The English Football League (EFL) recently announced that, in the 10 years of its Family Excellence programme up to 2017/18, junior attendance increased across the 72 clubs by 37%. Not only were those six million extra kids very welcome, but the impact of the growth of this supporter segment made a telling contribution to the League achieving its largest aggregate attendance since 1959 (‘The Golden Age of Football’).
And yet, when I reference this in our blogs I’ll often receive a comment like that from a ‘Michael’ who signed off with ‘another idiot trying to sanitise football’ (well, we think you’re an idiot too, Michael). After all, this is football: one industry where it’s almost a requirement that you know nothing before opening your mouth.
But it still irks me that people fail to get the point of focusing on families. How did you get to attend your first game? Did your Mum or Dad take you? In my case, it was my Dad and my Uncle who took me down to Roker Park in a Ford Capri in October 1969 to watch Sunderland fail to get a shot on target, draw 0-0 with Chelsea and, ultimately, get relegated at the end of that season. Plus ça change.
But it was an escape with my Dad. We didn’t get to many games a season after that (a combination of economic and travel factors) but that only made those rare trips all the more special. Dad (also called Michael – maybe he’s the one posting the abusive comments, since I can imagine that our recent capitulations might have pushed him over the edge) is 84 this year.
I think of him when I think of Sunderland and when I think of Sunderland I see him. And when we did a fan survey for Sunderland in 2011 and asked fans what associations they made when they thought about their club, ‘family’ was the most commonly-occurring answer.
Back in 1969, going to your first game with your Dad was as much a rite of passage as it is now. But I think we’d all accept that there were fewer competing distractions back in the summer of ’69. We all loved football and nothing else. To my knowledge, only Bryan Adams opted for the guitar over the soccer ball, back then. Arf.
Now, there are a multitude of options for kids: with the balance shifting to virtual activities and entertainment. If kids do leave their rooms, they’re much more likely to be welcomed with open arms at nascent, growth-focused sports like ice hockey or netball. Football still tends to assume that the bloodline follows automatically and needs no curation, support or pro-activity.
Then there are those (like me) who, having left the area where I was brought up, went to University, lived and worked abroad and then settled in parts of the country out of easy reach of the Theatre of Comedy (The Stadium of Light). We still love our clubs deeply but getting a ‘pass out’ to attend matches becomes more and more difficult. Picture the situation. How does a fan make a case to start attending matches again?
When my son was 8 and daughter 5 I thought about my argument very carefully, starting with the irresistible suggestion that Ana could have a weekend in the North East while I looked after the kids (by taking them to see Sunderland).
Her suspicions aroused, the debate gets heavy. ‘That’s a 200-mile return trip’ she responds. ‘A lot of petrol.’
I counter with (the admittedly weak) ‘but it’ll be great.’
‘Will there be anything to do before the game?
Will the tickets be affordable?
Will there by anywhere they can go if they get cold and if (if?) they get bored?
Will the stewards be friendly?
Will there be really imaginative food choices for the kids?
Will they meet a player?
Will they get a picture with the mascot?
Will we be able to park at the stadium and how much will it cost?’
As I struggled to find a positive answer to any of those questions, she hit me with a coup de grâce: ‘And what about all the abusive language and anti-social behaviour?’
‘Well’ I replied, after some consideration, ‘We won’t stay with my parents.’
Joking apart, you can see that attracting the next generation of kids isn’t as easy as some clubs think it’s cracked up to be. But then there’s the positive side and it’s this that convinces me that now is exactly the right time to be creating family recruitment strategies.
Family time is ever more precious these days. Parents, carers and kids cherish the time they have together with many of those longing for opportunities to spend more time together (rather than shouting ‘dinner’s ready’ up the stairs and hoping for a grunt in response).
And when you ask families in their early stages of attending their local club, what represents a good experience for them, very few (if any) will include the quality of football, winning or trophies in their Top 5 requirements. Cardiff City, probably the first club in the UK to really ‘get’ this connection, spotted that reality early doors, just after moving to their new stadium. In the 4 years that followed, by looking at the wider experience, from getting the right info onto the club’s website, helping with travel advice and focusing on everything either side of the 90 minutes, they were able to increase family season ticket holders from 459 to over 7,000 (without winning anything).
A lot of what they did happened in the concourse, with entertainment, activities, better food choices, player appearances, basketball, arts and crafts and mascot photo opportunities all combining to create a compelling family offer. Best of all back then was the time they calibrated the automated turnstile to recognise those kids whose birthday fell on the same weekend, allowing them to surprise them by, for example, inviting them to sit in the dugout and watch the players up close during the warm up.
These are magic memories, just like those of the young Bristol City supporters back then, who’d be presented with a ‘cap’ on the pitch, pre-match, to celebrate attending their first game. One blog couldn’t now do justice to the heart-warming and inspiring innovation up and down the League.
The League itself played a crucial part too, in ensuring the focus was maintained by introducing and sustaining (11 years and counting now) the Family Excellence programme, whereby clubs receive recognition for their family innovation together with other support, seminars, best practice, benchmarking and publicity for clubs’ successes.
Families are a comparatively easy supporter segment to engage and provide for. The results in England are a testament to that.
But it requires focus too. Just how are you going to ensure that the youngest kids are able to attend without being exposed to the more unedifying aspects of the experience? Family zones are important in this regard. But, at the same time, if we keep the kids on Xboxes in the concourse (and they don’t come out to see the game), how are they going to make the connection with the players and, by definition, the club? These all require focus (and there are exemplar clubs out there who can show you how to do this).
Get that part wrong and you may get ‘angry Michael’ abusing you online. Get it right though, and you do football a kindness.
Every kid that rushes up those concourse steps to take in their first view of the miracle of green before them; every ageing supporter whose footballing memories sparkle with detail & every parent who no longer has to make a business case to take their kids to the footie: isn’t that something worth planning for?
The EFL Family Excellence programme debuted in the 2007/08 season and has continued ever since. If you’re interested in growing your family segment, get in touch via either email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org