HOW CLUBS CAN SURVIVE & THRIVE post-COVID
Mark and Darren work all over Europe helping associations, leagues and clubs to understand and improve fan engagement and their match day experience.
The Fan Experience Company was founded in 2005, and in 2019/20 they oversaw the assessment of over 350 games each season in 13 countries.
Who’d want to own a football club right now?
Well, probably most people if that club was in the Premier League. But what about if that club wasn’t part of the elite; wasn’t one of those clubs that can withstand the financial pressures more than most because they have many more income streams available – including mammoth broadcasting deals? What about those clubs depending almost entirely on ticket sales and match day spending?
With the news that Britain’s economy is likely to suffer the worst damage from the Covid-19 crisis of any country in the developed world, the squeeze on leisure spend will add another challenge to those already being met by clubs outside of the elite bracket.
As the cost of testing and meeting other Covid-19 protocols increases football’s woes at exactly the time when ticket revenue has stopped, it’s now time to think differently about the ways to encourage people to attend games and spend money at clubs.
And they might have to think quickly too. If, as is predicted, clubs begin to take a phased approach to re-introducing fans to stadiums (as we have seen in Denmark’s Superliga, where between 27% & 47% of fans were allowed into games at different clubs this week) then it is likely that those deemed most loyal – i.e. season ticket holders – will occupy those first available seats in the not too distant future.
But will just being inside the stadium be enough? Will clubs fall back on the assumption that season ticket holders – and other regulars – will just be glad to be there, or are they missing an opportunity to secure even stronger loyalty by adding extra value? And if they do, could this added value help to introduce more new fans to the club? Both in the short term (and that might be more about awareness than actual attendance) and longer term when fans are allowed back onto stadiums without any restrictions.
While we do not yet know the imminent Covid-19 protocols in detail, it is likely that clubs will wish to minimise risks such as queuing at entry points, refreshments points, merchandise outlets and toilets. To an extent, social distancing may be part of the solution, but wouldn’t it also make sense to offer those fans a chance, for example, to pre-purchase drinks and snacks and to have them brought to their seats? This has been introduced already by some more progressive clubs but it’s an initiative that comes with extra usefulness right now.
The small Estonian club Viljandi Tulevik (famous for being where Ragnar Klavan began his career) will be opening to fans on 8 July and they will be introducing such a system, as they believe it will make a huge difference to queues (their biggest Covid-19 challenge).
So, let’s step forward to the time, hopefully sometime in the first part of next season when infection rates allow it, when fans can return to stadiums. How do we lift attendances (and associated match day spending) to mitigate the financial impact of Covid-19 and to ensure clubs survive and thrive beyond this pandemic?
Two things should ideally happen. First, clubs need to emphasise their identity and purpose more. What do they represent to their community? What do they stand for? What do they give back to those communities? If you can answer these questions without a second thought, opportunities will immediately present themselves.
We have commented previously on the fact that – in our experience – fans know a lot more about clubs’ intrinsic values than owners do. We also know that fan-owned clubs find values-led growth easier to pursue than commercially owned ones.
Dublin’s oldest club, Bohemians, has undergone a remarkable transformation from 2014 when they experienced negative external perceptions, small crowds and little or no community or commercial partner interest. This changed when the fan-owned club began to plan a future based on values and community integration.
The club’s proud black and red now adorns Dalymount Park in the form of graffiti. This is not unwanted vandalism, but the result of local graffiti artists whose work is tuned in to the club’s values, which include inclusion (inc. the embracing of refugees and support for the LGBT community) and supporting everything local (with pies and beer made less than a mile from the sacred ground).
Needless to say, the club has seen its fortunes off the pitch transformed with positive national and international awareness (with the latter evident in the club’s ability to generate over €100,000 in merchandise revenue during the first two months of the lockdown); full stadia every game; the highest number of season ticket holders and members in 30 years and a 450% increase in commercial income since starting down this path.
It’s easy to link growth with a winning team, so it’s worth pointing out that all of the above was achieved in spite of a lack of success on the field. The team haven’t won any leagues or cups recently, but luckily for them, Dan Lambert (their Marketing Manager) told us when recording a recent podcast [available 7 July 2020] that they estimate that winning games accounts for only around 5% of fan engagement and their experience at matches.
But what about the smaller clubs that don’t have an existing fanbase, or not a large one anyway? They don’t come much smaller than Nene Valley Community Centre, yet this is our favourite example of a football facility – they are in Peterborough – that has focused so much on its local people’s needs that it has become a Community Hub rather than just a place to play football. It has much to commend it, from the prominence of top brand gins behind its bar (a departure from a range dictated by the demands of men) to the Mum’s Clubs it runs on weekdays.
But what we love best is what it has done with its changing rooms. As they are not used daily, the Centre hires them out for community use with the local NHS their No.1 customer, currently block booking numbers that alone keep the centre sustainable.
There are common themes here: thinking about fans as customers with needs, expectations and the power to recommend; not just having values but acting on them and not just expecting the community to support you without first showing them the social value you bring as a club.
The second part of the equation is the fan’s experience. With less disposable income, all fans (including season ticket holders) will have to make difficult decisions if bills are to be paid. Those who attend from time to time may be those under greatest pressure to drop the odd game or more. Add to this the potential loss of those fans – existing or new – who are over 70 and feel that the risk is too great, or those with existing health conditions that won’t really have much of a choice, at least in the immediate future.
The fans that do go to games will expect more for their money too. This was, again, a factor before COVID but its relevance will have grown because of it. Value will be a higher factor for fans. At all levels of the game, even in the Championship and some Premier League grounds, clubs will have to make match day attendance more compelling for all the various fan groups. Expanding the experience beyond the 90 minutes is going to become more crucial than ever – and if Bohemians are right, and winning is only a small part of it – then there will be growing emphasis on clubs and staff to provide something memorable, captivating and of concrete social value ‘off the pitch’ if they want fans to keep coming back.
Even away fans, whose money (minus a small commission to the travelling club) goes into the accounts of the host club, will be picking and choosing the clubs that offer the greatest experience and have a reputation for being a great day out.
We believe clubs can do that, with little or no cost, by considering the needs of the different groups in the local community and adapting the experience to diversify their reach. Be it families, where factors such as information, shelter, dedicated seating / standing areas and fun and magic for kids or people new to the community looking for something more than just 90 minutes of football, improving the fan experience is no longer an option or an agenda point that is continuously postponed to the next meeting – it’s now a key priority.
The clubs outside of the elite who will thrive, will be those who see their match day schedule as a series of opportunities to bring the community, including their existing fans and people they haven’t yet been able to reach, together and to find ways to support it. They’ll focus – starting at the top – on the fan first and be committed to meeting their needs.
Those that don’t may find they’re very quickly playing the old familiar game of survival.
© The Fan Experience Company 2020