© The Fan Experience Company 2023
The Fans Journey - Part 9: Pre-Game
What’s your pre-game ritual? Do you wear the same socks, walk exactly the same route, leave the house at exactly the same time while telling yourself that the result doesn’t really hinge on the last song you heard before leaving the house?
Do you enter the stadium early to watch the game on the concourse TVs and beat the refreshments kiosk queues? Or do you hurtle from the nearest hostelry, nearly missing the first couple of minutes (and inevitable goal) because that’s what you’ve always done?
Do you get into your seat half an hour before kick-off to peruse the programme, check out the match day playlist or to catch up with the familiar (but nameless) companions whose decades-long presence underlines your irrational devotion?
Whatever way you spend the sacred hours before the game starts, it’s important. In fact, it’s often more enjoyable than the game itself. I remember trips to Roker Park with my Dad where the sweet smell of fried onions and the wry comments from the faithful were often way more entertaining that the efforts of Cecil Irwin, George Harris and Joe Baker.
Once in your seat or in your place on the terrace, the pre-game period is equally important for clubs too. Delivered well, it can add extra layers of value that cement fans’ love for the match day, prevent a desertion to sofas and TV and attract and retain more new supporters too.
Mark founded the Fan Experience Company in 2005 to build attendance growth and community engagement on the basis of improving fan experiences. He recently created FC Barcelona’s Barça Innovation Hub’s first fan engagement study certificate. The Fan Experience Company has undertaken more than 3,500 fan experience assessments in many countries for clients as diverse as The Danish Superliga, The EFL, The WSL / WC, United Rugby and Premiership Rugby.
Darren joined the Fan Experience Company in 2017. He has an MBA with a background in customer service excellence having worked as a consultant in that field for a number of years. As well as being responsible for all of the assessment summary reports that are produced each season, he has also worked with a number of clubs on an individual basis, including Lincoln City, Walsall, Grimsby Town, Nottingham Forest and OH Leuven on projects ranging from staff development to supporter feedback surveys.
As always, people are key. Are your fans left to negotiate the turnstile and find their place without assistance (presumably because they should know by now) or is there someone just inside the entrance giving a smile and a genuine welcome? Does the stewarding team remember the holy trinity of the best custodian: safety, security and service too or does their demeanour suggest you are unwelcome? Is someone looking out for new supporters? Can youngsters be directed to some engaging concourse activities and older fans told about the free hot drink on a cold winter’s afternoon?
The PA announcer is key. Sometimes tradition is all (I give you Liverpool’s beloved George Sephton) but sometimes it’s great to hear a different voice. In that respect the lack of female match announcers (I can only think of two in the whole of the 92) is an obvious opportunity for a genuinely inclusive and community-focusedclub.
When does the pre-match show start and what are its elements? In our experience, those clubs who can honour their past (whether it be through videos, on-pitch interviews with former players or by way of a memorial to a fallen team mate) strongly convey the transience of the match day. They’re a family gathering but, at the same time, a chance to both remember our forebears and to celebrate the arrival of a new little Saddler, Mackem or Bantam.
The match day playlist is becoming increasingly important. In the past, it seemed to me that all I ever heard was Hi Ho Silver Lining on repeat but now they’re curated carefully with Salford City’s paean to ‘Indie Manchester’ a playlist that you can find on Spotify and enjoy again when back home. And while I hate the overuse of the verb ‘curate’ (and ‘hand crafted’ even more), it’s somehow entirely appropriate in the museums of our weekly dreams.
And, in an era where younger fans follow players, rather than teams, a player-curated playlist is something to cherish.
Does you club have a hymn (like FC Barcelona) or a traditional song? Most of Northern Europe tends to the Bavarian oompah stein-waving singalong while Sunderland opts for a past and present sequence of Prokofiev’s Dance of the Knights and Republica’s Ready to Go. In your note book, I hope you’re writing down ‘lift the heart’ and ‘raise the roof’ as these are the requirements for this holy moment.
The fan’s pre-match ritual is sacred, traditional, irrational but beloved. A club who can amplify that and stir the heart with an outstanding pre-match plan will win the ultimate prize: the fan who feels truly valued.
And after that, the game starts.
For many of us, it can only go downhill from here.
My other half Ana once said that her early memories of the moments before kick-off were characterised by a stirring build up to the referee’s whistle … followed by near silence: only to be eventually broken by a strong local accent demanding their team ‘hit it long!’.
Mark Bradley, Geoff Wilson and Darren Young assessed the fan experience at eight matches at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Click here to read more about what they found there.