At first, putting together an article on the fans’ journey seemed so easy.
That was until I started to think about it. For a start, where does the journey begin and end, if it ever does? Is it primarily about the way we get to a football match, the whole match day experience or the wider experience of being a fan on a journey with a club?
For the sake of simplicity, and to keep this under a thousand words, I’ll stick to the middle one as the first one is just logistics (and covered by the second one anyway) and the third one I’ll leave for a more existential piece and another time.
The match day experience is complicated enough as it is.
Mainly because the match day experience starts well before the actual ‘day’ and ends well after it too. And there is far more to it than a ‘bum on a seat’ and a ‘pie and Bovril’ at half time. Let me explain.
As you know, we live in a different world to the one where fans turned up in droves, stood on terraces and waved scarves or rattles above their head before disappearing at the final whistle. It was an easier time, granted, for clubs and the tribal and near-religious approach to supporting a club.
The passion is still there, but back to the real world, we have social media now, as well as the world-wide-web and countless other activities that could occupy the minds and take the money of today’s would-be football supporters. The good news is that there are far more families, women and girls wanting to attend matches but that just adds to the complications.
I’ll actually start there. Let’s take the average Mum, shall we? She wants to go to a football match and she wants to take her children too. Great, that’s a fair bit of income coming the chosen club’s way but they’ve got to work for it and this is why the fan’s journey is so important.
Is Mum going to be happy to turn up five minutes before kick-off, having had a quick pint, and then get a Chicken Balti pie for everyone before the second half starts while chatting with her mates and shouting abuse at anyone who dares to support the other team?
She is going to have a whole set of other things on her mind and these will need to be addressed and make her comfortable, many of them long before the day of the actual game comes around.
A lot of this will take the form of research and questions that the web will answer. How much does it cost? Can you get tickets on the day or do you need to buy in advance? Is there parking and how far away? What kind of food do they serve? Is it healthy? Does it contain nuts? What condition will the toilets be in? Will there be any aggro? Will there be bad language?
The club website is going to have to take up a lot of the slack here because, unless it covers quite a few of these questions, and covers them positively, the whole thing will be a non-starter.
But let’s say it does; the rest she is going to have to experience for herself on the day. Such as getting to the ground – are there directions, maps, sat nav coordinates? – and parking, getting through the turnstiles and into the concourse. Will there be anything to do other than watch the match? Will the kids get bored? Is there pre-match and half -time entertainment?
This where the match day staff get their chance to shine and they alone will make the difference between a great supporter experience and a not-so-great one.
Will they make Mum and her family feel welcome and valued? Will they smile, engage and help? Will they notice potential problems and proactively sort them before they turn into a real issue?
Will they make sure the club fulfils its promise – and duty – to make it a safe, enjoyable experience? Will they make sure it’s like that if the fans visit the club shop, take part in any activities or simply choose to sit in their seats the whole time?
And when they are safely out of the stadium and back at home, it doesn’t end there. Will the club stay in touch? Tell them about future games? Ask for and act on their feedback?
It’s a lot to consider but they all form part of the journey that the fan makes.
And you know what? Mum isn’t the only one. Any new fan, any parent of a prospective new fan, some away fans, disabled fans, fans from non-traditional demographics and maybe even a few core fans (although they won’t admit it) would like these things too.
How many of these factors does the club have control over? Nearly all of them.
They can’t do much about the weather and unless they are the manager, they can’t do too much about what happens ‘once the players cross the white line’ either but here’s the best bit. Mum and her family are less worried about the result. They’d like to see their team win but they won’t kick anyone’s head in if they don’t.
So, they are great people to attract to the beautiful game. But will they stay in it?
Fans, particularly a family of four for instance, will invest a lot of money in this experience. How the journey feels – from beginning to end – will almost entirely influence the likelihood of them coming back in future: maybe even becoming a core fan.
So, a final question. How many clubs have mapped the journey their fans make?
I already know from experience that it won’t be many.
Yet the rewards are obvious and numerous. Or they should be anyway.
Fans who have a great experience will always come back. They’ll feel part of the club. They’ll tell (maybe even bring) friends and family. They will begin to love the club beyond what it does on the pitch. They’ll be more accepting of defeats – which are inevitable in football– and they will begin supporting the club not just when they are winning but in all kinds of ways. On match days and other days too.
And it works the other way too. Find me one club where the relationship between the supporters and the club is terrible, yet they are incredibly successful on the pitch.
The Fan Experience Company specialise in mapping the fan journey, as we do in assessing and improving the match day experience for clubs, leagues and associations.