Atmosphere and Fan Engagement

Thursday 26th June 2014 at 9:11AM

Last night we held our latest Huddersfield Town ‘Voices’ Panel as part of the club’s All Together Town supporter engagement work. These panels began last November, following a period of data gathering by the club, all aimed at understanding what mattered most to Town fans, what they felt needed improving and, most importantly, getting them to work with the club and drive the improvements themselves.  And, just as with many of the other clubs I’ve worked with in football and rugby league, the topic of ‘atmosphere’ has been the number one priority for this first season of activity. 

Not only do fans value a wonderful atmosphere at a game, but they also believe (and this is borne out by many years of individual club surveys and fan panels) that creating a vibrant atmosphere is one of the best ways to attract new fans to the stadium and lapsed fans back again.  The virtuous circle of a louder and louder stadium helps players too, as Andy Booth (Huddersfield Town legend and club ambassador) explained to me last night.

But if the consensus is that you’ve lost (or are losing) the atmosphere, how do you get it back? Winning, I suppose, but as people used to reading my wittering will know, this is not something you can control.  So here’s what I think: it’s about supporter engagement.

Discussions about atmosphere largely relate to enfranchising ‘core’ fans – those who like to get behind their team with noise, colour and singing.  They’ll tell you that many have lapsed because ‘the atmosphere is not the same’, they may attribute it to League position, recent club history, the design of the stadium (Stoke City fans currently lead the ‘decibel’ table, so how far ahead would they be if the stadium corners were filled in?), the reluctance of the players to salute those supporting them at the end of the game and what they see as unnecessary barriers to their enjoyment (having to remain seated, restrictions of banners / flags, ‘health and safety’ reasons) and even locating away fans too far away to berate successfully.  For some enterprising clubs (like Town above) these are reasons to embark on a sincere period of dialogue, whereas for other clubs, these explanations simply paint a picture of an uncompromising, unbending view from supporters that’s unlikely to embrace dialogue.

But when you start down that path (by going beyond a ‘one off’ meeting, constituting a group of supporters reflecting all of the key segments in your stadium and enhancing your club’s micro-marketing capability to establish links with all of the supporter groups in your community) you begin to recognise that progress does NOT depend on a succession of high scoring home victories. On the contrary, you can make surprising progress, even against a backdrop of ‘on pitch’ depression. I can’t help but recall the moment that Bradford City’s captain Gary Jones walked over to take his club’s first and only corner at the 2013 League Cup Final. It was the 85th minute, they were 0-5 down to Swansea, but you couldn’t hear a single Welsh voice in the stadium, just the heart-warming roar of the Bantams family as they ironically celebrated their mini-victory.

Stadium segmentation is key to addressing atmosphere. When Cardiff City began to engage with their more ‘hardcore’ supporters (back in the days before the colour change began to undermine that relationship), a series of discussions highlighted that the creation of a part of the stadium where boisterous support would be greeted with a much higher level of tolerance, crucially received the support of the Safety Advisory Group and the supporters. If a fan was persistently standing in another part of the ground, rather than being ejected, he or she would be encouraged to move to the Canton Stand, where they could more passionately support their club (in effect, standing at times of high emotion, but only in front of his or her seat – not blocking the aisles or running down to the front).

The position of away supporters is key too. There are two schools of thought: either isolate them (I’m thinking of St James Park where atmosphere really is an issue for away fans as there isn’t any oxygen up there!) or put them in a place where they’ll contribute to the atmosphere. Either way, the decision will ultimately impact on your club’s growth strategy.

Flags and banners are hugely important.  Our panels at Huddersfield have featured talks from Stadium authorities, fan-led meetings in part of the community, benchmarking of activities at other clubs and simple research: what’s going on around the world? All of this has created an appetite for change and the result is the creation of banners & flags, whose fixings will be paid for by the club, who’s fastening will be resourced by the stadium authorities and whose cost has been met by some creative crowd funding by the North Stand Loyal group.

All of the above represents a natural, engagement-based organic approach to creating an atmosphere even when things may be going awry on the pitch, but what about the things clubs do to, shall we say, artificially simulate the environment. It’s true that fans – especially core fans – dislike this approach. Message boards are full of derision for what they regard as ‘American’ approaches (goal ‘songs’, pumped up music, over-excited public announcers, etc). However, by rejecting this en masse are we failing to recognise a massive truism of the modern football and rugby league worlds (two sports in which I spend a lot of time): that those creating the atmosphere usually only occupy one section of one stand and up to 90% of the stadium may be (relatively) quiet. So, should we be focusing our organic work on ‘core’ fan areas but testing out some different, more club-led activities in other parts of the ground where, it is assumed, the attitude might be ‘I love a noisy stadium, but don’t expect me to provide it’)?

Cameron Hughes, back in 1995, was watching his local hockey team in Ottawa lose. He was down about the impending defeat, but actually quite angry about the fact that the arena was quiet when his team needed the crowd’s support. So he stood up, started screaming and shouting, waving his shirt around his head and … the rest is history. Now know as the world’s first professional sports fan, Cameron has spent the last 18 years touring the world, being unleashed among unsuspecting fans (in notably quieter areas of the arena), producing some fantastic experiences (including teaching Djokovic some of moves in his dressing room at the 2011 US Open) and genuinely making the place louder. Yes, I can hear you cry, this is exactly the sort of North American artifice that we could do without. But before rejecting it, why not try it out in one of those ‘quiet areas’? You know, the kids might like it, it might prove a talking point and you might even get some core fans excited about it too.

Thanks to Ian Nuttall of Xperiology, who answered my call to bring him over and the good folk of the RFL, we have now been able to experience his approach at first hand. He appeared at Leeds Rhinos v Huddersfield Giants on 12th June and, one night later, was sprung on the good people of Wigan as the Warriors took on Castleford Tigers.  Sure, the looks on the faces of those around him initially suggested they might prefer to call security rather than to jump up and down and make some noise, but within two minutes he had the Carnegie Stand eating out of his hands (we were 10 yards away). Kids especially were entranced by his approach (see link to video below) and even the East Stand Terrace shouted him over and visibly grew louder as he moved among them.

Following his appearance at the DW Stadium, many Wigan fans went on social media to thank him for ‘bringing the atmosphere back’. It worked, he’s coming back, and with so many fabulous family zones now springing up across football (including the Generation Red Family Zone at 2014 Football League Family Club of the Year, Middlesbrough), surely it’s time to embrace something different in that sport too.

Engagement is at the root of resolving the atmosphere crisis, but improvement cannot thrive without experimentation too. My experience of working with the likes of Middlesbrough, Sunderland, Cardiff, Doncaster Rovers, Leeds Rhinos and Huddersfield Town simply highlights that atmosphere does drive growth, but to drive atmosphere, you’ve got sit down and talk to supporters and try things out.  Town has – and the presentation of the first new banner – first fruit of the Voices Panel – last night signalled the beginning of a new era.

So when’s your club’s next Supporter Panel?


Exciting extras:

Here’s the flag / banner work being undertaken by North Stand Loyal at Huddersfield Town:

Here are the outputs of May’s Voices Panel meeting, for those interested in learning more about All Together Town:

Here’s a short video of how Middlesbrough is (among other family-focused activities) creating a wonderful ‘family’ atmosphere in their Generation Red Family Zone:

Here’s a Business week piece on Seattle Sounders’ approach to supporter engagement & enfranchisement – with a heavy emphasis on atmosphere:

And here’s Cameron Hughes (@cameroncheers) making his Rugby League debut at Leeds Rhinos v Huddersfield Giants on June 12, 2014. A defining moment for me:

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