© The Fan Experience Company 2023
Ten Ways to Grow Your Club in 2023
Happy New Year to all of our followers. As John and Yoko said, ‘let’s hope it’s a good one’ so, with that reckless aim in mind, here are our Ten Ways to Grow Attendances in 2023.
Those of you old enough to remember pre-pandemic times may recall that we used to put out regular missives with ideas for growing your club. The events of early 2020 changed the message from growth to survival for those clubs reliant on match day income but the picture is now much more positive so we thought we’d share another one.
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 almost 3,500 assessments as well as other fan engagement and matchday experience improvement projects in more than 20 countries.
With the vast landscape of football rendering pointless any attempt to offer ideas to the entire pyramid, our 2023 almanac will focus on growing attendances at, shall we say, ‘smaller clubs’. By that I mean (in general) clubs in the third or fourth tier of English or Scottish football, the top tier of Welsh and Irish football, all Non-League clubs and, of course, women’s football: the part of the game with arguably the greatest prospects for growth.
- Let’s start with the most effective way of growing attendances: deciding to do so. A decade or so ago, Middlesbrough FC had lost their ‘Family Excellence’ status: a badge of achievement for clubs reaching the required standard as part of the EFL’s 17-season on-going commitment to attracting and retaining the next generation of fans. Within a blink of an eye they transformed the match day experience and became the EFL Family Club of the Year: packing out the new Generation Red Family Zone in the process. When we visited the Riverside Stadium in 2017 to make a video about fan engagement, we asked Boro’s Yvonne Ferguson what the catalyst was for all of this. She replied, ‘we just decided to do it’. For most clubs that will mean making it a priority and regularly asking the right questions, like ‘why are people coming?’ and, more importantly, ‘why are people not coming?’. You don’t have to be a club the size of Middlesbrough to do that. Make a plan. Give people accountability. Talk about it openly. Get fans to tell you how you’re doing. Set targets and review.
- Going to a game should be easy, but many clubs make it very difficult. Scotland, in particular, seems to enjoy dressing up away travel as an episode of the Krypton Factor (showing my age): tickets are only available in person, usually during office opening hours on Thursday with none available to purchase over the phone, online or at the host club on the day. The fact that football north of the border is the best attended per capita across Europe only shows you what they could achieve if they stopped making it so hard to attend. So, in 2023, check how easy it is to attend matches at your club. If you’re not already selling tickets online, do it now, it’s what the people expect. Sell tickets in the ways that fans want to be sold to, not in the way that’s convenient to you. Our partners Fanbase do a terrific job in that regard, whatever your level.
- Removing barriers is one thing, but how about making it easy for new fans to come to games? Our assessment is that clubs always focus on marketing to the detriment of the fan experience. We would wager that the smaller club investment ratio between marketing and fan experience is a bit like Manchester City’s possession vs the opposition. This is wrong and it needs addressing. Have ‘new to our club?’ content. Make it easy to find (and sort that website out so the info is front and centre and not half a dozen clicks away). Tell the people what makes your club special. Tell them how good your match day is: as a minimum expounding the things that make the day a community event for everyone. If your fans really enjoy the pie you offer, then tell people about it (before @footyscran does, as that tends to show you’re not paying attention). With the current cost of living crisis showing no signs of abating, make sure you emphasis how affordable your match day is, like perennial fan engagement faves Durham Women do (go look for it) and include menus with prices (and Kcal too).
- Find out what your match day experience is like. Walk the fan journey. In US sport, where the fan comes first because that’s exactly what happens in commercially successful sport, franchise commissioners insist that CEOs undertake ‘sofa to seat to sofa’ personal assessments of game day: walking in the steps of the fan from ticket purchase to travel and taking in everything the regular fan experiences. In the US, CEOs are obliged to report their findings to the other club CEOs so everyone benefits. In the UK, football club leaders don’t do this because, presumably, they don’t value it. Make 2023 the year when you walk in the fan’s footsteps, talk to fans, share your findings with your colleagues and change things for the better. For smaller clubs, make sure you’re there, greeting fans on the day and thanking them for coming (like our FAW Ambassador Team did for Wales’ two thrilling FIFA play-off qualifiers last year. One fan told us ‘I’ve been watching Wales for 30 years and no one has ever said thank you’). Be the ones who say, ‘thank you’.
- Decide what ‘fan engagement’ means. This is a term almost as overused as ‘we go again’ or ‘there are no easy games’. Hardly anyone has the first clue of what it means. To some, it’s everything digital offers to the process of monetising fans (a phrase we hate as it summons up images of supporters being held up by their feet and shaken until cash falls from their pockets). To others, it’s entertainment. To us, it’s your growth plan. It must fundamentally be built on the thing that makes football special: the emotional connection. As my old mucker Julian Jenkins used to say, ‘no one rings Tesco and asks if they can spread their late grandfather’s ashes in the fruit and veg aisle’. Most businesses sell more commodities than the competition because they wrap them all up in an experience that makes people feel good. Football ignores all of the emotive pull it owns, does the opposite and sells everything as a ‘ticket’. To us, fan engagement is everything you do to understand, protect and grow the fan’s emotional investment. Reflect on the potential of basing your growth plans around this concept.
