• Joshua Schneider-Weiler

What Can We Learn From Newcastle's Fan Boycott?

Updated: Jan 24, 2020

When Newcastle and manager Rafa Benitez parted ways in the summer of 2019, it was the final straw for many fans. In fact, the year before, in fear this might happen, many Newcastle fans on Twitter had started a movement #IfRafaGoesWeGo. To fill his position, the club appointed Steve Bruce as manager. This was seen as very underwhelming by Newcastle fans at the time and worsened relations between fans and the owner, Mike Ashley.

In the end, thousands of fans followed through on their word and boycotted the first half of the season. In response, the club offered 10,000 free half season ticket to current season ticket holders. I spoke with Chris Waugh of The Athletic and Alex Hurst of the NUFC Supporter's Trust about the boycott and what it tells us about fan empowerment.

How is the atmosphere in the stadium this season different to last season?

Chris Waugh: It's felt flat at times, the actual attendances are significantly down, they've had the least full- in terms of percentage of stadium capacity- this season in the Premier League. It's been at about 87-88% and that is an around roughly average about 46,000 for the first nine games of the season, which compared to last season, when the average was well in excess of 50,000, that shows you just how few fans were there compared last season.

I would argue that probably the crowd was closer to around 40,000-42,000 and that has led to sort of tempering of the atmosphere. In a strange way, it's also lessened the effect in terms of there hasn't been as much negativity chanted against, maybe the owner or the regime because a lot of the more vocal supporters haven't been there. But at the same time, there hasn't been as many chants inside St.James', there hasn't been the singing, there hasn't been as much of a atmosphere whereby the players have been encouraged by the crowd. It's just felt rather tepid at times, which is very strange.

You said that some of the fans, the most vocal fans are not coming to the games. I know you've talked with some of these fans, are there any stories that kind of stick out?

Chris Waugh: Yeah, I found this season really, really hard to cover in terms of just listening to personal stories of fans who feel that can't go anymore. I did a piece for the very first game of the season, which was Arsenal at home, which was the first game of this boycott, and I did half of it inside the ground with those fans who hadn't boycotted and half of it outside and a couple of the pubs around St. James's Park of fans who had boycotted. It felt like a club divided. There are certain fans who really don't like Mike Ashley, don't like what he's doing, but they say 'what I've always done, all my life is I come to St. George's Park every other Saturday. That's what I do. So I'm going to keep doing it even though I don't like what the owners doing'.

I spoke to a family actually where the parents had been going with with their son who's now into his 30s, for the last 25 years. The sun is still going. He still has made the decision to go to those matches, but the parents are refusing to go because they don't see Newcastle United as being the same club as what it was before.

So you have families split families divided over how and they should support that club.

We've talked about their issues getting people into the stadium in the first half of the season. So in early December, they made a decision to do something about it. What did they do?

Chris Waugh: Well, Newcastle United came up with a bespoke idea to give away 10,000 free half season tickets, which were available to current season ticket holders to apply for an additional one, be it for a family member or friend. And their justification from Managing Director Lee Charney, was that they wanted to reward those fans who had stayed loyal and really got behind Steve Bruce and the team this year. Steve Bruce himself had come out after the Southampton game and it basically urged the club to do something about it.

They claim it was a scheme that came within those 24 hours and the by the next day that these half season tickets had been issued. I mean, there's been a lot of skepticism about that. Whatever the cause or however this came about Newcastle were trying to find a way to fill the ground. A short term fix was needed. And that short term fix was to try and get more fans into the ground by giving away 10,000 half free season tickets.

Surely the fans were happy with that...

Chris Waugh: Well, no, it's again this created a division. This is what is so disheartening about covering Newcastle United at the moment that there is a fan base which is so divided in so many ways. So there are some fans who be there for younger generation or be they fans who couldn't afford to go to St. James's Park this season, who have jumped at the chance. And now family members are able to go, brother and sister can go together. All the family can maybe go together now because they've applied for those tickets. So there's a portion of fans who love this idea.

