FANS or CUSTOMERS? Which do you need to have a sustainable business? The sad story of Leyton Orient Football Club


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As a young boy growing up in London, and with a football loving father, I had the pick of a number of world famous clubs to become a fan of. Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea, Crystal Palace, Fulham and Queens Park Rangers are among 14 professional teams based in London, still competing in the top four divisions of English Football. Sadly, I chose to follow my fathers footsteps and become a fan of his team – Leyton Orient. What a burden that has turned out to be (thanks Dad!). As I approach my 44th birthday, my life as a fan of an unsuccessful (regrettably) East London football team has not been filled with joyous memories.

I am not looking for sympathy here – I am merely stating fact. Every Orient fan will admit that they are not a fan of Leyton Orient because they expect success – and that is the perfect segway to me explaining why I am writing about the 91st best (currently) football league team in England (out of 92)! Despite everything I have said, I consider myself to be a FAN of Leyton Orient. Apart from a four year stint at school when I could not admit to my friends I was an Orient fan, I always have been an Orient fan and I always will be!

Yet when I was a young boy making my momentously silly decision (why did I not choose Arsenal or Chelsea?!!!), I thought football was enjoyed (or endured) by all as a form of entertainment. The excitement, anticipation, joy, sorrow, highs and lows, were all a fundamental part of the reason for being a fan of a football team. In fact, this principle could have been applied to fans of any sporting team, anywhere in the world. The dictionary definition of this type of ‘FAN’ is as follows:

a person who has a strong interest in or admiration for a particular person or thing.

Describing Orient as a ‘thing’ is rather pertinent right now. Sports clubs, Orient included, are reliant on the loyal support of their FANS to sustain themselves. Whilst they are able to generate income through other means than directly out of fans pockets alone (sponsorship etc..), without FANS, it is unlikely that any sports club would be able to continue existing – especially in a professional capacity.


Interestingly – and a core reason for writing this article – most sports clubs, Orient included, are no longer just institutions that solely exist for the purpose of entertaining (or disappointing in the case of Orient!). Today, Leyton Orient is a business – in reality, it always has been – but the stark reality of the transition from ‘fun to finance’ is clear for any sports fan, anywhere in the world to see. Football clubs are now no different to any other business, in any other industry – they never have been. Over the years, businesses in other industries have worked hard to turn people into FANS of their brands. The more FANS they attracted, the more successful they seemed to become. So let me ask the question from the header of this post – Do you need FANS or CUSTOMERS to have a sustainable business?

The dictionary definition of ‘CUSTOMER’ is as follows:

a person who buys goods or services from a shop or business

Compare that to the definition of a Fan. They are rather different. Now let’s take these definitions and apply them to the current case of Marks and Spencer in the UK. A business with a long and proud heritage, for the last five years, the retailer has struggled to remain relevant to the UK consumer. As a result, many of its loyal FANS, have ceased to become CUSTOMERS. Whilst none of Marks and Spencer’s FANS would like to see the business cease to exist, they no longer believe enough in what the business is doing to want to continue buying their goods or services as much as they have done previously. Competition is a factor, of that there is no doubt, but there can be no denying the effect of a declining customer base.


For a business to make money, it MUST have the ability to attract people who will buy goods and services from it. A business that has a great number of people who have a strong interest or admiration for it (FANS), but are not prepared to buy anything (CUSTOMERS), is not one that is going to survive. Historically, Ryanair is a good example of a business that has succeeded by having a plethora of CUSTOMERS but not a great deal of FANS. Many people were willing to buy in to the Ryanair proposition of ‘low fares guaranteed’, but without liking what the brand stood for. As a result, the brand has gown into the world’s largest international airline, with far less FANS than it has CUSTOMERS.

So let me bring you back to the sad story of Leyton Orient. In 2014, Orient were a ‘penalty shoot out’ away from winning the League 1 play off final. They were just a few kicks away from playing in the second tier of English football. Any life long Orient fan will be able to tell you how it felt to be an Orient FAN back then. It was almost so joyous, words cannot describe the sheer pride with which we could acknowledge our football allegiance. In 2014, Orient were a club with so much heart, passion, desire, togetherness and belief, that even if they did not win a game of football, an Orient FAN still felt proud of what the players and support staff did to make us, the FAN, remain loyal to them.

In 2014, Leyton Orient had as big a grouping of FANS and CUSTOMERS at the same time as it had done for the previous 34 years – if not more. The combination of FANS and paying CUSTOMERS meant that our ‘little’ football club was sustainable. Throughout history, this had rarely been the case. As I have already said, it was a joyous time.

Fast forward two years. Orient now sit one place away from being relegated from the Football League altogether. A new owner, intent on making uninformed and uneducated decisions, has unravelled everything that made Orient a ‘thing’ for any FAN to be so proud of – in almost record time. In 2014, Leyton Orient was a business with heart and soul. That heart and soul has now been ripped out of what is still fundamentally the same business. Many FANS are now starting to doubt whether or not they will still remain CUSTOMERS of the business. My dad, the man responsible for my life long Orient torture, has himself decided that enough is enough.

Francesco Becchetti

Francesco Becchetti

The man who now ‘owns’ Leyton Orient, has completely misunderstood the basic principles of business (in my opinion). Francesco Becchetti purchased a business with a passionately loyal CUSTOMER base – made up of loyal FANS. Whilst he was never going to make Arsenal scale profits from his customers, they had never been more willing to buy the goods and services that Orient had on offer. Yet in two years, he has done more to kill off his CUSTOMER base than almost any other football club owner in living history (although there is some competition on that front). Mr Becchetti needs to understand that a FAN rarely stops being so – whatever happens, I and any other Leyton Orient FAN will be there forever – even if it means having to start again from scratch. However, without CUSTOMERS, Mr Becchetti will have nothing – no business – nada.

Whether you are Michael O’Leary, Steve Rowe or Francesco Becchetti, the most sustainable approach to business is to have as many loyal FANS who are also paying CUSTOMERS as is humanly possible. You can make money from CUSTOMERS alone, but in the long run, they may switch allegiance when something better comes along. A FAN is going nowhere – yet if you want that FAN to invest their hard earned money in your products and services, you better damn well look after them!

Up the O’s

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Ian Golding, CCXP
A highly influential freelance CX consultant, Ian advises leading companies on CX strategy, measurement, improvement and employee advocacy techniques and solutions. Ian has worked globally across multiple industries including retail, financial services, logistics, manufacturing, telecoms and pharmaceuticals deploying CX tools and methodologies. An internationally renowned speaker and blogger on the subject of CX, Ian was also the first to become a CCXP (Certified Customer Experience Professional) Authorised Resource & Training Provider.


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