“For me, it’s so obvious that it is relevantir to have the voice of supporters sitting in the room when you discuss the future of a club.”
SD Europe’s Fans On Boards series returns with part two of the feature on Danish football club Brøndby IF! This edition features an interview with the new fan representative on the board, Claus Bjørn Billehøj!
An extended version of the interview is available as a podcast here.
In part one, SD Europe Board Member and Brøndby supporter Lasse Bauer talked to us about the fan representative role on the board of the club.
For part two, Claus Bjørn Billehøj offers an insight into being a fan representative on the board of Brøndby IF, his experience so far and what he aims to achieve fresh after being elected in April 2022. Claus also offers some words of encouragement and advice for other football clubs considering implementing a fan-elected director.
For those new to the concept of fan representatives on football club boards, it is an effective method to ensure supporters and football clubs can work closely together with trust. They are commonly elected by supporters to represent their views in a football club’s decision making process, giving them influence in how the football club is run.
To begin with, can you introduce yourself? How long have you been a Brøndby supporter and how long have you been involved as a part of the fan department?
“My name is Claus, I'm 50 and I have been following Brøndby for the last 35 years with my family and my friends. You can say the club is a common factor in my family, but also in my social circle of friends. We are eight or nine men at my age who have known each other our whole lives. We have season tickets next to each other and have followed Brøndby essentially forever. Now, we're here with our children, our partners and our friends. We are a large group that have season tickets together.
I've been an active part of the fan department since its beginning after it converted from the Brøndy Supporters’ Trust into the fan department. That was three and a half years ago or so now. I was brought into this work with our supporters and have found it very, very interesting. Instead of just being a fan with my friends, I have seen another dimension within my relationship to Brøndby which has been really inspiring to me to be calling for even more influence for supporters. It’s been a great experience and I'm very grateful to the people who originally dragged me along to a meeting and tied me to a chair to become involved. Now I'm here and I really, really enjoy it. I try to give back to the Brøndby community as much as I can.”
Congratulations, you are the new fan representative on the board of Brøndby IF. In your words, what does it mean to you and how do supporters feel influence through the fan representative?
“You could say at a broader level, I believe it's part of the narrative of the football club that it acknowledges fans and has a fan sitting on the board. I would say that all the other members of the board as well are also fans in some respect, but the agenda that I would be following and the perspective that I would bring to the table is more directly related to being a fan. I think it's very good that we see this type of fan engagement in clubs and also on the boards across football. When taking decisions laying out the strategic framework, you should have one board member that is a dedicated fan that brings that perspective to the table. It's also full of dilemmas because there are so many competing agendas in football clubs.
You need to be building and combining a strategy alongside the everyday management of a football club which is a challenge. Running a football club has so many dilemmas with it, and therefore being a fan representative on the board is not just about saying one thing and insisting this is the only way it can be because there's so many other perspectives you need to take into consideration across a club, but I think it's a key part of developing football clubs.
To have a licence to play in the best leagues you need to have a lot of things you need to be compliant on. That could be the size of the pitch, et cetera. But having fan representation on boards is not part of it right now. I believe in looking into a licensing system where for clubs to get their licence to play in leagues, supporters should be involved in the governance structure of clubs. I think that is a way to move forward. For me that should be just a basic framework to have access to play. This is something that I would like to address even more on a European level, but also on a domestic level in Denmark.
With Brøndby IF specifically to be a fan representative, I think it's part of our narrative. It's part of our story. It's due to a massive amount of work done by fans of Brøndby over the last 10, 15 or 20 years, where now for the last four or five years we have had a fan representative on the board. I'm extremely humbled that now I am carrying that torch. I will hold this torch for two to three years, and then it will be another supporter’s turn to step forwards.