But then there are the other side, the boycotters, who believe that they have been completely forgotten about, this is almost sticking a two fingers up to them and saying we will fill the ground, we've forgotten about you. Essentially in Lee Charnley' (managing director of Newcastle) statement he basically said within that statement that this was focused on the season ticket holders were there and not the fans who have left.

I would like to say a huge thank you to everyone who has been to matches so far this season. Thank you to them for backing Steve the players and actually, let's get more of them in the in this stadium accepting there'll be some people who, for their own reasons don't want to come. But this is about those that have made the decision to come and saying thank you to them.

And so this is a short term fix to a problem. It is not actually resolved any of the deep rooted issues. It's basically put a plaster over the situation until the end of the season. Try and get the ground as full as possible between now and May, but then nobody want knows what happens after that. And in terms of those fans who have been turned away, this is not going to bring them back. And actually it is probably made them even more entrenched in their position because they feel that that club is not actually taking them into account.

What were your thoughts when they instituted this free 10,000 ticket giveaway?

Alex Hurst: My thoughts were that it is very sad for football mad city in a football crazy region like the northeast of England, that this was necessary. I know a lot of fans don't like the idea personally. Coming into my workplace in Northumberland, the effect in terms of people who necessarily can't afford to go to football is really positive. Because I spoke to members of staff who work for me who were really excited by it because they can't afford up to £800 for season ticket every year and this gives them access free of charge for football.

But like everything, there is no one easy solution or answer to this one. So, you know, if the question is, was it good that Newcastle United gave free season tickets? My answer would be yes. But the reasons behind it are very bad and very indicative of a football club that has disassociated itself from much of its fan base or part of his fan base, at least, through years of neglect by decision making, and basically not listening to supporters and the wants and needs of supporters.

So in the last two games since this new tickets game has taken effect against Everton and Leicester City, they've had 52,000 in the stadium in both games, what has been the effect inside the ground when those 52,000 people have come?

Chris Waugh: For the first game on the match against Everton. I'd say that you could noticeably tell the atmosphere has improved.

Was it the return to the St. James's Park of 'old' that we would see in the past? No, certainly not. It was not. It was a different composition of supporters. As I say those really vocal fans who have taken this position, were not back.

The ground was full, you could hear the chatter that you would usually get in between moments of excitement whereas before it would have been quite quiet. So it was it was certainly improved, but was not what it was before.

Against Leicester, I think it was it was different. For a start, it was announced that there's more than 52,000 inside the ground but just visually looking around, it didn't look like it was quiet that number. I think it was probably closer Around 50. And the atmosphere I think probably would have been New Year's Day that contributed to a certain degree. It was flat from the start. And by the end of the match, I would say there was barely a quarter full, because so many fans had left so early. That is probably the risk of the football being so bad as it has been, but also if you give free half season tickets to supporters who haven't paid for something, maybe there isn't quite the determination to stay if things are going badly as if you've actually paid for that ticket yourself.

So this is helping us solve the problem, but it's not exactly fixing it totally?

Chris Waugh: 10,000 half free season tickets, if any of that club offered that I think that we would celebrate it and Newcastle should be applauded to a degree that they are giving so many tickets away to fans who maybe couldn't afford them. But at the same time, this has not solved any of the fundamental problems.

The fundamental problem is Mike Ashley's ownership of the club. And he hasn't done anything material to convince supporters that he has changed from the first 12 and a half years of his reign. There are still so many fans who are disaffected and disillusioned, some who still go to games are exactly the same. But there are those who are staying away who are not going to be cowed by this, if anything, have become more entrenched because of this. And so Newcastle are going to face another problem situation this summer. Once those free half season tickets, once that comes to an end, what do they do next?

So do you think the boycott's made a difference on fans or the club in general?

Alex Hurst: Well, it's got to make a difference financially because if you are on average down 7,000 people a game paying on average 40 pounds a game or whatever, it would be in the season tickets then that the club will financially lose out there. So it'll have an impact in that respect.

