Narva-Ending Story

Mark Bradley


Mark is a regular contributor in FC Business magazine. He set up The Fan Experience Company in 2005, and they now assess over 350 games each season in 13 countries. 

They say travel broadens the mind.

But if your travels involve fan experience assessments then I’m afraid they’ll broaden your waist too.

Having attended 20 Danish Superliga games since May and eaten nothing but sausages the size of a District Line tube carriage, my snake hips have become thick shake hips. 

Having said that, I’ve learned a lot too and when I think about New Year’s Resolutions my mind keeps returning to an Estonian town on the Russian border and a project that’s become very close to my heart.

Narva is the third largest city in Estonia. It has a population of around 60,000 and sits on the Narva River, around 120 miles east of the capital Tallinn, just a few miles south of the Baltic coast. Unlike Tallinn, Narva never really made it as a Hanseatic town and, given its geographical position, it’s experienced a lot of upheaval, to put it mildly. It was effectively razed to the ground in 1944 and its beautiful Baroque buildings replaced by flats.The weather’s not mild either, so the local football club JK Narva Trans (owned by transport business owner Nikolai Burdakov – hence the ‘Trans’) has more than its fair share of challenges. 

The Estonian ‘Premium Liiga’ season runs from March to November as things can get a little ‘Baltic’ up there over the winter. Clubs play on 4G pitches until May and then move to a grass surface for the remainder of the season (with some playing out their last few fixtures back on an artificial surface, as winter draws in). The first round of games this past season (scheduled for late February 2018) had to be postponed because it was minus 18.  That’s not something you can fix with a free cup of Bovril, is it? I’d be worrying about my breath freezing, forming a block of sausage-flavoured ice and putting nearby folk at risk of serious injury.

In fact, the only way they could complete the first round of fixtures was to play them indoors, giving fans a third venue to travel to – hardly the ideal formula for growing attendances.And then there are other more popular sports like basketball and futsal, both of which are played indoors. There are also popular Nordic sports like cross-country skiing. Motor sports also have a winter tyre-like grip on the public’s imagination too.

There’s also a long-established club focus on ‘sporting’ achievement to the detriment of any ‘off pitch’ audience development.  This had left Narva Trans, a club who regularly reach the qualifiers for the Europa League, with average attendances of around 100 in the first part of the season just past. Quite how they’ve lifted their average attendance to 400+ in the four months since deserves much more than a few words here, but it’s reinforced a few fundamentals about growing attendances and I think we could all learn from this small Estonian club.

First, the context: UEFA invests in growing football participation and attendance all over Europe. UEFA GROW is a central business development support programme designed to nurture football across Europe. It offers tailor-made consultation services to national associations: from helping to improve game’s image to increasing revenue opportunities and getting more people playing.

As part of this, the Estonian Premium Liiga participated in a pilot to evaluate a new approach focusing on community engagement, improving fan experiences and the introduction of the role of the Community Development Officer (CDO): an idea that had its origins in innovative work undertaken by Ireland’s FAI a decade ago.  So, this is how Narva Trans came to be one of three pilot clubs (and how my mind started to broaden).

" At the last game before the pilot, there were fewer than 70 people present. In the first game after the pilot 824 attended.  True, that was helped by the presence of the UEFA Super Cup Trophy but four months later, attendances have averaged out at 400+.. "

What do you look for in someone who is going to grow your club?

  • They have to be entrepreneurial as they’re going to build business connections
  • They’re also going to visiting schools, so they have to be good with kids and understand teachers’ needs.
  • They’re going to be doing a role no-one has done before, so they need to be ‘self-starters’.
  • They should be great in one-to-ones but also capable of taking the mic on a match day and being the ‘face’ of the club.
  • They need to be imaginative, creative and out-going (as they’ll be finding new ways to promote the club) as well as analytical and data-driven, as they’re going to be assiduously recording their activities, measuring success and determining the impact and influence of a range of variables, including weather, kick off times and team performance.It goes without saying that they also need a passion for football, but they’re going to need that rare left and right brain balance of logic and intuition to succeed.

