It’s a Shame about ROI.

Mark Bradley

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 they have carried out over 3,000 assessments as well as other fan engagement and matchday experience improvement projects in 19 countries.

This is a question that if not actually verbalised is very often implied in our conversations with sports club executives over the years.  ‘Tell me exactly how much money we will earn if we adopt your ideas and launch an attendance growth plan based on engagement.’

As often as not, they need that data to get the owner’s buy-in, but actually coming up with a specific figure is difficult. Influences on attendance include the weather, team performance, quality of opposition, roadworks, perceptions of the manager, whether season ticket holders are actually there (i.e., less secondary spend, even if you still get their seasonal contribution), the time of the week, the noise of the crowd … I could go on.  And I will.  Because there’s another way of doing this and one that represents such an easy, affordable ‘quick win’ for 99% of football clubs.

These days, elite football is leaving a trail of discarded clothing in its rush to get into bed with the likes of Socios and selling engagement to fans via tokens that can only be traded on cryptocurrency markets.

We have several problems with this. First, if engagement is a commodity that can be sold, then the proposers don’t understand engagement. Secondly, by opening this up to anyone, you could get a fan from a rival club suggesting inappropriate songs for your mascot to sing in the bath (such is the sacred and meaningful access that these schemes afford you).


But maybe this isn’t about the elite, since recent evidence (the abandoned European Super League, resistance to external regulation, blocking owners’ tests, etc.) suggests they don’t consider fan engagement at all (which, to quote the course I wrote for FC Barcelona, is: everything done to understand, respect and grow the fan’s emotional investment in the club).

But for the rest of football, we are at a key moment. Right now, in the aftermath of the pandemic, most clubs are facing a drop in attendances. To some, these are just temporary hiccups with numbers to be restored once everything settles down. But to most seasoned watchers, this trend is the manifestation of a problem evident way before Covid-19.

Let me give some examples.  Many older fans, once the reliable core of football support, now have misgivings about being in crowds of people.  Oracle reports that 43% of older fans intend to stay away from sporting events.  Moreover, for many of them, the discovery of online shopping quickly led to them streaming games and wondering why they hadn’t been doing that since Tim Berners Lee first had that idea about ‘an open platform that would allow everyone, everywhere to share information, access opportunities, and collaborate across geographic and cultural boundaries’. 

Compare struggling on foot through the latest named storm, paying £25 for a ticket and then £7 for a pint and a lukewarm pie and having to jostle with hundreds of others in a confined space with the comfort and safety of relaxing back in your bespoke orthopaedic armchair, enjoying a fine libation and some exotic snacks while re-running that reckless tackle in the second minute.

But it’s not just older fans whose attendance is at risk. Fans of all generations lost the habit after 18 months away from the game. Some emerged from the pandemic with a lower tolerance for poor stadium experiences such as unhelpful stewards, poorly managed queues and nothing to extend the experience. And then we have young people. Football has a positive reputation for getting kids to their first games, but the drop-off through adolescence is notable. What is football’s strategy for getting them to keep coming?

Now, I’m not saying every lost fan can be won back, but by creating a fan engagement strategy, developing a strong identity and purpose, becoming obsessive about feedback and dialogue, continuously improving the match day experience and making everyone who works for the club feel so valued they see the match day as a business development opportunity, you can very quickly demonstrate your ROI if, that is, you need a ROI to justify doing any of this.

But we firmly believe that it isn’t.  Progressive customer-driven businesses outside of sport do not only invest in improving experiences when they know exactly how much money that will bring them. They do it (1) because it’s the right thing to do and (2) because they know it’s about emotional engagement and advocacy.  Their customers have such great stories to tell about them, that others quickly come on board or, in the case of Peloton, get on board and quickly fall off.  It’s all about recommendation.  That’s why the majority use Net Promoter. ‘Based on your most recent experiences with us, how strongly will you recommend us to friends and family?’

Using respondents’ data allows those businesses to predict future growth because it’s known that those giving the highest ratings will (1) not only be walking advertisements for them but that (2) this customer’s own loyalty will be strengthened and extended.

So how many clubs know which of their supporters are advocates and which are detractors? Very few.  Ask what percentage of non-elite clubs (i.e., those in most need of match day revenue) care about fans’ match day experiences.  Who reaches out to fans via web links, email surveys or – in the case of first-time fans – gets a short feedback questionnaire to them within a couple of hours of the game, when their memory is still fresh?

In our experience (and we’ve done over 3,000 individual fan experience assessment visits since 2006) it’s less than 5%.  Less than 5%: a damning indictment of an industry that somehow needs an unreliable concept to justify investment.

What about lifetime value? Wouldn’t that make more sense? Supermarkets base their calculations on the supposed fact that most people live for six years in one location before moving house.  If they regularly use your supermarket, they may spend up to £300 a month or more. That equates to a lifetime value over those six years of over £21,000 which, if they were to remain loyal to that brand, could be in excess of £100,000 or more.  Without their feedback, their service providers will never understand if this rich seam of revenue is at risk.

How would this work in football? Imagine a family getting a fantastic first-time experience. A leaflet drop draws their attention to a club with much more than a game going on just a short distance away. The website encourages them to register their first-time status. A club director reaches out to them and greets them on the day. They get a magic moment – perhaps a chance to sit together in the dugout during the pre-match warm up. They’re given a hat and a scarf each.  A couple of hours after getting home an email pops up asking them three short questions (rate us out of ten, say why and tell us what we can do to improve your experience further).  They buy tickets for another game. They may even become season ticket holders. They’re less reliant on the team’s performance.

If that family only attends 5 games, you could easily be looking at £500-600 plus in that season, once you factor in secondary spend, replica shirts, membership and perhaps a hospitality experience for that special occasion. Convert 100 new families into regulars and you’re looking at £50-60,000 in extra revenue in just one season (enough to employ someone to create and deliver a long-term fan engagement strategy, funnily enough).

This is an open goal of Ronnie Rosenthal proportions. When 95% of clubs don’t even ask fans what they think of their experiences, there’s really little point asking about ROI. 

Want to read more by The Fan Experience Company?

See our White Paper about the balance between safety and the match day experience?

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© The Fan Experience Company 2020