A-League boycott shows football fans have found their voice
In the throes of season 2013-14, with Sydney FC languishing and many fans furious at the club's direction, representatives of supporter group The Cove met some of the club's hierarchy.
"It was a very frank and honest conversation," Cove senior member Grant Muir said.
"Our relationship with the club had always been important to us and we took a very conscious decision to cultivate it over the years.
"When those tensions came up a couple of years ago, that relationship enabled us to sit in a room with those guys, tell them to their faces what we were unhappy about and still be friends afterwards. After it was all said and done, our relationship was stronger. It was a sign of maturity you don't often see."
Such direct interaction between fans and administrators remains a rarity, but with supporter groups becoming more organised and more aware of their value to clubs and competitions, a new-found fan power base is being established.
There are examples overseas of supporters flexing their muscles to the point of forcing significant change. In the US, a public backlash over racist comments by Donald Sterling, the owner of basketball franchise LA Clippers, forced the National Basketball Association to fine him, ban him for life and compel him to sell the club.
In the UK, Manchester United fans, incensed by the takeover by the American Glazer brothers in 2005, set up a new football club, FC United of Manchester, and never came back.
In Australia, however, fan power has been mostly meek, restricted to online petitions, such as that started by Manly rugby league fans over the sacking of coach Geoff Toovey, or placards at games, such as the regular "Oust Doust" signs at St George Illawarra matches, in reference to polarising CEO Peter Doust.
But in the past fortnight something changed. After years of tension between football supporters and the sport's governing body, Football Federation Australia, entire sections of crowds at some matches simply walked out of the stadium.
They wanted to show their disgust with FFA's inadequate appeals process for those placed on exclusion lists for anti-social behaviour. They were angry, too, at FFA's perceived lack of support and respect towards them in the face of public criticism from outside.
Phones rang hot and Facebook and Twitter posts assembled energy, gave directions and galvanised even sworn cross-club enemies. Fan groups suddenly became a critical nationwide mass rather than a disparate passive rabble.
"If it does happen to work and FFA make big changes, I don't know that I'd be proud of it because the whole thing has been an unfortunate situation," Muir said.
"But whatever the outcome, what it has shown is the connectedness of fans through the organisations that do the active support - the people who sing the songs throughout the entire game, have the giant flags and banners - not just at Sydney FC, but right across the league.
"The fact that our group could organise a boycott by upwards of 10,000 people literally in 24 hours is testament to the organisation and effort that goes into running such groups. I think it's a lesson for everybody."
Fans are beginning to realise that the enormous broadcast deals being signed by the major sports are entirely dependent on their patronage. They know that TV ratings and attendances are not just hollow words, they are critical elements to a code's success. Sponsorship and corporate interest hinges on the average supporter showing up time after time.
Fans are becoming increasingly outspoken on the high price of merchandise, ticket prices, in-stadium food and beverages. They are more likely to speak out about inefficiencies in the running of clubs and governing bodies. They are no longer willing to be taken for granted and they now have the means to mobilise their collective views.
"It seems to me that what's happening is that fans, in a time of consumer sovereignty, are not just willing to be part of the 'fan club'," University of Western Sydney sport and culture expert David Rowe said.
"They're not just going to shell out lots of money for new merchandise that changes every year, substantial money for travelling and watching games without some, what I call, executive fandom - executive power. They're not just there to be support acts. They're not just going to be cash cows. They want to be part of the club and to have a say in how it's run.
"They are saying 'We expect the club and the governing body to support us in the same we way we support you'. They are saying they expect to have some say over what the club does and how they're treated. And they expect the club or governing body to advocate on their behalf, not collude with, say, the police or other outside influences. And, above all, they know that there is no club or competition without them."
Rowe says it has been remarkable to see fan groups of rival clubs such as the 'North Terrace' Melbourne Victory supporters and Western Sydney Wanderers' 'Red and Black Bloc' coming together to create a united front.
"Not only that, these fans actually have demands that look like they've been written by lawyers," he says.
"It's not just 'We're angry and we're going to wave some flags around' or shout for someone to resign. It's much more sophisticated than that. Social media, campaigning, getting media coverage - it's a change."
However more input fans may have, their wishes may not always be in the best interest of a club. Raelene Castle, the chief executive of rugby league giants Canterbury Bulldogs, says "the end-game, everyone agrees" is for the stadium environment to be secure for all attendees. Yet, when Castle led the charge in coming down hard on misbehaving fans at a game on Good Friday this year, she found that pleasing all supporters is a complex task.
At the end of a pulsating game between South Sydney and Canterbury, won 18-17 by the Rabbitohs after a final-minute penalty, a handful of angry Bulldogs supporters hurled bottles at officials, one of whom was struck and hospitalised.
Castle had been working hard to improve the Bulldogs' reputation and was determined this incident would not unwind good work. She promised in the aftermath of the game to slap life bans on the offenders.
"There was support from about 90 per cent [of our fans] after that," Castle says.
"But the rest took a little longer to come around. They thought we were being unreasonable. Once they realised that there was a bigger game at play, that we were trying to create a safe and inviting environment for everyone, they came around to it."
Castle's balancing act as a leading administrator has stretched beyond just crowd behaviour. She and several other club bosses have had to weigh up between the fans' wishes to play at suburban home grounds and the financial necessity of playing at bigger, more modern venues.
"Belmore is such a spiritual home for our club," Castle says.
"But the reality is that the future is in a stadium that has Wi-Fi, in-seat entertainment and the capability to entertain corporate customers and all of that at a level that Belmore is never going to deliver to us.
"It's a difficult and important balance, to satisfy all those needs, people's different wishes and desires, but I really think at the Bulldogs we've got it right."
Fan groups may be awakening to their ability to influence the direction of the clubs and codes they love. However, Muir accepts, the line should not be drawn too far in their favour. Patrons have the right to vehemently express their opinions, he says, but they should not push their views into the realms of professionals.
"Should fans be able to decide who plays or how the side plays? No, I don't think so," he says.
"Fans are emotionally invested and want the best for their team, but they're not tacticians. You shouldn't make the mistake that because they express an opinion about some aspect of the club that they then have the right to make the decision.
"The same applies with financial decisions. It's a difficult balance. But I think sometimes administrators need to ask themselves what is more important for the long-term viability of the club. Is it the wishes of a sponsor? Or the fans who are there every week for their entire lives?
"I think sometimes clubs err on the side of expediency and make choices that don't necessarily take account of the fans. But at the same time, a CEO has an obligation to make decisions and sometimes they'll be forced into unpopular but necessary decisions. Good fans with good communication lines with clubs will work through those times."
- Sydney Morning Herald