For most of the clubs I know, maintaining or increasing attendances will be their biggest challenge in the season ahead. Achieving sporting glory will always be the ultimate objective, but most of us know that this is as likely as 6 numbers coming up on Saturday night. What matters is sustainability and I know, without any doubt whatsoever, that a club that builds engagement on shared values, delivers consistently positive experiences and acts with the supporter’s best interests at heart will thrive – regardless of how well it performs on the pitch.
Engagement based on short-term ‘miracle’ moments like Leicester City’s remarkable 2015/16 campaign is not sustainable, as it requires a consistently repeated level of performance to thrive. However, when you look at the way clubs, especially at this time of the year, position themselves with fans, ‘next season’ is always about ‘achievement’: pursuing goals ON the pitch. It’s never about getting closer to fans. I repeat ‘never’. Is it any wonder that many clubs struggle for sustainability when engagement is not even a strategic priority?
15 years of working in football has made it clear to me that discounting is no effective alternative path to sustainability. Price mustn’t be a barrier to fans, but it’s engagement that has a stronger influence on whether or not they return. Sure, winning will get them coming back too, but you can’t control that, can you?
In my more despairing moments of existentialist angst, I often wonder whether the solution to this is for clubs to simply lower supporter expectations. As a Sunderland fan, I think I’d warm to a strategy defined by terms like ‘scraping through’, ‘looking for the positives’ and ‘battling’. But I’m consoled by the knowledge that any club that follows my advice below can look forward with much more confidence.
Ultimately, your best way of sustainably growing attendances is to pursue supporter engagement, so here are my top ten tips for 2016/17:
1. Make Supporter Engagement a Priority
Most businesses, in my experience, treat customer service as a low priority. They may say it’s important, but customer value isn’t measured, senior officials don’t talk about it, it’s not a priority at meetings and, as is abundantly clear to anyone who works in the organisation, there are far more important priorities. There’s something of this in football clubs, where the defining culture is one of aggression, perhaps understandably when one considers the importance of achieving sporting glory.
However, when this culture of aggression infects supporter-facing parts of the club (ticket office, stewards, refreshments staff, etc.) then you have a problem and we continue to uncover horror stories from a range of sports where the customer appears to represent nothing more than an occupational hazard.
If you’re a CEO or senior official at the club, make it clear not just through what you say (but also what you do) that fans matter. Ask about feedback; include engagement on meeting agendas, base recognition around acts of kindness to fans and share performance stats with your people.
The leaders, of course, are key since they set the tone for the rest of the organisation. If my marketing director never shows any interest in ‘listening’ to the customer, then why should I do anything different? If it’s about the volume of calls over the quality, or the output over the process, then what else should we expect but poor outcomes? If, however, before a game, the CEO is out talking to supporters in the stadium vicinity, collecting feedback and encouraging discussion, then all of a sudden, the stewarding team is on its marks too.
2. Talk to Supporters
Most supporters believe that their clubs keep them at an arm’s length. Sometimes this is because of a feeling that ‘we can’t please anyone’ and often simply because it’s not been done before and you’re not sure how to do it.
So my recommendation would be to put in place a process for generating feedback, whether it be a simply ‘engagement’ hashtag, whereby you can collect common issues; a regular face-to-face supporter forum or a quantitative survey. Share the results widely (even if they’re critical); thank fans for input; tell fans what you’re doing with their feedback and make it a big moment when you implement a change fans have been calling for. In addition to generating useful improvement data, the simple presence of these processes will create more positive perceptions of your club.
3. Measure Supporter Engagement
What we measure defines us also. If all we measure is attendance, then we can only guess at what‘s driving that. However, if we’re on top of the factors influencing attendance, we’re naturally better placed to take remedial action. What is the reason for non-renewal of season tickets? What is the reason an irregular supporter has started to come more often? How strongly would supporters recommend the club to people who’ve not been to games before? How easy is it to deal with the club? How valued do you feel as a fan? Give me this data and I can build a sustainable club.
4. Recognise that the Make Up of your Fan Base is Changing
Let me ask you one question: does your club have a high profile female voice? Women and girls make up a growing segment of your fan base and yet remain under-represented in boardrooms, management teams and on a match day. When I speak to female supporters they see the impact of these antiquated attitudes translate into a variety of disappointments, from poor retail choices to enduring examples of ‘every day sexism’ but, most importantly, they see massive missed opportunities. Why not make 2016/17 the year when you convene your first female supporter panel?