- Make sure you have someone ‘hosting’ the match day. By that, we don’t mean the PA announcer, either. Have a volunteer or, depending on the size of your club (and the number of entrances to the stadium vicinity), have several. Now, we are the first to admit that it’s not easy to find volunteers but, in a world where clubs are struggling to find people to help with running the bar, managing cash, preparing the pitch and selling programmes (and often not getting the required numbers), why not promote the opportunity to come and be the club’s host on the day, with the aim of greeting, thanking, assisting, directing and engaging those coming to games? Better still, arm them with little freebies, such a team sheets and pin badges for the kids. We find it surprising that the volunteer role that’s potentially the most fun to do, is the one that’s advertised the least. Exeter City’s Club Ambassadors are worth checking out in this regard. They’re brilliant!
- When you hear the phrase ‘more than a match’, it’s ok to define that in emotional terms, but if you want to grow attendances, we’d prefer you to think about it in terms of ‘touch points’: all of the little milestones a fan experiences when going to a game. Starting with your club website where they might look for info and purchase a ticket, typical touch points include the last mile of the journey (do you only provide official parking advice or do you actually help fans by showing where all of the alternative locations are?), the first steward or volunteer that you meet (are they smiling or, in the case of every other steward I see, averting their eyes and avoiding engagement?), real time social media assistance or engagement, traditional elements such as merch, refreshments, everything that happens in the stadium and, rarely addressed, why fans should hang around afterwards.
- Make women welcome. They form more than 50% of the population and yet, as far as we can establish, there are only a handful of female PA announcers in UK football and only slightly more high profile female club leaders around. Clubs design female replica kit in a particular clinging shape but most of the women I know that go to football need the shirt to be big enough to wear over a think winter jumper at away games. Speak to your female fans. Think about the food and drink you offer them on a match day. Wendy Newey, one of the Non-League game’s most innovative female voices saw sales of drinks to women rocket when they offered them Prosecco, craft gin, cocktails and decent tonics. Finally in this section, while some people think we’re obsessed with toilets, they are undeniably a mirror to the soul of the club. Why not give a local florist the opportunity to decorate women’s toilets and leave business cards there? Why not show your community chops by having free sanitary products available? Be part of Her Game Too btw.
- Think young fans. Naturally with 17 seasons of the EFL Family Excellence scheme under our belt, you’d expect us to talk about the importance of the next generation. Well, there’s no denying that if younger kids (the key target group) are going to get bored, stressed parents are not going to come back. At the other end of the youth scale, even GenZ supporters will lose interest in your club if it doesn’t show its commitment to the environment, social justice, affordability and health and well-being. Don’t think about junior engagement in terms of mascots (as mascot suits are expensive), but simply consider how to keep them engaged and how to grow their connection to the club. One simple idea (which I attribute to current Bristol Rovers CEO Tom Gorringe from his time at Portsmouth FC) is to surprise a young family by inviting them to sit in the dugout during the pre-match warm up. That’s sacred ground. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t be doing that for all fans, but for kids, that magic access can be the catalyst for a lifetime’s support. Help them become footballers too, by having skills tests (keepie ups don’t need expensive facilities) and, as Marine FC did successfully a few seasons back, why not introduce an inter-school penalty shoot-out competition? With only 4 schools, that’s three match days of loads of kids’ friends and parents coming, as the semi-finals and final take place. Worried about the pitch? Then do it early or late season when the weather’s better.
- Re-discover your club’s values and use them to grow your club. For the elite, they are generally only ever referred to when introducing the club’s new Indonesian Dishwasher partner (i.e. ‘we share the same values’), remaining in splendid occlusion at all other times. We’d love to be in the media room when they do that so that we can ask them ‘what values are those?’ as, in our experience, values are something that come second nature to fans but of which club leaders have no clue. Few, if any, club websites lead on an introduction to the club and what it stands for while the vast majority of clubs prefer to include lengthy sections on their history (which we wager hardly anyone reads) over a simple explanation of their values and what they mean. Bury AFC, the phoenix club 100% owned by fans, began its journey by reviewing the demised club’s badge and updating the values to create a statement of principles that would act as a filter for every decision the club would make (especially the difficult ones). Values can help you strengthen your club’s identity and purpose and find ways to extend your reach and convert local stakeholders into fans, especially those future fans (see GenZ comments above) who want to know what we stand for before committing to supporting. Finally, for those considering a re-brand or a badge change, ask yourself ‘are fans really demanding this?’. Renewing your club values will always be a far better use of your time.
There is an obvious eleventh suggestion – to chat to us about how we can help – so drop a line to [email protected] and let us help you make 2023 the year that’s ‘just like starting over’.
Thank you, John. Thank you, Yoko.