For more than 30 years now, the most sustainable and profitable organisations have led a customer-driven path. Designing their organisations around their customers’ needs and basing their growth strategies on adding value, they’ve ridden out the fallow years, soared when others have slumped and consistently attracted and retained the best people out there.

The potential of this leadership approach in football has fascinated me since I first moved from Service Excellence consultancy and customer service travelogue writing into the football business in 2001. For, after all, the only thing that differentiates football from other businesses is the massive emotional power of its ‘product’. It should be a doddle.

What we’ve learned in the intervening 17 years is that if you design a club around the strategies that have driven forward every successful business in other sectors, you’ll have that most elusive of rewards in your hand: a sustainable football club whose growth depends not on what happens on the pitch, but on its loyalty to more enduring and meaningful principles.

Fan Engagement Leadership, however, is still largely notable by its absence. Without leadership, of course, nothing happens. What leaders espouse will influence the focus of those around them. What leaders measure (we know) gets done and what leaders reward, is replicated. And yet in football, fan engagement still fails to have the focus it needs to be effective and to be part of the culture.

This needs fixing, so here is our guide to Fan Engagement Leadership.

Businesses in sectors other than sport who develop a competitive advantage (and are most likely be able to ride out difficult economic periods) do so largely as a result of 4 factors:

Leadership & Values: having strong principles that are apparent in the decisions they make; the priorities they give their employees and the experiences enjoyed by customers

Understanding Customers: prioritising feedback and dialogue to the extent that they understand what matters most to different customer groups and are able to pinpoint what elements of the experience / product / service drive advocacy and repurchase intention with each group

Customer Experience: using innovation and feedback to ensure that every touch point delivers hassle-free, added value to customers & ensuring that service recovery (complaints & problems-solving) drives continuous improvement

Employee Engagement: Creating a working environment where people look forward to giving ‘extra’ at work because they are encouraged, motivated, supported and recognised

In spectator sports like football and rugby, we see these principles eschewed in favour of strategies such as basing future growth on ‘either winning or discounting’. And yet, when you consider the emotional power of the sporting connection between a supporter and his or her team, it is unsurprising that many clubs are now developing sustainable growth strategies.

‘There is no such thing as the typical Middlesbrough fan’ said Mark Ellis, Chief Operating Officer at a recently-relegated football club that has worked hard to understand the needs of different groups.

They, like many other clubs, have discovered that one particular group – families – are less reliant on a winning team than on other factors when stating what they need from a match day experience. This means that clubs can ‘control’ the experience for them, with safe, enjoyable family zones, added activities, entertainment and services and, more than anything else, friendly pro-active match day staff and volunteers.  Middlesbrough always sell out their 4,200+ Generation Red Family Zone while Cardiff City achieved an astonishing increase in family season ticket holders from 459 to 7,200 in four seasons (a period when the club won nothing on the pitch).

Taking a similar approach to other sports fan audience segments can reap similar rewards and while a poor streak on the pitch will always lead to understandable dissatisfaction, keeping the lines of dialogue open, ensuring fans have a say and creating good value experiences at the match, will drive up engagement; increase or sustain attendances and deliver other benefits, such as the following:

  • Fans who become more understanding (and therefore more forgiving) of club decisions
  • Fans who become more likely to take up new club / league offers
  • Fans who become more likely to share constructive feedback with clubs
  • Fans who become more likely to respond to requests for input / feedback
  • Fans talking positively and proudly about the club on social media

In 17 years of working in spectator sports in the UK, we have contributed to some remarkable results (including a 37% increase in junior attendance across the EFL in 10 seasons, leading to the highest aggregate overall attendances since 1959) as well as specific increases in attendances at specific clubs.

So, in order to create the conditions for sustainable growth, we know that sports leaders need to address the following:

Identity & Meaning

Focus on what makes the club ‘special’, explore and agree what the club’s natural values are.  Although all fans want to see a winning team, very few leaders can continuously deliver that. However, the deeper connections will always endure. What a grandfather passes down to a granddaughter continues, regardless of how poorly the team performs. A club that only focuses on winning (to the exclusion of what other things might matter to fans) may see short term increases in support, but that tends to be fickle and, history shows, they will be the first to abandon ship when the club really needs them.


The best way to explore the connections that transcend what happens on the pitch is to work closely with the local community of supporters. Start with informal discussions and then start to add structure to the dialogue. Make it clear what is ‘below the waterline’ (i.e. discussion topics ‘off the agenda’ – specific size of budget for new players, etc.) and focus on meaningful areas like what might matter most to the different fan groups and how best to represent the fan’s voice inside the club.

If working with social media, why not encourage engagement, respond to posts and ask for feedback? Most clubs we see just ‘put out’ and don’t ‘receive’: an attitude that undermines any sense that’ we’re all in this together’.  There are many quick wins to be had here, including getting fans to agree on what represents ‘loyalty’ (so you can reward it with ‘money can’t buy’ experiences) and establishing voices for under-represented groups such as women, fans who travel to away games and disabled supporters (which would signal intent & create much positive PR as well).

Execution & Experience

Explore the different ‘journeys’ your fans make, understand what they need from the different ‘touch points’ and make it easy for fans to give feedback on their experiences.  Look to segment your stadium according to the needs of different groups and benefit by having families together in less ‘boisterous’ areas while core fans can bring a concentration of colour, noise and passion in other parts.

Explore the commercial and community partnerships that spring naturally from such concepts. Finally, consider the following ‘touch points’, learn from best practice (i.e. us) and seek out opportunities to deliver an experience that is hassle-free, well executed and value-added, since there’s a capacity for magic in sport that is unparalleled in all other businesses:

  • First Impressions (website, ticket purchase & finding information)
  • Social Media
  • Travel (especially ‘the last mile’)
  • Stadium Vicinity (everything that happens prior to entry, including signage, fan zones, activities, entertainment, etc.)
  • Retail & Merchandise
  • Refreshments
  • Inside the Stadium (everything that happens once through the turnstile, including PA, facilities, view, comfort, toilets, atmosphere, mascots, signage, etc.)

Undertaking regular assessments of the experience (we recommend that you combine professional assessments with ‘real fan’ snapshot reports) will provide useful data and keep the focus high until it becomes part of the ‘way you do things’ at your club: part of your culture.

Match Day People: Ensure your match day people (staff and volunteers) are not only prepared with the correct information and able to perform their duties, but that they are supported, encouraged, motivated and rewarded to place the fan first: to seek out opportunities to pro-actively engage with supporters and to create moments of magic. ‘Training’ alone hasn’t worked. Match day people need a purpose purer than simply leaning against a wall waiting for an infringement.

If consistently prioritised by leaders, these four strategic components will deliver a new focus on engagement and sustainability as well as any number of business benefits.  Add a regular survey, asking how valued fans feel (and why they say that) will ensure that your resources are effectively targeted and give you an overall KPI of progress.

Many sports leaders don’t get it when it comes to ‘success’ in sport. They embark on ‘re-brands’ (which are only ever going to be successful if a majority of stakeholders are pressing you to do it) and, unlike every other successful business on the planet, they’re often completely ignorant of their sports club’s natural values (when, conversely, all of their ‘customers’ are completely familiar with them).

Those adopting Fan Engagement Leadership will not only deliver increasing sustainability for their clubs, but they will also soften external perceptions, strengthen supporter relationships and grow the beautiful game in their part of the world.

If you’re a leader at a football club (or indeed any sporting organisation), you should be asking yourself: ‘why aren’t we doing this already?’

But if you aren’t and you’d like a leg up, drop us a line to either darren@bradleyprojects.com or mark@bradleyprojects.com