It is very important that I am aligned with the traditions of the work of the role to date. What is it that we in Brøndby think is important and why do we think it's important? It's my task to develop this but still be very respectful and aligned with our history and then also be aligned with the everyday politics I discuss with other fans. I also need to be able to act in such a professional way to ensure I’m acknowledged and valued in the boardroom. Being able to take into consideration the work that has happened before me, being able to take the temperature of the fans right now and what is important to them, and also act on a professional level to help address the challenges and objectives of the board.
I'm very humbled that the fans of Brøndby have chosen me to do this. I know it's a really big task. I think that due to my professional career I’m capable of doing this. But it's extremely important that you are aware of your role, because going into the boardroom you need to be extremely professional and perhaps even more professional being the fan representative than the other members of the board because you know you are there on a special ticket, and you really need to manage that ticket in the correct way. By being the most professional, the most well prepared, the most strategic thinking person in the room is the way to have your influence applied into the decisions and ultimately the influence of the supporters.”
You mentioned attending with the same group of people and now bringing your kids, is this what football is all about to you?
“Yes, I'm so proud. I have a boy aged 23 and another one aged 21 and both of them are full blown Brøndby supporters. The oldest one has a new Brøndby shirt and he probably wears it every day at his work, and the youngest one goes to see all the games. Both of them have season tickets. They have been following the team all the way growing up, even when it hasn't been going so well for the team. But they were there after we won the championship this summer so that was a launch. It was really kind of a relief for me that my sons were able to experience the championship as well. We had thought about whether they would ever be able to see that in their lifetime and it happened. So, you can say check, we're done!”
Football supporters come from a broad spectrum of professional experience. When added to football club boards as fan representatives, they can offer new dimensions of professional capabilities, can’t they?
“There is so much potential in football fans that I think the football clubs, club owners and leagues should acknowledge it even more. If you consider what we can mobilise as fans, whether it’s for a social cause or how we can mobilise strategic thinking, football fans have so much potential that isn't fulfilled in supporting a football club’s ambition.
I always say that you play at home every two weeks and there you have all the energy in the stands. But imagine the potential that can be mobilised in the 13 other days. To me, I'm still surprised by the lack of strategy from clubs, because they tend to see you as a customer coming on the 14th day for a home game but why don’t they understand that actually as a fan, I would love to be involved with the club on the 13 other days. Consider what could be achieved if supporters were involved on the 13 other days and what that would bring on the 14th day for the home match.
I do believe the club that I support is starting on that journey and it's ahead of other Danish clubs. But there's so much potential there on engagement and also on financial gains which could be more sustainable than receiving investment from a faceless entity or investment firm. There's so much potential that could be mobilised that the clubs don't see.”
You were elected in April 2022. What's your main objective now in the role? What is it that you want to try and achieve whilst you're sitting on the board?
“It’s difficult to answer because I'm still new on the board. I'm not fully aware of what strategic elements they're discussing. So, one answer could be the traditional one, to have a secure and sustainable club that keeps focusing on fans and focusing on the local community. They are my core actions on the board. And then more specifically I do believe in engaging fans more on what I would call these 13 other days, creating this ecosystem and investing in the community around the club even more. This is something very important to me. Also, the understanding of the professional department, the amateur department and the fan department. I want to look at these three departments, how they can be even more interlinked with each other.
And then trying to secure Brøndby’s DNA in a football world that has gone crazy and will go even more crazy. Also, to discuss the values of the club within the community. The role that I have, I will of course sit at the table at the board meeting and that is a closed meeting with discussions, but I have a role that I can use also outside the board meetings for addressing certain issues like the ones we're discussing here and others. The voice I have in that boardroom is something I discussed with the fan department, ‘how shall we use the voice that I have within the club boardroom?’ I want a discussion around Brøndby on a Danish scale. How can we use the voice that I have due to the fact that I'm part of Brøndby’s board to address not just topics specific to our club, but general topics on how we see football going forwards. This is also something important to my agenda.”
How do you see the day-to-day of the role in between matchdays, would you like to try and make yourself available to supporters that want to get in touch with you?
