One of Premier League’s most experienced Supporter Liaison Officers, Anthony Emmerson, takes us behind the scenes at Stoke City Football Club.
by Nikhil Sreekandan
SLOs or Supporter Liaison Officers for football clubs is not some fresh-off-the-oven concept; European football has had them for a few years now. But, if you were to ask a football fan who their club’s SLO was, chances are you’d get asked a question back, ‘What’s an SLO?’
In their official SLO Handbook, Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) defines Supporter Liaison Officers (SLOs) as the bridge between the fans and the club who help to improve the dialogue between the two sides.
It was Article 35 of the 2010 UEFA Club Licensing and Financial Fair Play Regulations, which made it a requirement for all clubs across Europe to appoint a Supporter Liaison Officer, to ensure proper and constructive discourse between them and their fans. It came into effect in the 2012/13 season and ever since every European club has had a publicly named SLO aka a known point of contact between the club administration and their supporters.
Yet, SLOs remain a lesser-known entity in football, which probably has to do with their subtle behind-the-scenes approach in a sport as flashy as football, but by no means does it downsize the crucial role that they play in the modern game.
INKLINE: How would you define the role of an SLO in a football club?
Anthony Emmerson: The role of a Supporter Liaison Officer is to make sure that at every football club the fans of the club can contact an individual i.e. the SLO and have their voice heard. Often it will be to share an idea, to make a complaint or to give a compliment.
But rather than the businessmen in football clubs just acting without consulting the supporters, SLOs make sure that the fans’ voices are heard and that anything that comes from the supporters is collected and shared with the club.
In my case, I directly report to the Chief Executive. I have weekly meetings with the Chief Executive at Stoke City, Tony Scholes, where we speak about what fans are interested in, what the fans are asking about; and in that way we always stay in touch with the 27,500 people who are coming to our games and the wider fan base from Europe and worldwide.
I: It’s not necessarily one-way traffic is it, you are a voice of the club as well?
A: Yes, the role is MEDIATION, it is two-way communication. So information can be fed down via an SLO to fans or the information can come from the fans to the SLO to the club. Also, this is just one way of communication, there are other ways you can talk to people at a football club, fans can go directly to other staff, whether it be an issue or a compliment for another area.
However, what is important with the SLO role is that it guarantees a voice, whereas in the past without an SLO, even though supporters could speak to the club but maybe without the same consistency and guarantee that their voice will be heard.
I: Why choose a career in the business of football?
A: When I came out of University I worked in a customer service job immediately for a leading telephone organization, and from there, as customer service became even more relevant in football, I then got a job in football to make sure that things like services for a club are as good as they should be. I went from a customer service job to work for the Middlesbrough football club.
Football is a national obsession in the UK and I’d naturally grown up as a massive football fan, so it was very easy for me to get excited about trying to work in football. But what has made me enjoy my job every single day is that I was brought up supporting a team in the lower league by my father, a team called Hartlepool United, where I had a season ticket from the age of seven.
I went there every week and we stood, we got rained on, it was very low-quality refreshments, very low-quality matchday experience and very low-quality football; but it was such a special atmosphere being with friends that I’ve never forgotten the essence of football and football supporters: it’s about friendship, comradery and pride. So, that was probably the foundation for me working in professional football.
I: What is a typical day like for the Stoke City SLO?
A: A typical day is to come in and to make sure that I and my team are responding as quick as we can to email and call enquiries, people who arrive on foot, ad-hoc, arrivals at main reception wanting to speak to someone. Beyond that, the work that we are doing now is about increasing the supporter base. So, getting people here is the first and then providing a good match day experience is second and my job is centered around that.
Perhaps the one key indicator of success over the last three years in Stoke City is that we’re having to expand the bet365 Stadium. Our Group Sales team have had great success in attracting new groups of youngsters in recent seasons – from junior football and sports teams to local primary schools. 13,000 new supporters came in season 2016-17 via this initiative and because of factors like this, we’ll be putting in 2,000 new seats for the start of season 2017-18 in August.
I: What would your advice be to people who might be interested in such a job?
A: Generally where SLO recruitment comes from is the fan base, perhaps 50% recruitment across football SLOs are just fans who might do initially voluntarily and depending on the nature of the club, the job might become semi-permanent or permanent.
Being a fan of your local club and showing interest and getting in contact with the club whether it be via email or via meeting, showing the club that you support them, that you have valid points of feedback, would be the first step.
For a new SLO who wants to get in, I think go to the local club, work with the local club, hopefully, you will be invited on to be an SLO, and then you might find the skills to be transferred to somewhere else.
But you will always find that SLOs are very strong supporters of their club and after working at Stoke for more than 3 years, I see myself as a very solid Stoke supporter.
I: Where do you see the future of SLOs in England and football in general?
A: I think SLOs will become plural rather than singular, the logical next step would be SLO departments at every football club. In the way that small clubs might have a marketing department of one or two and the big clubs will have a marketing department of 20-25, I think other than that SLOs will be similar.
At the stadiums, it would almost be like a Starbucks or a travel agency where people can drop in and speak to people, get around the table and have all types of queries and conversations, and also SLO teams will be very visible at every single home and away game.
I’ve worked in customer service in football for a long time, maybe 12 years and what is important is that now all football clubs sharing information, sharing experiences, there’s no rivalry, there’s only a collective effort to improve. So I can only see football clubs getting better and better, what’s happening at some football clubs this summer in terms of accessibility is the perfect example.
Watching the way that football club has only looked after able-bodied supporters, but now watching football clubs look after people with a whole range of accessibility needs. We are seeing football clubs now with sensory rooms to help autistic youngsters watch games, we are seeing football clubs now having more disabled viewing decks than they ever have, websites are paying particular notice to people that might have visual and hearing impairments, and you even have headsets for people who are visually impaired at games (free of charge); so probably a world that we are heading towards is inclusivity.