Aleks Dmitrijev stepped forward. Aleks had run his own online furniture retail business, while also being volunteer match promoter for the local futsal team (whose crowds exceed Narva Trans’ attendances). Along with two more talented CDOs (Katrin at FC Flora Tallinn and Heiko at Tammeka Tartu), he came along to our workshop; made some immediate connections between the things the likes of Lewes FC, Durham Women, Middlesbrough, Doncaster Rovers, Stoke City, Sligo Rovers, Cork City, Brentford, Colchester United and many others were doing and the rest is history.

At the last game before the pilot, there were fewer than 70 people present. In the first game after the pilot (separated by the World Cup just over the border) 824 attended.  True, that was helped by the presence of the UEFA Super Cup Trophy Tour (where people could pose with the Champions League trophy, for example) but four months later, attendances have averaged out at 400+.

What did we learn?

First of all, you need focus. Someone needs to take responsibility for growth. If no one does, it doesn’t happen.

Next: your community work needs to drive up attendance. Clubs’ work is powerfully linked to addressing social issues, but less so to getting people down to the game (a missed opportunity I often see in the UK).  So Aleks designed a programme around road safety; took players and coaches into schools; provided music that kids love, dancing, fun and learning and distributed vouchers to the kids to come to a game so that they could receive their JK Narva Trans-branded safety reflectors on the pitch. 40% of those kids he’d met turned up.

Second you need to be different. Narva’s grassed stadium has a running track around it, so Aleks organised for a local Go Kart provider to bring some vehicles to the game, so that kids could spent the pre-match period speeding around the pitch. A woman brought her new hairdressing business to one match; set up a gazebo and provided trims for fans with both her and the club benefitting as a result. In the most memorable example of all, I turned up to a game in September, bought my ticket and found a picture of Ana and I on it. Yep, photos of fans regularly appear on the tickets. We’re all part of the Narva community.

The personal touch is vital. Aleks visited existing business contacts and cultivated new ones. Many were sceptical. ‘Narva will never increase attendances’ they would say. Then they’d turn up to a game.

A lot of what Narva does is unprecedented, but you can no longer say it’s ‘un-presidented’ as the news got out about this amazing story and Estonia President Kersti Kaljulaid turned up to a game (along with 521 other fans). The deputy mayor (a fan of the club) was an initial sceptic, but not after this.

Players are so important, but I bet none of you can name a current Narva player. True, Valery Karpin comes from this part of the world, but he hung his boots up some years ago. The one you may know (Dante Leverock: captain of the Bermudan National Team) has just left Narva for Sligo Rovers (whose approach to community engagement, incidentally, was a big influence on this work).

But kids don’t care if the players are super stars are not. They are their players and high fives; autograph sessions and new pre-match and post-match player / crowd interactive rituals soon flourished. The club’s captain has commented on the positive motivational impact this has for the players.

I love how Narva Trans captures what makes it different and shares this on social media; how it uses Facebook to share its outstanding school sessions and how it invites other schools and colleges to declare interest in the comments line should they wish to take part.

Aleks also assiduously records all activity, since if we’re going to give focus to attendance growth it can’t be a series of un-connected ad-hoc interventions. We need data.

So, we record the kick off times; the day of the week; the weather; the temperature; other competing events (cultural and sporting); school term time; the quality of the opposition; the team’s current performance – all of the things we can’t control.

But we also record the ‘controllables’ too: the number of school visits; the number of tickets issued; the number of business meetings; the number of promised Facebook ‘event’ attendees (Twitter is yet to take off in Estonia); radio and newspaper pieces and personal invitations, etc. We then record the outcomes.

Aleks informally collects feedback from people attending; he strives to understand why people don’t attend, separates out what he can influence and acts.

Football is a game of opinions, so here’s mine:

The reason many clubs struggle to grow attendances is because they don’t give it focus and they don’t have a plan.

I hope this little example from UEFA’s work in Estonia inspires a few of your New Year Resolutions for 2019.

Head uut aastat!

Originally published FC Business magazine at & re-printed with their permission

© The Fan Experience Company 2020