Becoming Rovers Again

Tuesday 22nd January 2013 at 2:10PM

Mac Wilson was one of the less known candidates to put their name into the hat for the recent Doncaster Rovers manager vacancy. Having lost Dean Saunders to Wolverhampton Wanderers, chairman John Ryan was keen to appoint someone who could maintain the impressive promotion drive and was sufficiently impressed by Mac’s application (which promised Premier League football in 3 years) that he invited him in for an interview before the Leyton Orient game last Saturday.

Mac Wilson is 8 years old. It’s fair to say that he’ll remember John Ryan’s lovely gesture for the rest of his life – and that Rovers will always be close to his heart.

Mac’s story, along with the news that groundsman Andy Thompson (in preference to any of the players) was named ‘man of the match’ for his team’s snow clearing efforts ahead of last Saturday’s match, is just the latest little jewel in a remarkable 12 month journey of fan engagement that Rovers have experienced.

My involvement resulted from a conversation with Martin O’Hara (from the VSC, Rovers’ Supporters Trust and a FSF campaigner) in 2011. Martin had been listening to one of my regular rants about the possibilities of fan engagement (some of you may have unfortunate enough to hear one of them on TalkSport last night) and thought that he saw something in my approach that Rovers could benefit from.

Fast forward several months and the then Championship Rovers were on the slide. Having dispensed with the services of Sean O’Driscoll and appointed Dean Saunders, they were struggling to escape the relegation zone. The strategy, brought in by Willie McKay, of getting in Premier League squad players and giving them a ‘window of opportunity’, appeared to have merit, but was having little impact on the pitch, with the likes of Habib Beye, Frederic Piquionne and El Hadji Diouf failing to stop the rot.

But off the pitch, there was a sense of the Club somehow losing its way, falling crowds and, most distressingly, plummeting sentiment. A club whose fans once proudly wore t shirts adorned with the declaration ‘Just a pub team having a laugh’ was now (to quote a respondent to our first survey) ‘a non-descript team of mercenaries, playing on pristine turf in a stadium without personality or atmosphere. If I’d wanted that, I’d have gone somewhere else.’

I’d worked at Middlesbrough during the time the team had been relegated from the Premier League and I remembered how much that depressing period had also become a catalyst for re-engaging with supporters, making more effort to understand what the Club meant to them and working with them to improve experiences and restore sentiment and attendances. It’s a little unfair to the team at Boro that it was the introduction of the Parmo Burger that got all the glory, but that obscures the energy spent at that time and the fascinating lessons we learned.

What I wanted to do at Rovers was apply what I’d learned: that the quality of football is a key driver of attendance, but one you can’t control. Better to work on those things you can influence, like understanding the fans’ motivations and what their club means to them and using that as a catalyst for a new approach.  You can read more about my philosophy in other blogs on here.

We started by having a good think – and then a few beers. Seriously though, having a few beers with Rovers fans. This, to me, Martin and Shaun (Lockwood, the club’s Marketing Manager) was going to the first step in a long journey. It led to a better understanding of the motivations of different Rovers fans and gave us the confidence to deploy the club’s first ever Fan Experience Survey in April 2012.

But before the survey, we asked a few Rovers fans to go to the next game and just write down their recollections: what happened, how did they feel, what did they like, what made them smile, what made them unhappy, etc.

As well as seeking feedback on all of the touch points our the fans had helped us isolate, we also asked some key questions, where the survey departs from the type of thing you might get from a ‘brand’.

You have to remember that football transcends ‘brand’. You buy your milk bottle anywhere – doesn’t matter who’s selling it, it’s just a basic commodity. You might be influenced by the life style implications of the coffee bar you choose, but football is far more important than all of that. When my Dad finally meets his maker, I doubt he’d opt for his ashes to be spread around Tesco Car Park. He’d want to be somewhere near the Stadium of Light (he’s had a look at the houses built on the site of Roker Park and already decided against that).

Among those questions was one asking respondents what the club meant – and giving them no limits on what they could write in reply. We asked the Net Promoter question (on the basis of your most recent experiences, how strongly would you recommend …?) – more of which you can read in my Getting the Measure of Growth blog - but even that is just the question ‘brands’ ask. Football needs a question that reflects the profound nature of the relationship, so using the same scale and question style of Net Promoter, we asked the question: Based on your most recent experiences … how valued do you feel as a Rovers fan?

