By Jason McKeown
For many Bradford City supporters, today’s announcement that chief operating officer James Mason will be leaving Valley Parade will send canary in a coal mine-type concerns.
At a time of uncertainty, and with lots of questions asked of the Bradford City leadership, the ongoing presence of Mason has acted as something of a buffer of reassurance. This has been a period of relatively new direction and change. But the retention of a Bradfordian right at the top has offered confidence that the deep-rooted, long-term values of the club remain in focus and in tact.
Mason’s decision to walk away does not mean Bradford City are on the brink of collapse, or that the Edin Rahic reign is out of control. But it doesn’t look great either. Mason is a life-long Bradford City supporter, and frequently exclaimed that he was in working in his dream job. It was a position you thought he would hold for decades. That he’d grow old with us. Playing a key role in the long-term adventures of Bradford City.
Or to put it another way: it feels as though it would take a lot for him to step away from the club. Seemingly with nothing else lined up.
Just what Mason’s true reasons are for leaving remain unclear. With an advisory role to be finalised and a new head due to be announced on Monday, there’s absolutely no chance he will offer anything but professional platitudes about being ready for a new challenge. Ultimately, his private reasons are likely to be kept private. At least for now.
It’s just short of four years since James Mason joined Bradford City after Julian Rhodes and Mark Lawn turned to him to replace the popular David Baldwin, who was offered a fantastic opportunity to move to Premier League Burnley. Baldwin was a tough act to follow, but Mason quickly established himself as a likeable, talented individual. He built on many of the ideas and strategies implemented by Baldwin, Lawn and Rhodes, and his marketing and social media knowledge has helped to drive season ticket sales up to record numbers. Mason has also brought in a range of commercial deals that have further enhanced the financial strength of Bradford City.
Mason’s love affair with the club began back in the 1986/87 season, when as a seven-year-old he was first introduced as a supporter, watching games in the Midland Road stand as a Junior Bantam. He grew up wanting to be a sports journalist, and eventually completed a post-graduate degree in sports journalism. Whilst working his way up the BBC football ranks – going from covering lower league teams to Premier League matches for Final Score, whilst upsetting Roy Keane along the way – Mason also developed a business background. He worked for a joinery firm in Italy and later set up a UK subsidiary of the business. This mixture of media and business expertise made him the ideal successor to Baldwin.
The chief operating officer/head of football operations/chief executive type of role is a very interesting one. Baldwin and Mason had a vast list of responsibilities and dealings. They work closely with the chairmen, of course, and influence key board decisions. They have to build a good relationship with the manager, both to support on the field matters and to ensure commercial and community commitments are kept. They help to sign players. They build and maintain relationships with sponsors and commercial partners. They are tasked with boosting the club’s income. They have to communicate with fans, including liaising with supporter groups. They have to ensure operation activities are functioning right. They have to ensure the club abides to Football League governance rules. They have to speak to the local media. It is a wide-ranging role that involves knowing and working with a lot of different people from different backgrounds. And it is a job that is clearly very important.
Mason’s four years in this position have rarely been dull. It began with the extraordinary FA Cup run a few months after joining (Mason’s first game in the role was the First Round victory over Halifax, which helped to lay the platform for the unforgettable day at Chelsea). The Reading cup ticket fiasco was roundly blamed on Mason, and his reputation amongst fans took a huge hit. But he rode that storm and never hid from it. His popularity was restored in time. He reflected on the ticket controversy to WOAP in 2015, “A lot of people wrote letters and emails to us. We couldn’t get back to everyone but I did say to people come in, let’s sit down and I’ll explain what happened, and can I have your thoughts? 2-3 of them I would class as friends now. They email me with ideas and advice.”
After Rhodes took the eleventh-hour decision to sell season tickets for 2015/16 at just £149, Mason’s marketing drive saw 18,021 sign up – a record amount, beaten again in 2017/18, when 18,520 sales were made. Mason instigated season ticket roadshows, went on a major PR drive, and made better use of social media – the club’s Twitter followers has grown from 30k to 89k – to increase interest in the club. He also led the Upgrade the Parade campaign in 2015/16, which resulted in a new scoreboard and changing rooms – more than a £150k was raised to fund them.
Commercially, the club have brought in extra revenue streams during Mason’s tenure. From shorts and training kit sponsors, through to even laundry partners and an airport, these tie-ups have boosted income. The club now has a range of official partners and a recently established business membership scheme. It is an approach not unlike Manchester United’s commercial partner strategy that has helped to drive the Red Devils’ profits.
When Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp bought Bradford City from Lawn and Rhodes in 2016, Mason was kept on, and played an important role in helping Rahic settle in and implement his strategy and ideals. This was a crucial transition period, where Rahic would have valued this support. “If I could just help him to settle in, that’s my job,” Mason reflected to WOAP a year ago.
Mason became a part of the transfer committee approach, taking on a role of interviewing prospective signings about the ethos and culture of the club. As he put it last year, “My role is to make sure they understand what it is to be a Bradford City player, representing Bradfordians.”
During last summer’s uncertainty where it appeared Stuart McCall might leave as manager, Mason played a role in bringing everyone together to agree a truce. And when McCall was sacked in February, and after Rahic did not engage with the press or fans for several weeks, Mason was still there to front up on behalf of the club. At a time when communication was vital, Mason was the only key club employee truly attempting to engage with fans. That should not be underestimated or forgotten in a hurry.
Mason was largely popular amongst supporters. He was a strong communicator who would make time to go back to people with queries, and meet up with people who had complaints. He came across well on Twitter, before the new club policy of centralising communications meant he was no longer able to correspond independently. When I’ve observed him working behind the scenes, he appears to know and make time for everyone. City supporting friends who have had dealings with him always tell me how positive they found the experience.
In March I interviewed Mason for a new book I’m writing. He was characteristically enthusiastic about his devotion for the club, and articulate in expressing why it means so much to so many people. “We’re working class, we’re achievers, we’re underdogs, we’re believers, we’re gritty, we’re earthy. Even the Bantam, our emblem, suggests that we are of an aggressive fighting nature. We want to fight for our cause. Stand our ground. And we’ve had to do that since I’ve been supporting them. We’ve had to come back from adversity. Whether that be tragedy, whether it be financial obscurity and administration. And that probably reflects the city itself.
“I think we’re a humorous bunch, I really do. I think the gallows humour that surrounds Bradford City is really something that’s quite unique, and I enjoy it to some extent. Even through a tough run of form we always find something funny about our place in the pecking order. Winning and losing is important and it affects our mood, but having a club to support, having something that represents us as city, is why I think we’re unique.”
It is this type of understanding about the fabric of Bradford City that is very important is retained by those running the Bantams. No one man is ever bigger than the club, and life will naturally continue after Mason departs. But the value of what he has brought to the role needs to be recognised, as the hunt for a replacement presumably begins.
Having a Bradfordian at the heart of the club does not guarantee it will operate in a way that meets supporter expectations – nor does Rahic and Rupp’s heritage mean they don’t care in the same way – but it’s a very useful quality. When making key business and strategic decisions, the club needs to have a genuine appreciation of how fans will feel to steer the choices made. To have someone who has, to borrow the phrase, walked a mile in our shoes can reduce the risk of getting it wrong.
A deep comprehension of our history, positive relationships with the Bradford business community, and an ability to represent the club to fans are key qualities which will not be easy to replace. Losing Mason is a big blow to the club. Rahic and Rupp will hopefully reflect on the reasons for his impending departure, and the importance of finding a successor of the right calibre.
Perhaps there is still time to change Mason’s mind. Which is something that we supporters, and those who run the club, would do well to consider.