5. Recognise Achievement
In the course of our many football trips most of the magic we see is off the pitch. Refreshments staff who see how much a young family has to carry and offer to take their purchases back to their seats for them; a steward who helps a little lad to obtain an autograph; the stewarding team at Adams Park at the recent England Women game (where the daughter of an acquaintance of mine had a seizure but who received remarkably swift and caring assistance). At Oklahoma Thunder, when club reps are observed doing the right thing, they are immediately rewarded by supervisors armed with tokens that can be exchanged for discounts at local stores or neat gifts. This particular approach might be too ‘American’ for some, but that’s no excuse for not finding ways to reward people for ‘doing the right thing’.
6. Make the most of your Supporter Liaison Officer
Although clubs range in size, resources and potential, they all have a Supporter Liaison Officer (SLO). To what extent is your SLO driving engagement? This is a particularly easy ‘open goal’ because the SLO is a fan – so he or she is more likely to understand how the club is perceived and where the gaps are. So are there opportunities for the SLO to take a more direct role in implementing change?
7. Walk in the Supporters’ Shoes
Every NBA chief executive is expected to undertake a personal ‘garage to garage’ assessment of his or her club’s game day experience. From planning attendance (website and social media) to travelling to the game; from parking up to enjoying the pre-game period and everything that happens once inside the arena, they have to experience it all personally. This is non-negotiable. Why? Because of the value it adds.
Here’s an example. Say, you’re delayed en route and need to find an alternative car park. Can you access this information browsing on a mobile or tablet? Club leaders are the people whose behaviours set the tone. Start doing this in 2016 / 17 and many benefits will accrue.
8. Be Different
When my wife Ana first attended games with me (as part of the Football League’s pilot prior to the 2007 launch of the Family Excellence Awards), I used to get excited about introducing her to the delights of whichever club we were at but she used to describe the experiences as ‘same song, different lyrics’. If she’d be an existing fan of the club, of course it would have meant something more, but as a new fan – and as someone exerting significant influence over the family’s leisure spend – she wasn’t being engaged.
All she felt was ‘sameness’ as we travelled around, when she was expecting something different. She assumed each club would loudly promote their USP. She was wrong.
This got me thinking about ‘identity’ because without that, new fans can only base their decision on where to go on the quality of football (by definition, the club furthest up the pyramid).
So what makes your club unique? Is it an aspect of the club’s history, the industrial heritage of the town, a local food item or a story? I recall AFC Telford United celebrating the local village of Dawley by resurrecting connected icons (Captain Webb, Fatty Foulkes, George Cadbury and the Pig on the Wall – don’t ask) and featuring them on that match day. Lewes FC does it through imaginative promotional posters and a match day experience aligned to something much more abstract than a simple game of football, but few others even consider this.
If you’re not going to be sweeping all before you on the pitch, then what’s making you different off it? Make 2016/17 the year you discover niche marketing.
9. Don’t Get Left Behind
I’m always suspicious of claims by the App Development industry that what they do represents ‘fan engagement’. Fan ‘entertainment’, I’d agree with, but what connects a fan to his or her club transcends the device in the hand. Having said that, however, the world is changing fast and clubs can’t afford to be left behind. More than 50% of people now browse on smart phones or tablets and yet expect to be able to find EVERYTHING THEY NEED THERE. YouTube is globally the most used medium. Kids have abandoned Facebook in favour of Instagram, Snapchat and Tinder (scary) and some clubs (like, most recently, Valencia) are forming E-Sports Squads. A connected club communicates more effectively, so how are you going to engage in 2016/17
10. Ask Why?
There are immense opportunities in our sport that cannot be addressed simply by succeeding on the pitch. We have the strongest, most emotionally compelling product the world has ever seen (where else do people ask for their ashes to be spread on company premises?) but we’re characterised by a damning distance between our clubs and supporters.
Add the fact that our supporters are much more able to articulate what clubs stand for than most club owners and you have a simple explanation for enduring disenchantment. Put it this way: how many businesses in the UK don’t even know their own brand values?
By asking yourself ‘why?’ and exploring the power of the football connection, you’re closer to uncovering the secrets of sustainable growth.
Let 2016/17 be the season where you perform the ‘reverse-Trump’: let’s take down the walls and build some bridges.