The Rise of the Sub-Mariners

Mark Bradley


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. 

Most of us agree that football needs a reset. And while more effective solutions to sharing the game’s wealth and improving governance are needed, there is an opportunity to think differently about sustainability in 99% of clubs outside of the super-elite and that is the development of social relevance and its potential to generate revenues.

Identity has always been part of our Sustainable Growth model for, without it, existing fans only have the ‘thin and thin’ of the football to nourish their souls while potential fans interested in football see the experience as a fairly one-dimensional activity, devoid of much beyond the 90 minutes. 

Watching Arsenal’s predictable demise in the semi-final of the Europa League last night, I was struck by how little attention was paid to the victors: Villareal.  I suppose that with Freddie Ljungberg and Martin Keown on pundit duties, it was always going to be Gunners-themed.  But it would have been nice for some acknowledgement of the remarkable rise of a club from a town of 50,000 residents just outside Castellón, a city of 170,000 people with its own team CD Castellon, about to celebrate its centenary.

Villareal is known as ‘El Submarí Groguet’ (The Yellow Submarine) – in its native Valencian language – on account of its all-yellow kit. Founded a year after its neighbours in 1923, it mostly resided in the regional leagues until finally landing in La Liga in 1998; the underwater analogy serving the club well as it set about embarrassing the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona.  What Villareal has in spades is identity. It was pity BT Sport focused on the club that was seemingly devoid of one.

Another club ‘going under’ (if you’ll permit me to extend this sub-aqua metaphor further) is Grimsby Town. Its recent travails were summed up in their game at Exeter last week where they led 2-1 only to have a player sent off, to concede two late goals, lose and be relegated into the fifth tier of English football: not exactly 30,000 Leagues Beneath the Sea, but definitely a smaller fish in a bigger pond (enough of the liquid metaphors already – Ed.)

Like Villareal, these Mariners also have a huge identity. Ana had picked out Grimsby Town as the exception on those early travels on account of their strong maritime and fishing association, captured hilariously at the time by large inflatable haddocks that could bought from the club shop. We did exactly that. It slowly deflated over time, a bit like the hopes of any lower league football fan, but Mariners’ palimpsest is still visible beneath the layers of disappointment.

The club’s new owners are fans and from the area, so they understand that deeper layer of meaning that many traditional stewards ignore. The appointment of long-term supporter, Trust Chair and SLO, Kristine Green as a main board director is one of many positive immediate steps that they have taken. Another is the commitment to see the club as much more than a football team. As co-owner Andrew Pettit says:

‘There are ‘three ‘Ps behind our investment. Passion for the club we love. Philanthropy - giving back to a community that has been home to our families and pride – developing and growing the Mariners as a community asset which can be a significant catalyst for the regeneration of the area. We are also proud that Grimsby Town will be the first professional football club to seek certification as a B Corp, a governance structure that requires balance between social purpose and profit, requiring active consideration of the community, our employees and the environment, as well as shareholders.’

It is this final comment that I believe there is an opportunity to join a small band of clubs making remarkable progress on the basis of strong social relevance.  They have the identity and, through their social commitments, they have the platform to re-engage fans and the local community.  But I believe that they can go beyond that and create global advocacy, not just among the Cleethorpes diaspora, but also among people looking to align themselves to a sporting institution that actually stands for something meaningful.

When I wrote the Introduction to Fan Engagement study certificate for FC Barcelona’s Innovation Hub last year, three clubs featured heavily: Lewes FC, Forest Green Rovers and Dublin’s Bohemian FC. If you’re familiar with the Fan Experience Company, you’ll already know about the remarkable way these clubs are growing, but what I want you to focus on right now, is how well they are placed to become self-sustaining beyond football’s inevitable reset.

All three are based on strong community values. Lewes FC, as the first club anywhere in the world to pay its male and female players the same; Forest Green Rovers as the champions of environmentalism, veganism and sustainability and Bohemian FC, supporting the community of Phibsborough, North Dublin, through projects aimed at supporting refugees, the prison community and human rights (including supporting the recent women’s ‘right to choose’ referendum in Ireland). All three are seeing the emergence of ‘high quality fans’ (as Bohs’ Daniel Lambert puts it): people who love the football and who also ‘buy in’ to what the club stands for: spiritually and financially.

One specific way in which these clubs are prospering is in the support, both spiritual and financial, they’re receiving globally.  Thanks to natural interest from the international media in their stories and the reach of social media, there are Rovers, Rooks and Bohs fans all over the world now: following from a distance but, importantly, backing up their support with money: becoming owners, members and purchasing merchandise too.

Forest Green Rovers’ shirt is made of bamboo; Bohs’ third shirt this season fundraises for homelessness charities (via local indie sensations Fontaines DC) and Lewes’ shirts bear the name of the ‘Gambling with Lives’ charity.

There’s a sense that the struggle of smaller clubs resonates more authentically in this post-ESL world, but sympathy doesn’t pay the bills. When these clubs use their identities to make lives better, the world not only listens, but it reaches for its wallet too.

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© The Fan Experience Company 2020