I’ll never forget the summer of 2011. Me, Ana and the kids toured the north east of the United States, taking in games at MLS clubs New York Red Bull and Philadelphia Union and getting the full baseball experience at New York Yankees, New York Mets and Boston Red Sox. We were there to experience the sports event USA-style.
Three years earlier we’d been to Chicago and fell in love with the Cubbies. I mean, what’s not to like for a Sunderland fan: they haven’t won a trophy since 1908 but have the most wonderful fans? Like we Mackems they take an existentialist approach to their devotion. The punishment is good for the soul. The defeats prepare you for life’s ups and downs.
Of course the pursuit of sporting glory is as important to fans over there as it is here. It doesn’t matter how unrealistic our hopes are, the irrational psychology of the loyal fan means that … we might just win 12 or our last 13 games and stay up! But even though the Cubs managed a win on our visit in 2008 and I think only the Mets and Philadelphia Union failed to win, from the games we attended, it was everything AROUND the games over there that stood out for me.
Take Philadelphia Union. As if the amazing view of the Delaware River and the Commodore Barry Bridge wasn’t enough, there were examples everywhere of a club who had placed ‘fan experience’ at the top of their agenda. Unlike the UK, the signs didn’t list the things that could get you arrested or endow you with a temporary banning order, their approach was balanced: we’ll do this for you, please do this for us.
The food was memorable. The friendliness of the match day workers stood out. Even the transport links to the stadium took every last bit of hassle out of the evening. The ‘Sons of Ben’ struck up a fabulous atmosphere & the match passed in a blink of the eye. The theme continued at the New Yankee Stadium, at Citi Field, at Fenway Park and the Red Bull Arena. The character of the clubs was different and each club transmitted its identity in each and every moment.
Coming back to the UK where many (men’s) football clubs were making real progress towards engaging better with their fans, I couldn’t help thinking about the things that were holding us back: the vestiges of a complacent, even arrogant, past; of knowing what’s best for fans; of taking the aggression associated with on-field success and allowing it to colour interactions with fans and being totally wedded to the idea that the only way to grow a club is to win (and if that doesn’t work, discount); of never asking fans for an opinion or engaging them in a dialogue aimed at growing the club and improving experiences.
Just a day after getting home from the States, in an appropriately dark mood, we turned up to our first FAWSL game at Sincil Bank, where Lincoln City Ladies (now Notts County Ladies) were entertaining Liverpool Ladies. The game wasn’t half bad (Sue Smith emerged as one of the best takers of a corner kick that I’ve ever seen) but the experience was DIFFERENT.
The glorious weather that day helped too, but it was the absence of malice, the friendliness of the volunteers there, the willingness of other fans to engage you in the craic and the sense that you were in at start of something new that really appealed.
I’ve been working in women’s football for several years now and this experience continues to repeat itself up and down the country. There’s a genuine infectiousness in the way clubs, season after season, strive to create fabulous experiences (often with little in the way of resource): Yeovil Town Ladies ‘In the company of champions’ initiative where local junior girls teams paraded around the pitch to show off their trophies before the game with London Bees; the hog roast the Birmingham City Ladies always offer; the efforts Everton Ladies put in to engage with local brownies and girl guides; Durham Women with their friendly and engaging volunteers or the way that Oxford United Women have made Abingdon FC such a friendly and entertaining afternoon out for kids.
And, of course, you don’t have to forlornly wait for a player to approach the touchline and offer an autograph. WSL players see that as an intrinsic part of the women’s game here in the UK. They will stay on the pitch at the end of the game and talk to you. If there’s a better way to build a fan base from scratch, I’ve yet to hear it.
I’m proud to support women’s football in the UK: whether with the FAWSL, the FAWPL or the national team, but that’s because it’s very easy to become attached to sports clubs that, in spite of the occasional challenges that colour sport, clearly want to reach out to people and show them something different.
Now that the new season’s fixtures are out, I’d urge you to give the game a go. It might save you the price of a flight to the States too.