‘Granddad, Tell Me What It Was Like To Go To The Match.’
Mark works 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.
OK, I know. The ‘beautiful game’ that was born in England nearly 200 years ago isn’t going to go quietly, but unless non-elite levels of football get a handle on engagement in the age of Covid19, we might start to see a two-tier football world in the not-too-distant future.
On the one hand, there’d be some great big shiny European Super League whose games you watch on TV (and to which your club isn’t invited). On the other, there’d be your local grassroots football club: an all-round easy and convenient experience, run by volunteers for the community’s benefit and with no silly alcohol restrictions nor the threat of a banning order for walking on to the pitch at the end of the game to chat to the keeper or to retrieve your kid’s football.
A perfect storm is brewing. The financial rectitude that Covid19 has provoked has left clubs needing to boost income just when the new unemployed (among the global 1.5 billion people estimated by the UN to have lost their income due to the pandemic) haven’t the money to pay.
The medical emergency, albeit declining due to rapid community vaccination, will leave many with misgivings about attending. Those elderly or in poor health may eschew community gatherings in favour of safe isolation and a warm sofa.
We may not see the concept of away fans return for quite some time until we reach continental herd immunity. Even those clubs challenging for glory will miss the colour and frenzy of the midweek European game if there are no away fans. Add this to a biosecure experience for home supporters and you’ve a cocktail for falling attendances at every level. As my friend Jim says, ‘I’m not coming back until I can hug a complete stranger in the away end after we fluke a 2-3 win in injury time.’ He has a point.
There are those who have lost the habit. If the hiatus had been for a few months, the desire would no doubt remain, but when you’ve gone 18 months without attending a game, you’re likely to have picked up a new habit, be it going for walks with your friends and family, adopting a new hobby or (portentous drumroll) preferring to watch football on TV in the comfort of your own home. The service that was designed to help you watch your team when you couldn’t make it to the stadium has become the reason you’re not going back.
So, let’s think about the positives. What about those who’ve never missed a game and who look forward to sitting among lifelong friends, many of whom they only know from the football. Some may have been lost to this appalling virus, but others will be there. Yep, you’ve guessed it. How do you tell them that, due to social distancing, they won’t be able to sit in the same seat?
There are also those like my friend who, when extracting hot water out of the taps in his club’s stadium toilets for the first time in 30 years, stopped briefly to acknowledge the irrationality of football fan loyalty. ‘I nearly cried’ he told me.
There was a time when the unspoken mantra among football club owners was ‘this doesn’t matter. They come for the football. They don’t mind.’ They might mind now.
For those joining any future elite super league, match day ticket revenue will be but a minor trifle (excepting huge corporate hospitality income, of course, where the trifle might be deconstructed) with games kicking off to suit fan bases in Anchorage, Ushuaia and Dunedin. There’s one European Club now with a debt of more than £1 billion. Why wouldn’t they vote for a solution that doubles and triples income and control?
Grassroots football hasn’t stood still either. There’s a wave of clubs with strong identities that you can easily fall for: the diversity of Dulwich Hamlet, the social justice of Clapton, the equality of Lewes, the fabulous beer at Prescot Cables and the art deco pavilion at Enfield Town.
For non-elite professional clubs, this uncertainty can go one of two ways. The perils of ignoring the likely seismic shift in fan attendance attitudes could signal the slow death of the traditional match day.
Or as is the case with our progressive clubs, there’s a better plan. We openly acknowledge the uncertainty; we listen closely to our community of supporters and we work with them to understand how we can minimise the discomfort and remind them what they’re missing.
Hopefully Granddad won’t be the last in the family line to come home grumbling about our useless left back.
© The Fan Experience Company 2020