Don’t Wait For A Fairytale Of New York To Find New Fans

Darren Young


Darren has been a part of The Fan  Experience Company since 2017.

He has a background in working on customer service excellence projects in the UK and Europe, and an MBA that included studying in the USA . 

On Sunday evening, as Emma Radacanu (who, let’s face it, virtually none of us had even heard of before the summer) was being led by two surly ‘protectors’ towards the box where she was able to celebrate her – massive understatement alert! – incredible US Open victory, the LTA must have been feeling pretty pleased with itself. Talk about reflective glory.

One of theirs – an eighteen year-old – had just done something that usurped Sir Andy Murray, Virginia Wade and possibly even Fred Perry when it comes to British tennis, heck tennis full stop. In terms of British sport, it’s almost unrivalled there too.

Comparisons are extremely difficult to make. Similar feats are hard to dream up; in football, think Torquay United winning the FA Cup while still in the fifth tier, or one that really happened in Nottingham Forest winning the top league a season after getting promoted to it, then the European Cup for two years after that. But that was more than forty years ago (only slightly more recently than the last time a British woman won a major in tennis) so you sense that Radacanu’s achievement is one of those once in a generation, or possibly even a lifetime, events.

For the LTA and especially women’s tennis, it is – and excuse the reference in these vaccine dominated times – a major shot in the arm. As three-time Grand Slam winner, Sir Andy said himself, it was ‘very special’ and represents a ‘huge opportunity” to attract more people to the sport – participants and spectators.

By becoming the first qualifier in history to claim a major, and with a world ranking in the mid-300s just a few months earlier, it also represents one of those ‘anyone can do it’ feelings that should inspire young players everywhere. They have to be able to play tennis, of course, or whatever sport they are involved in, but you get the point. Nothing is off the table if you want it badly enough, put the work in, don’t get too big for your boots and, if possible, do it all with a lovely smile.

Murray went on to say that it was a ‘huge boost for British tennis and gives hopefully the governing bodies an opportunity to capitalise on that and get more and more kids involved in the sport.’

That’s a key point. Until Channel 4 stepped in at the eleventh hour to show the match, viewing was restricted to those subscribing to Amazon Prime. Like many sports, a need to capitalise on broadcasting money keeps the game away from the free-to-air watching public. Cricket and rugby have both been hampered by this, until The Hundred and BBC put cricket – and women’s cricket for a change – on the map. But the governing bodies have to work very hard in the background to make it happen.

This has also been the case with the WSL. Women’s football has grown since the league was established in 2010 and this season, it’s enjoying its highest ever profile with BBC and Sky TV showing 66 games as well as the FA Player streaming the other games. Added to the Barclays sponsorship that began at the start of the 2019/20 season, the game has arguably never been in such a good position from a structural and financial point of view.

But what about externally? Are more fans being attracted to games? Is the game finding a wider audience? Are more girls playing the game at school or for junior clubs?

Football doesn’t have many ‘Emma Radacanu’ moments to instantly and unexpectedly win a whole new set of fans (in massive numbers) after a single event. It would probably take an England triumph at a World Cup or Euros to achieve the same kind of outcomes, but England have tended to lose at the semi-final stage until now, and the national fervour gets diluted amongst the ‘oh, not again’ disappointment.

There is another chance after next year’s delayed Euros (now Euro22, hosted in England) which was due to start last June. A new head coach (Sarina Weigman, of 2017 champions, The Netherlands) has been installed and her first squad has just been announced. England will certainly be contenders after taking world champs, the USA, all the way in their 2019 last-four encounter. But the women’s game – and the FA who run it – cannot rely on the Lionesses to do all the hard yards when it comes to promoting and growing the game in this country.

The clubs need to step up too. And like never before.

The broadcast deals and sponsor’s money has done a lot to help clubs to attract big name players and survive the worst that Covid-19 has thrown at them. All but two (Birmingham and Reading) of the WSL clubs have a men’s club also in the Premier League, so there is added support in terms of finance, resources, equipment and in some cases, stadiums. But while the aforementioned two EFL clubs play at the club’s main stadium, only Leicester City, of the others, do the same.