We used the survey to recruit fans to various panels (face to face and online) so that we could continue the engagement process beyond the survey, but it was the results of the survey that proved to be the real catalyst for change.

In short, the fans felt that the club had lost its way. Sure enough, things on the pitch were bad, but it was the sense that the deeper connection between the fans and their beloved club was being eroded by a departure from what made the club what it was (‘just a pub team having a laugh’). The survey pinpointed two periods in history that defined the ‘defying the odds with humour’ personality of the club: the Miners’ Strike in 84/85 and the various shenanigans associated with the club’s descent into the Conference where the club spent 5 seasons before 2003’s glorious 3-2 victory over Dagenham & Redbridge (which included a period of four years in jail for previous owner Ken Richardson, found guilty of arranging for Belle Vue to be torched for the insurance money).

We’d identified the spirit of the Club and some motifs to guide the months of engagement that would follow.  Simple operational improvements (better food, easier ticket purchase, etc) were identified, but we knew that if we could bring in improvements that reflected what the Club meant to fans, we’d improve sentiment and re-discover the ‘love’ more quickly.

The appointment of Gavin Baldwin, a former professional sportsman with a lot of experience in sports & leisure management and the granting of a lease on the Keepmoat Stadium certainly helped improve momentum.  The Lakeside Bar was swiftly re-named the Belle Vue Bar, a special Rovers real ale created (ask for a pint of 1879, which is now served in a glass pint pot, by the way) and Rovers memorabilia and iconography now adorns the walls.

Shaun began building up a long ‘to do’ list: a new bus service was arranged post-match, fan panels were held (600 at the first – we needed two sittings - and 350 at the second), the family zone was improved further, a cash gate was trialled, a ‘smoking bubble’ organised for those fans who wanted a ciggy during the game, a new range of quality refreshments items emerging from the partnership with Spotless and special promotions and rewards were arranged for different Rovers fans. 

A second survey followed last September. We wanted to know if fans had felt any differences, seen anything they liked and / or spotted things that still needed fixing. For me, the key question was to find out from fans who felt happier, what was behind the improved sentiment?  If we could nail down what was influencing the way people were feeling, we could focus our efforts in those areas and increase the impact.

Three things did emerge: Gavin’s appointment, the granting of the stadium lease and (what made me happiest) the sense that fans had a voice. This helped the club re-double its engagement efforts, with a focus and purpose that we lacked back in April 2012.

Move forward to today and the results of the third survey are coming in. What’s not surprising is that the team’s excellent endeavours are now being recognised as one of four key drivers of Rovers fans’ sentiment. The other three, though, remain the same, helping us get a handle on just how the on-pitch and off-pitch experiences inter-relate to drive fan sentiment.

Advocacy indicators are on the rise (an impressively improving NPS is emerging) and feelings of value are rising steadily too, so the big question remains: has the work the Club has done led to an increase in attendance and related revenues?

Well, with the Club riding high, one would assume this is all being driven by what’s happening on the pitch, but the results of our survey indicate that other factors are contributing to the rise. We’ve calculated that something like 600/700 extra ticket sales were generated for the most recent game (10% of the attendance) as a result. 

What’s reassuring though is that both NPS and my own unique ‘value’ indicator both appear to be reliable indicators of growth, emphasising my point that clubs need to adopt the approaches of customer-focused businesses: getting to know their customers better, trusting their judgement and encouraging them to get involved in the improvement effort.

There’s still a lot of work to do at Rovers. We want to find ways of celebrating the spirit of the communities who supported each other during the miners’ strike, we want to celebrate and recognise fans and we want to ensure that price is never a barrier to following the team.

And if there does come a day when, as discussed on TalkSport last night, Rovers’ tickets are swallowed up in a second, loyalty is no guarantee of a ticket to a big game and fans begin to question the motives of the Club, then we’ll ask the fans to determine what they see as ‘loyalty’ and it’ll be up to us to come up with a system that honours that.

But most of all, we want fans to see with their own eyes that their club is ‘becoming Rovers again’.  Thanks to the efforts of Shaun, Martin, Gavin, John Ryan, Dean Saunders, Brian Flynn and the staff and supporters of Doncaster Rovers, we’ve taken the first few steps on a long journey. The pub team is starting to chuckle again.


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