Different is Better than Better

Monday 2nd February 2015 at 11:44AM

When I was young my Mam (we don’t have Mums in the north east of England) was a secretary and owned a typewriter at home. I think it was an old Smith Corona one, but I may be mistaken. But the truth is, I was very rarely mistaken since in order to avoid emulating Edwyn Collins and ‘rip it up and start again’ (and also in the absence of a delete button, of course) I would type very slowly and laboriously. Tippex did arrive at one point, but even with that famous correcting liquid applied, my finished articles and short stories would look like a bunch of deliquent sparrows had held a dirty protest on them.

It was 1993 when working at a homelessness charity in Kings Cross that I first came across WordPerfect.  I know computers existed before then, as I’d been working in a building society previously, albeit ‘keying’ data, rather than creating any great works of fiction. Having said that, my attempts to balance the tills at the end of the day often ended that way. But having a delete button was akin to discovering I had wings. I could fly. Typing became a joy not a chore.

All of which goes to underline my point that a sport with little history has some huge advantages over more established ones since the older ones have cultural and historical constraints that will always make transformational change a chore.

This is definitely the opportunity for women’s football in this country and, especially, with the now 4 year old FA Women’s Super League (FAWSL). On Saturday I participated in the first ever FA WSL National Fan Panel and it showed not only the benefits of closer engagement with supporters (see my recent blogs) but also the value of a ‘blank sheet of paper’.

For, however much we deny it, legacy thinking and attitudes can and do constrain growth. They translate into very narrow views of what it is we do and who will be interested in it. In fact, in the case of the recent past of men’s football, you wouldn’t even ask the question: what do our supporters want? Because in the first 100 years of the game, there was little, if any, fan engagement to speak of. Even now, with the game actively embracing supporter engagement, anyone will tell you that there is a pair of cultural handcuffs stubbornly creating an invisible force field around real change.

I could fill several paragraphs with the obvious opportunities that this presents for any new sport, but it does seem that women’s football is best placed to maximise their comparative ‘newness’ and this works in two ways.

Firstly, it can identify the elements of other sports that frustrate their followers (such as simulation, whether a foul or an injury) and pro-actively choose to go in the opposite direction. Which reminds me of some of my earliest political discussions with my Dad. I wasn’t sure to how to articulate my first few political ideas until he said ‘whatever Mrs Thatcher says, the opposite usually makes more sense.’

Secondly, it can lead you to do different things. For, in sport as well as in the wider consumer world, the businesses who prevail are often not trying to deliver something faster, cheaper or longer lasting than the competition. They just want to be DIFFERENT. So, in the case of the FA WSL, having players who will not only spend time with fans at the end of the game (on the pitch) chatting, but who will also sometimes come and attend junior games in their local community, is a huge part of the USP. Imagine seeing your own sporting hero cheering YOU on from the sidelines. Is it any wonder the sport is growing exponentially?

So, to follow that contention, the women’s game needs to combine both strategies: instinctively do the opposite of what alienates fans in other sports, but focus more on weighting effort towards creating something uniquely different in their own.

And that’s where Saturday’s launch of the FA WSL’s National Fan Panel comes in: a forum where each club’s longer term (often from the start of the club) fans combine with people new to the game (attending their first match in the 2014 season) to talk openly about what makes their game special and use these insights to influence national and individual club direction, strategy and focus.

For those wishing to promote growth in their own sports, there are things you can do to create this appealing culture of difference.  Do focus on DIRECT engagement.  Honestly engage with fans. You don’t need to fret about major surveys – just start the conversation.  Ask each fan to pick three words that, for them, personally epitomise what makes your sport or club special. Combine the results and your USP will start to emerge. 

We’re seeing it at places like Middlesbrough FC (in the men’s game) where this has led to the creation of some innovative and genuinely affecting innovations, like the Honesty Flags used by kids in their family zone on every match day (reflecting one of their core values) but this is an extremely rare example of a club breaking free of the cultural shackles that have dominated its sport for so many years.

For the women’s game though, there should be no such constraints and Saturday’s gathering, for me, tapped into a potentially transformative source of inspiration and ideas.

For new sports, it may be easy to pick on the ‘faults’ of other sports and go in the opposite direction, but it’s far more effective to use your freedom to create something genuinely DIFFERENT.







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