“I am working with the fan department, and of course, supporters can contact me on social media, email or however suits them and I will try to answer their questions. But it's very important that a lot of this dialogue goes through the fan department, so the fan representative is not just some individual that has to deal with requests about better sausages in the stadium etc. We need to work on strategic agendas and it has to be aligned with some of the perspectives of the board of the fan department. So, a lot of the work will be supporting the fan department as it is the arena for fan influence, I'm just a humble servant for fans - after all they elected me. Supporters can contact me and I will often be in dialogue with the chair of the fan department to make sure we have the strategic focus we need to be a strong fan department. And of course, at any meetings with supporters or at games I will happily talk to my fellow supporters and try to answer the questions I can”.
Brøndby IF are one of only a handful of clubs that actually have a genuine supporter representative. What sort of advice would you offer to other football clubs on embracing a fan representative on the board?
“Reach out to other clubs that have them. Reach out to individuals that have experience in this. For me it’s so obvious that it is relevant to have the voice of supporters sitting in the room when you discuss the future of a club. When you discuss the everyday management, when you discuss the strategic perspectives, it's good to have a voice from the finance department, it's good to have a voice of the strategic planning department, it's good to have a voice of the football department. So it's good to have the voice of the fan sitting at the table too and then balancing these dilemmas in a way that you can secure a sustainable development of the football club. And of course it’s relevant to have dialogue with your fans about how the club is going forward.
This way you don't see the scenes that you saw in Bayern Munich's General Assembly because it's not good for anyone. It's not good for the club, it's not good for the board and it's not good for the fans. We need to be aligned and a good way to align these interests is to have talks and dialogue about it that can develop over time. But the key is you as the board of directors of a football club opening your doors and bringing the fans’ voice into the room. You could agree to a settling in period, so you can develop and tune the role in the way that makes sense for the club. I don't believe there's one size that fits all, but I do believe that there is progress to be made to develop the concept even further for all clubs. To do that, you have to sit down and have a dialogue about it. It gives you credibility and it gives you also a chance to be aligned with your fans. And of course, it also puts responsibility on your fans because the fact that I am now sitting at this table is that I have been elected by them.
So, I believe it's a strategic advantage for a club to have a fan representative to help ensure that your fans are with you, and are understanding some of the decisions that you need to make in balancing the dilemmas of running a football club. Start the journey, reach out to people that have experience in it. Reach out to the CEO or the Chairman of Brøndby or another club for example and ask “What is good? What is bad? What is difficult? What is the advantage? How do you manage it? How do you deal with the dilemmas that are connected to it?”, and thereby you can develop a model that works for what you need.
The responsibility it creates for supporters is that we need to make sure that we have some strategic alignment in the fan scene. There are a lot of different groups who need to work together to have a voice. So instead of ten voices, we have to organise ourselves. We have a responsibility now to define what we think is right. What we think is good and bad. It's not just a honeymoon, it's also hard work. Now we must do more than just scream and say we want more of this, more of that. We have to decide what matters and discuss that in a professional manner. I think it's good in developing a sustainable football club that you have the fans sitting on the board. Then you can always discuss should it be fan-owned, should it be this or that. The owners of the club and the other directors are fans too, but I am a fan in a different way to them. So the fact that we merge a board with different perspectives is an advantage for the football club in developing it.
Of course, this is complex. We need to talk to each other across football to improve it for us all. In other countries, clubs need to sit down with their supporters and work out how it will work best for them. Each country is different. From a political football fan perspective, I also think it's more and more important that you secure some democratic involvement for supporters. In Denmark, we have very regulated markets for nearly all businesses but football is like the Wild West. Not everyone can open a coffee shop as you need a government licence to sell coffee, but just about anyone can buy a football club. A football club is a cultural institution. You cannot buy a museum or a church, but you can buy a football club. We need regulation to protect them.”
Thank you to Claus Bjørn Billehøj and Brøndby IF for taking part.
Get in touch with SD Europe here to find out more about fan representation on football club boards.