For the rest, it’s a mixed bag as to where they call home. Some clubs, like Aston Villa, use the ground of a smaller league club (in their case, League Two Walsall) while others (i.e. Chelsea and Everton) have their own gaff. The Manchester clubs play at purpose-built stadiums shared with academy sides and the rest rent from non-league clubs, such as Spurs at Barnet and Arsenal at Borehamwood.

In recent seasons, there has been a move towards playing more games in the larger (men’s team) stadiums instead of the regular home ground, which has seen a significant increase in average attendances. This has its pros and cons. While it’s nice for the players and fans to watch games in the bigger stadium, and there is obvious benefits of bigger crowds (although some tickets are given away for free for these games) the clubs need to nail down their identity and a proper ‘home’ helps to do this.

For instance, if a club does flit around, what does this do for the fan? As an example, if Spurs play at the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, are those in attendance going because they genuinely want to watch the team and cheer them on, or to get a glimpse of the stadium itself? It’s not black and white (or even navy and white) but with lots of grey areas and varying motivations but consider that 4,681 people saw their game against Birmingham at The THS, yet only 768 were at The Hive when they last played in front of fans against Everton in February 2020.

That same season, Spurs Women met Arsenal at the men’s stadium, a game that attracted over 38,000 compared to an average of 6,258 for the season (including the above match). The average when the Arsenal game is omitted was less than a thousand. Just 571 fans attended a WSL game against Brighton and 205 were there for a League Cup victory over Lewes.

The point is, it’s these games that are the bread and butter for all clubs. It’s great to play in the bigger PL stadium but unless you’re Leicester, it’s more of a novelty or treat. Creating a great experience that will bring fans to the regular home stadiums remains the biggest challenge and so far, after a handful of games in 2021, it still represents a challenge albeit one that is bound to be impacted by health concerns.

In our assessment work in the EFL, we already know that the on/off effect on match days can leave fans feeling devalued and confused. For instance, if a club holds a special family day for a particular match, it often does a great job of attracting new, young fans. There is activities, inflatables, mascots and lots of staff on hand to provide a brilliant day, usually for a discounted ticket price. But what about the following home game, when there are none of these things on offer and the price for a family of four has also increased considerably? Did the family day help to win new fans, or help to lose them?

Moving from a match at a PL ground to a non-league one can have a similar impact. It’s a time when the match day experience is more important than ever but it’s much easier to keep fans happy, and kids from being bored, at a bigger stadium in a one-off event than it is doing it every fortnight at the regular one, yet that’s exactly what clubs have to do.

And although it would be easy to focus on the TV money right now, as that’s much bigger than gate receipts, it’s also a very short term view to take. Larger crowds look better on the screen, and will help to attract new sponsors as well as bigger broadcast deals in future. Maybe there is a day, way off in the future, when all men’s and women’s clubs share the same stadiums and attract similar numbers of people, but that’s not now.

Today, no WSL club (and certainly none in the pyramid below it) can afford to turn fans away. They all have room for far more people on match days (it’s worth noting that only one WSL club, Everton, has a capacity of less than 4,500) and a large proportion will be young fans; the next generation of girls and boys – along with their families – that are being introduced to the game for the first time, or maybe being priced out of watching the men’s games.

So, what will make them come back? Great football, obviously, but not only is it not as important as it was it is also less important to younger fans and families. Other non-footballing factors will play a key role, such as pricing, parking, things to do (e.g. off-pitch entertainment) and things to buy (merchandise and refreshments) and these are massively important because they are also the things that will influence and increase future attendance and advocacy.


Get these things right and you have far more than a ninety-minute match. You have an experience and that is what, ultimately, will maintain interest in the club long after the final whistle. Parents don’t say ‘you have to go to Reading – or West Ham or Brighton – Women, they win every match’ to their friends, family and other parents. They will say you have to go because it’s such a good, value-for-money day out for the family.  

Clubs can’t promise three points and plenty of goals when they promote the game on their website and social media ahead of matchday. The team will have to take care of that, but remember that only about a third of teams win on any given weekend in leagues all over the world.

Clubs can, however, promise that those who attend will have a great day in every other way.

Of course, if they can get Emma Radacanu to make a guest appearance, all the better!

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© The Fan Experience Company 2020