As a regular at Sunderland away games, one of the feelings I’ve missed during the pandemic, one that cannot be replicated virtually, is the euphoria and loss of inhibitions when your team has scored a late equaliser or winner in front of a packed away end.
If you’ve experienced this before, you are probably also familiar with the battle scars of multiple bruises on your shins from the plastic seats in the row in-front, maybe even a damaged phone that dropped out of your pocket when falling head-first down several rows.
If you know what I’m talking about and are part of an away following or home section that tend to stand for the full 90 minutes, then you will also probably be confused as to why footballing and ministerial authorities in England have taken so long to embrace safe standing that has proved successful on the continent.
Caption: The ‘Yellow Wall’ of Borussia Dortmund, the most famous safe-standing area
I was delighted to see Manchester City announce on Tuesday that they were to install 5,620 rail seats, which see the club equipped to roll-out safe standing , with Wolves having beaten them to the punch with fitting safe standing railings back in 2019. However, they have not officially been utilised due to legislation relating to the top two tiers of English football.
So what could this mean for communications? As much as it demonstrates a level of consultation carried out by City and the likes with their supporters it could also bring opportunities to reengage with a section of supporters who have stayed away due to diluted match atmospheres.
Safe-standing areas are permitted in League One and Two in England, but only Shrewsbury Town have adopted it thus far, with some grounds in the lower divisions still with their traditional terracing.
The legislation does not formally apply in Scotland, with Celtic taking advantage of their ability to implement safe standing back in 2016.
Caption: Celtic’s safe-standing area for home fans was implemented in 2016
Celtic have been the envy of fan groups over the border, which must fill Hoops supporters with pride and Shrewsbury Town have enjoyed a lot of good press as a result of being the first English team to successfully pilot safe-standing, seen as pioneers in the English game, much to the delight of their comms team.
Germany have embraced the system for years , much as a result of the 50+1 rule that ensures fan ownership of majority shares, which shows the appetite that football supporters have for the improved atmosphere and cheaper ticket prices safe standing can bring.
This is mirrored in the overwhelming support from fan groups on British shores such as the FSF, who ran a Safe Standing Roadshow back in 2014.
PR and Safe Standing
Despite the riches and the reputation of the Premier League on a global scale, Bundesliga clubs are the envy of English fans, myself included, for how supporters are central to the way they operate.
The sense of community has somewhat eroded in modern day football and safe standing could well help to rebuild that, with clubs embracing it as a token of showing fans they really value their input.
Internal PR teams will have a part to play in convincing clubs that cost and potential loss of revenue from cheaper ticket prices are more than worth what they could stand to gain in good-will and fan participation.
Caption: City’s announcement was met with universal positivity
After the Sports Grounds Safety Authority (SGSA) reported it would benefit spectator safety , the government have made vague suggestions of working with the Premier League, EFL and FA to permit safe-standing, but the bodies themselves may be able to put pressure on the government, who banned terracing in the top two divisions in the aftermath of the 1990 Taylor Report.
The Premier League and EFL have been pretty timid in their support, so the clubs who have not yet committed to this revolutionary step must take it upon themselves to engage in open dialogue with their supporters, many of whom have already campaigned for safe-standing.
Caption: Craven Cottage, now a Premier League ground, back in the days of terracing
The channels for this could be in the form of consultation with particular fans groups, polls or sending representatives to fan-led campaigns, but the aforementioned benefit to clubs massively outweighs the relatively small cost incurred, creating a massive public relations opportunity.
Once the government have permitted this, the clubs who are already equipped with safe standing will enjoy a two-way dynamic with their supporters and reestablishing relationships with many who have stayed away due to the disconnect or diluted match day experience