe standing and fans. More often than not those MPs fell back on a standard “line” provided by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).

The DCMS’s argument is that “in meetings with the football authorities and clubs, there is no appetite to change the current policy”. While 25 clubs formally back the Safe Standing Campaign you can see how the DCMS come to that conclusion. Many individual clubs might back safe standing but as an entity neither the Football League nor Premier League have argued its case in meetings with ministers.

That’s where you come in

Thanks to the Football League’s vote and Mail on Sunday’s research we know that three out every four clubs are open to exploring safe standing. Of course the level of support varies from club-to-club. Some are wholehearted backers who would install a trial area tomorrow if permitted while others are supportive, but cagey.

We need individual league members (i.e. clubs) to be emphatically in favour when this is placed on the agenda at their regular meetings. In Premier League terms this means 14 out of 20 club chief executives saying “yes” to safe standing. That would give a mandate for the Premier League to raise this with the DCMS.

If you’ve ever been in a committee-type meeting you’ll know how easily a room can sway, often based on little more than an influential figure or two planting their flag in the ground. It’s easy for swing voters to be lead by that. Fans at each club need to make such a noise on safe standing that it’s impossible for their own Chief Executive to ignore.

It’s far more likely your Chief Executive will vote in favour of safe standing if s/he is aware of their own fan base’s overwhelming support. Fans at each club have to make “yes to safe standing” the path of least resistance.

How can I do that?

There are a few different ways and we’ve explained in the past how you can bring the Safe Standing Roadshow to your club. Almost without exception, clubs who’ve seen the Safe Standing Roadshow “get” it and are then very likely to back the Safe Standing Campaign.

Even if your club’s already in favour, that doesn’t mean “job done”. Arsenal and Aston Villa are two clubs whose Chief Executives support safe standing to varying degrees. Villa’s Chief Executive Paul Faulkner is a big backer and his opposite number at Arsenal, Ivan Gazidis, is “open” to the idea too.

But fans at neither club rested on their laurels, and credit to them for that. Arsenal fans’ group the Black Scarf Movement ran a survey which was completed by 17,000 fans with 91.5% backing safe standing. At Villa Park AVST member Anne-Marie Fern carried out her own survey with 97.5% of respondents saying “yes” to safe standing. Spurs fans' site The Fighting Cock did similar back in March.

Villa’s Paul Faulkner said that, despite his support for safe standing, Anne-Marie’s survey was still hugely valuable. “The results show the majority of Villa fans surveyed do want to explore the idea of a safe-standing area and we are simply trying to get the debate moving. We hope other clubs will follow suit,” said Paul.

I’d like to do a survey at my club – where do I start?

There’s no one size fits all model, clubs are unique in that respect, but there are general rules to follow. If you are planning on doing this please let us know – we can provide advice, contacts, and the safe standing survey format used by Anne-Marie.

  • Speak to all the “stakeholders” at your club. Think of supporters’ clubs and trusts, fanzines, websites, forums, blogs, local papers and local journalists.
  • Don’t forget the club itself – in Anne Marie’s case they were very supportive – your first port of call is probably the Supporter Liaison Officer. If you want to survey fans inside the ground, or on adjacent property, you’ll need their permission. Even if they don’t give that, it’s a good way to introduce yourself and the concept of the survey. Always be polite, always be reasonable, and always be persistent.
  • Online is fine but for club-specific surveys there’s no reason you can’t get out and about to hit pre-match pubs and other areas where fans gather in decent numbers. A cynic might suggest that online surveys can be self-selecting, if you’re in favour of safe standing you’re more likely to fill it in, but that criticism can be tackled if you’ve got loads of “real world” responses.
  • Fair representation of your club’s support is important too. Find out the proportion of your club’s female support and try to ensure your survey replicates that. Speak to all age ranges and involve any disabled supporters’ groups. It’s also worth surveying different areas of the ground, while the Family Stand isn’t going to be turned into a safe standing area it’s important to know what those fans think.
  • Keep us informed of progress and publication dates. We can pass on to any local media contacts and cover via the FSF website, Fan Mail ebulletin, Twitter @The_FSF, and FSF Facebook page.

The fan’s experience

All of that is sound advice, but there’s no substitute for experience. Anne-Marie led the survey work at Villa and it paid off by providing valuable supportive data for the club in their dealings with external organisations. It also kept the issue on local media radar with the Birmingham Mail giving story some fine coverage. It was time well spent.

“Many of the survey’s responses were collected on match days and I was surprised at just how easy it was to get people to fill it in. The survey now has around 1,000 responses. It only took two of us four match days, across two months, to get an amount that we were happy with. We managed to get 100-200 per game. Most of all I’d say it was good fun, it wasn’t a chore at all,” says Anne-Marie.

“We walked around different pubs on match days asking people to complete the survey and most people were happy to. There was no hostility, fans were just interested in what we were doing and more likely to ask why it wasn’t coming in quicker, than anything else!

“If you want to present stronger evidence to the club, you have to ask other areas too like Family Stands. That gives a fairer spread of fans’ opinions. Remember to get female voices too. I lost count of how many female fans just wanted to let their partner complete the answers 'for both of us'. Make sure that doesn’t happen!

“Overall I’d say that if you want to do something to help safe standing, then carrying out a survey among your club’s fan base is a good way to do that. I know the club feel this survey has been beneficial and proves what they already suspected – Villa fans want safe standing. The level of support for it is incredible really.”