What Can We Learn About The Fan Experience From The World Cup?

Groucho Marx once said – probably not altogether seriously – ‘Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them, I have others’

I’ve realised that a similar thing applies to expectations. Or mine at least. They aren’t static but change as and when they need to.

Most of us had a wake-up call on Monday, when we awoke to the realisation that there wasn’t any more World Cup 2018 to look forward to, not at 4pm and/or 7pm that day, or indeed any other day. The long, glorious tournament that kept on giving, much like this long glorious summer we are still having, is now over.

And like this summer, as soon as the British weather remembers what it’s supposed to be like, we will miss it now it’s gone but then, it’s very easy to forget that it just wasn’t supposed to turn out like this at all.

Remember the health warnings that were commonplace as a precursor to this World Cup? If you travelled to Russia – especially if you were English – then you’d be treated badly, maybe even a victim of hooliganism. The locals would not, in other words, be welcoming. The costs were supposed to be extortionate with flight and hotel prices increasing tenfold. Counterfeit tickets would flood the market but you wouldn’t be able to get into the country anyway because of the Visa stipulations and the threat of racist and homophobic behaviour would always be there whatever. Well, at least that’s what they said.

The truth was very different. All the stories and experiences permeating from Russia were virtually the opposite. They told of welcoming, inquisitive and incredibly helpful locals in all the host cities. Visitors regaled tales of incredible generosity and camaraderie. Of a Russia that felt misunderstood by the West and wanted to put their side of the story across, and show the world what it was really like, especially outside of the capital, where some cities had been hidden from view for so long.

And fans loved it. Half of the South America population were there for the duration it seemed anyway, but English fans, like some from other European countries, joined the party a bit later (it became more or less a European Championship by then anyway) when they got wind of what they were missing.  A friend of mine, having made a Sunday-afternoon-Panama-pact to go out to watch us in the knockout stages if we got to the last eight, found a direct flight to Moscow for less than two-hundred and fifty quid and was offered a hotel room for free. Tickets were purchased on FIFA’s website. No issues with his Visa either – and his story confirmed everything else that I had heard elsewhere.

So, expectations can be well wide of the mark, as well as a moving feast.

It was certainly that way when it came football. I expected the higher-ranked nations to really step up, but so many fell by the wayside early; Germany in the group stage, Argentina and Spain before the end of the weekend in the first knockout stage. The hosts and England, of course, exceeded expectations, which all added to the fun but then that played fast and loose with my feelings too.

Prior to the tournament’s opening game, I’d have been happy for England to qualify from the group and avoid penalties in the first knockout match. But after last minute winners and five-goal first halves, plus a ‘lucky’ passage to the easier half of the draw and suddenly those expectations can alter as quickly as it took to bury the penalty curse of World Cups past.

After that, a quarter-final exit to a France, Germany or Brazil would have been acceptable – especially with a young squad and relatively inexperienced manager and so soon after the low that was Euro 2016 – but when it’s Sweden who stand in the way instead, you feel yourself wanting more. It was the same when we faced Croatia in the last-four; a tough game but one we could win and that represented our best chance of reaching a final since 1966.

It was why, after a night of ‘what ifs?’ it felt like a disappointment rather than heroic failure, but that’s what I mean about expectations; they keep shifting and the better things get, the more we expect. It’s why we went from fans whose team had last won a knockout game in 2006 to ones that were so sure that football was finally coming home

But this isn’t a surprise or new phenomenon. Quite simply, expectations change with the experience. When you go to Disneyworld for the first time, you are blown away by it, but if you go a next time, knowing what you know, it’s not quite as incredible or they have to work even harder to make it so.

Clubs who want to deliver a great match day experience face this dilemma. Do it once, and the expectation is set, and if you don’t repeat it every game then it looks like a backward step. One of the biggest challenges for clubs, and for any organisation for that matter, is consistency; anyone can get it right once or twice but how is this maintained and refreshed so that a great experience becomes the norm?

We can do worse that look at the previous five weeks and the football festival that had probably the lowest expectations of any World Cup as we approached it, but that is now being described as the best ever – by none other than the FIFA president himself – for lessons on improving the fan experience.

So, what has stood out? I’ve avoided the obvious, such as having brand new state-of-the-art venues, and looked at things that can work at any level.

