How Football's becoming a Family Affair again

Thursday 3rd January 2013 at 12:12PM

When I first took my son to see Bradford City a few years ago, the promise was not of future glory (they were relegated to League Two that day) but the start of a family habit: a source of treasured memories and a way to mark the milestones of my little lad’s life.

At that time, however, clubs were seen as not only indifferent to the needs of new families, but also hell bent on pricing them out too.  But in the intervening years an enterprising group of clubs have laid down a challenge to the rest of football: pricing is becoming more realistic, family attendance is on the rise and the age at which kids attend their first match is falling.

Back in 2006, it was possible for a family (say, with two adults and two kids under 12) to pay nearly £100 for the privilege of attending a Championship match where they would be surrounded by unappealing language, where the stewards would do their best not to smile, where the only ‘entertainment’ was on the pitch and where the food would not just have had Masterchef’s Gregg and John holding their heads in the hands, but storming out of the kitchen and taking up wood turning instead. 

What first changed (albeit not everywhere) was football’s attitudes to pricing. It recognised that the right price was needed to get families along to games, but it was also at this point that some clubs discovered that it was the overall experience that would determine whether or not these new kids would pester their parents to bring them back.

Back in 2007 Cardiff City asked its 459 Family Season Ticket holders what they could do to improve their experiences. They asked them on the back of a 0-2 home defeat (against Barnsley) on a miserable Sunday afternoon. Result? Not one family mentioned the quality of the football. What they did focus on was a list of elements that came to revolutionise the club’s approach to families.

This became a prelude to a range of imaginative family pricing offers elsewhere: Wolves charged £25 for a family of 4 (including parking) for some Premier League games last season. Matrix pricing (different prices are offered according to the combination of adults and children in a group) allowed a family of 5 to attend a Brentford game for £27 recently, while demand-based pricing (at Cardiff City & Derby County) means the earlier you book, the cheaper it gets.  And you can still get ‘Kids for a Quid’ at West Ham games this Christmas.

But the biggest changes have been seen in the quality of the family experience. Families have some obvious needs: safety, quality and child-appropriate facilities. But they also have some less evident needs: to avoid hassle, to avoid exposing the kids to unwelcome experiences, knowing when to arrive, how to get the best from the day, etc, and it is to this that a leading group of clubs are responding:

  • First time visitor pages, such as the one at St Johnstone that even covers the food your kids are likely to eat (with information on healthy options, etc) or Huddersfield Town’s with it’s engaging Club History film. 
  • Videos that present the club in a friendly and accessible way (Bristol City are currently the Football League’s Friendliest Club, partly as a result of the lovely intro film on their website).
  • Programmes that anticipate what matters to kids (Huddersfield’s pull out kids’ section is a leader in this area)
  • Activities that bring families down the stadium early. For example at Cardiff City, if it’s your child’s birthday, then the minute they swipe their card to pass through the turnstile, lights flash to alert the family receptionist and your son or daughter gets an unexpected treat.  There’s also a Magician’s School to promote kids’ presentation skills and self confidence
  • Family areas, free of industrial language, but full of things that kids love, from Liverpool’s Family Area where your kids can post a letter to their heroes or submit a match report, to Sunderland, where a new interactive family zone combines real and virtual sports fun

Cardiff City, with its past reputation for disorder, is probably the last place you’d expect to see family needs embraced, but it’s paying off. Those original 459 family season ticket holders have grown to 7,000 and, more widely, clubs are starting to see that their ‘product’ isn’t just the football on the pitch: it’s something much more profound than that.

The fact is, no-one ever asks for their Granddad’s ashes to be spread around a Tesco car park – and where else would a Dad and his teenage son jump up and down and hug each other in public other than in a football stadium?

In fact, Arsenal’s CEO annoyed a lot of fans recently by telling them the club was about ‘more than just winning’, but he was right.  And it was just as well, otherwise me and my son wouldn’t have been jumping up and down and hugging each other at Valley Parade on that frosty and glorious December night.

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