The world’s a strange place. Last week I wrote about Seattle Sounders and their mission to ensure every potential new fan could find an area in the stadium where he or she would find likeminded people.
If you know you’re going to be with people ‘just like you’, you’re more likely to press the ‘buy’ button and embrace a new world. If the ‘just like you’ goes as far as having the opportunity to share a game with people with shared origins in the north east of England, who all support the same Premier League club, who play in a local Seattleite amateur league, like to stand up and shout and have a penchant for craft ales, then you’re set for growth.
However, here in the UK, I get grief from people who think that the part of our work that encourages clubs to engage families (and nurture the next generation of fans) is, in fact, some huge social engineering project aimed at ridding the game of its traditional working class base and replacing it with day-tripping families from the most opulent and leafiest parts of Cheshire.
The fact is that football clubs, like every other organisation, have many different types of ‘customer’ (there goes another third of my readership) and the more we recognise the individual characteristics, idiosyncrasies and needs of these groups, the more we’ll grow the game.
The obstacle is our tendency (in the UK at least) to hold on to a brutally narrow view of the fan and one area where this does most damage is in the area of visiting supporters.
Richard Batho, until recently Head of Communications at Sheffield United (whose contribution at last year’s FSF Fans Weekend in London was warmly received), recently shared an observation when he and I were speaking to colleagues from SPL Clubs at a Family Experience seminar the other week.
He told those present that more season ticket holders of OTHER clubs were likely to visit next season than the total sum of their OWN season ticket holders. He wasn’t overlooking Rangers’ impending absence from the SPL, but offering a simple point. If you have 5,000 season ticket holders in a crowd of 8,000 and you get 300 away fans at every game, then in a 23 home-game season, for example, you’ll get nearly 2,000 more ‘one off’ visitors from other clubs than the number of your loyal home supporters.
It’s interesting to take Richard’s comments to the next step. Who is actually forming the national perception of your Club? Unless you’re an internationally known Top Six Sky TV ever-present, the likelihood is that your club’s ‘personality’ is, in actual fact, the accumulation of all of the reports ‘sent home’ by visiting supporters.
Change the perception of this group and not only do football’s recalcitrant stereotypes start to crumble, but the opportunity to grow and increase revenue streams increases exponentially.
In many ways the ‘away fan experience’ epitomises our enduring resistance to change. Because we’re doing battle on the pitch that means those coming to support the opposition are the enemy. Not only should we treat them with indifference and suspicion but to do any different would almost constitute ‘dereliction of duty’.
Going back to my ‘hang up’ on families, wouldn’t it be a shame if we’re creating the next generation of young supporters, only to have them restrict their travels in future seasons and gradually disengage with the ‘badge of honour’ that defines most travelling supporters?
What’s interesting is when you take some of those stereotypes and turn them on their heads. Clubs like Aston Villa, Brighton & Hove Albion and (my personal favourite change agents) Cardiff City have been at the forefront of change in the Premier League and Football League, while Matlock Town’s #affordablefriendlyfootball mission is presenting Northern Premier League football in an entirely different light.
Brighton’s innovative lighting of the visiting fans’ area according to the colours of the away team is creating affection, warmth (and sell outs), while Cardiff’s decision to feature DVDs of the visiting team on the TVs in the visiting fans’ concourse is also leading to surprisingly positive reports from a destination that once had the reputation of being the one of the least friendly in football. I understand that Villa have even brought staff in from visiting clubs in to serve their own fans in visiting areas of Villa Park.
The impact of these developments has been markedly positive. We hear of increased pre-match revenues (beer and other refreshments), fewer if any incidents of over-exuberant behaviour and atmospheres so unique, one Derby County even fan wrote a ‘thank you’ letter to Cardiff City (after his team lost 0-4). There’s even a permanent display of these letters in the visiting end in the Welsh Capital. There were 7 the last time I looked. Yes, from away fans who enjoyed their visit to Cardiff City so much they felt compelled to write a thank you letter.
The way Cardiff addressed this issue should give encouragement to others. They explored each visiting fan touch point with all of the key club representatives involved (including the Safety Advisory Committee, stewards, police, fans and those responsible for the away fan experience within the club itself), unravelled it and effectively rebuilt it, with the ultimate aim being to create real value for visiting fans.
So, once again, it looks like consultation and dialogue may be the key to solving this problem, as I don’t see many clubs actively engaging with visiting supporters to gather their feedback and to explore the way forward.
Mischief is conventionally attributed to visiting fans – and strategies devised to address this. Maybe the real opportunity for a bit of mischief is to turn convention on its head and start to treat away fans like people we’re pleased to see.