Fan Zones

It sounds obvious now – after watching pictures of thousands of fans throwing beer into the air on balmy summer afternoons and evenings – but having a place for fans to congregate and enjoy themselves is a must, not just for a World Cup but for anywhere where so many like-minded people are going to be in one place. It doesn’t just minimise the potential for trouble elsewhere, but it creates fun, atmosphere and attracts people to the stadiums well before the first whistle. The NLF make great use of this, and many EFL and Premier League clubs are catching on too. If we don’t give fans an alternative, they will turn up at five to three and buy a pie at half time, but if we do then they will make more of a day of it and maybe want to bring their family too.

Players Engaging With Fans

How many times have we complained about footballers cocooned away in their own little bubble, headphones on and oblivious to the outside world including the paying supporter and impressionable younger fans? This World Cup, just taking England as an example, was memorable for players and fans engaging, with selfies after matches, players chatting to people in the stands, interviews that felt genuinely open and honest and a real connection between the highly paid professional and those that had travelled far and spent fortunes to watch them. I heard a story of Deli Ali spending ten minutes on the phone chatting to the no doubt wide-eyed son of a journalist out there following the team. It doesn’t need to be a World Cup for players to take a leaf out of this book and become one again with fans.

Volunteers

I heard many accounts of the fantastic hospitality and helpfulness evident at all the venues around Russia. The staff had to be trained brilliantly and deliver a great performance if it was to go well; that goes without saying. But the Russian football authorities will be the first to admit that none of it would have been possible without the huge number of volunteers (over 35,000) that joined a programme – similar to the ‘games maker’ one ran by LOCOG at the 2012 Olympics – to make the occasion so memorable, many being positioned at railway stations and airports ready to welcome and be the first point of contact for visiting fans. Again, this is on a big scale, but the lessons are transferable. Staff and especially volunteers are so crucial to the way clubs treat fans. Treat staff and volunteers well, and they’ll treat the fans even better.

VAR

‘They think it’s all over. The check is complete. It is now’ said no commentator. Ever. Until World Cup 2018 that is. VAR was not a complete success at the tournament, but it did make for one of the fairest World Cups and eliminated some of the glaring mistakes that officials simply can’t see in real time. But – and the EFL said this week that video-assistance for referees is still a ‘fair way off’ while the Premier League have decided not to use it this season at least – there are plenty of lessons that can be heeded in advance. Fans simply HAVE to know what is going on, and screens and clear communication are vital (as they do so well in cricket and both codes of rugby) if it is going to become a staple part of British football. If a paying supporter is shaking his head wondering what the hell is going on as the on-field referee puts his finger to his ear and draws imaginary circles in the air, then it’s not working as well as it could – especially if fans watching on TV, live streams or via social media do know.  If VAR is coming, we simply have to provide the best experience inside the stadium first.

Managers Being Open and Honest

It would be easy to go over the top about Sir Gareth Southgate, but his approach has been so refreshing that you wonder if any football manager will ever be the same again. My colleague, Mark, worked at Middlesbrough when he was manager there, so he’d already told me what a top guy he was, but his handling of the media, players and fans during the tournament has been nothing short of faultless. In a world where players only ever talk with their hands over their mouth, he has been a revelation. He’s built up the squad’s confidence, encouraged complete honesty (and demonstrated that himself), been self-deprecating and embraced what it all means to England fans; in Russia and back home. When we haven’t played well, he’s fronted up too.  And it’s endeared him to a nation – let’s not forget that on his appointment many turned up their noses – and got people supporting the national team once more.

Imagine if club managers, and clubs full-stop for that matter, showed the same kind of respect and genuine openness with their fans at all times. Again, rather than look at specifics, we can instead find learning in the wider context and Russia 2018 showed that you can really engage with fans, but you have to mean it, and know why you’re doing it.

We only get one of these every four years, so we have to make the most of it because the next one feels a long way off right now. But even if football didn’t quite make it home this time, the lessons from this World Cup can come back to these shores, be applied now and last for a long time.

 

The Fan Experience Company specialise in assessing and improving the match day experience for fans and work with associations, leagues and clubs across the UK and Europe. To find out how we can help contactmark@bradleyprojects.comordarren@bradleyprojects.com