In terms of a boycott, that is not going to make Mike Ashley sell the club because 10% of people no longer come in.

The financial implications of 10% less ticket sales aren't going to force any change. That's not me trying to belittle the efforts of anyone. They are just facts, I believe.

So I don't think it's made that much of a difference, to be honest with you in terms of how the club runs itself and sees itself. I think if you were to get crowds to drop below, 20,000-30,000 that may change things. But, ultimately, I don't think that boycotts or not going to a game is going to change the way that Mike actually runs the club.

It feels like you've kind of learned a lesson from this, which is boycotts aren't very effective, and therefore you have to explore other ways of fixing this problem. So what has been your approach?

Alex Hurst: We [Newcastle United Support's Trust] have the eventual goal of buying a share in Newcastle United Football Club. We are about to begin fundraising plans this year, in the coming months to do that, so that if the club ever does change hands, we're able to speak to new owners and say we have this amount of money, will you give us a say in how our football club is run?

Because the one thing about football fans is we aren't going to run the football club for the benefit of some rich man somewhere. So I personally think that is the best way to go about it. We're the same as the people boycotting, we're not going to achieve results in one year, maybe or two years. It's going to be a long progress.

Do you feel like this could empower or emboldened fan bases of other clubs that are not happy with their owner to potentially do a wide scale boycott because of the concessions that Mike Ashley has given into?

Chris Waugh: I think that fans of other clubs may look towards Newcastle and think actually, 'if we take a stand here, maybe we can get concessions. Maybe we won't force you on who we dislike to go, but maybe we can get them to change their ways to a certain degree'. Newcastle fans, or at least the more militant ones, insist that this is not the end. They will continue as long as Mike Ashley's owner to keep protesting against him. They protest outside his shops, they protest outside the club shops.

There's a protest later this month where 'Toon For Change' which is one of the groups have issued scarves which are maroon and blue, which are called era of ambition scarf looking back to the mid 90s, and they want fans to turn up at St. James's Park wearing those scarves to show again, their discontent with the owner.

Maybe other fans of other clubs will start to follow suit and think 'if we can get a big enough groundswell of support for us in terms of a boycott or protest, whatever it may be, then if you look at Newcastle United, maybe we can get some concessions from our owner.

What do you think this tells us about fan empowerment, boycotting and owners kind of in general?

Chris Waugh: I think that what this tells us is that we've reached a stage whereby fans in general, not just at Newcastle, but elsewhere, are feeling less and less empowered to be able to do something as they would in the past to force change at their club. Maybe in the past, if there was a local owner of their club, if they sang for the manager to go or if they showed their discontent to that degree where they still actually were physically in the ground, then they felt that they could force a reaction. Now, there's been a change.

Because owners appear to be more distant, owners aren't necessarily from the area, they're billionaires or conglomerates or countries who almost run football clubs, that really it actually needs this sort of material protest or boycott for some fans who are so discontented with their club to be able to affect material change.

So rather than just chance or a local newspaper campaign or whatever it may be in the past, they feel the need to use social media as a tool to be able to get supporters to either stay away from games or actively protest bit by creating these demonstrations outside grounds or inside ground. We've seen it elsewhere where people may throw tennis balls on a tough time or whatever it may be. And so I think that because fans feel pushed further away than ever, from being able to impact just in the day to day of how their football club is run, they feel they have to go to more extreme measures to be able to force change at their club.

Alex Hurst: Yeah, I'd have to agree with with Chris. I think that the fact that so much of the club's income is generated from TV rights, rather than direct ticket sales or merchandise, then it makes it very difficult for fans to try and force ownership change. I think if you go further down the football pyramid in England, it might be a little bit easier.

But there is definitely got to be a movement in the future to give fans more of a voice in the way that football clubs are run. That's what we want to see the at the Supporter's Trust. Hopefully, if we have this conversation in 10 years time, you'll be able to point out to other people or the fans organizations that it is possible to take back control a little bit of how your football club is run as a supporter.

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