Five million more fans (without winning)

Thursday 5th February 2015 at 12:05PM

My most recent blog examined the benefits ‘legacy-free’ sports have when it comes to pursuing sustainable growth. As well as giving a nudge to comparatively new sports, like women’s football and the rapidly growing FA WSL, I also had the men’s game in my sights, since it has struggled to free itself from the cultural handcuffs placed upon it by 150 years experience of having the same year 150 times.

That’s a tad harsh, because in many respects, football is entering a new époque: a time in which, like modern growing businesses, factors like vision, values and culture, employee and customer engagement & innovation in the customer experience are now becoming common place.

There’s no better example of this than the way in which clubs are embracing the challenge of attracting the next generation of supporters: family engagement. In the last 6 seasons Football League clubs have seen an increase in junior attendance of 31%. That’s around 5 million extra kids attending matches than was the case in 2009. The change, to quote consultants who have a much more impressive vocabulary than me, is transformational.

It’s my firm belief that this is evidence of a rapidly changing shift in MINDSET across football. Dedicated family zones are now the rule rather than the exception; stadia are beginning to be segmented according to the ‘life stages’ of the football fan (from kids’ zone to home end to main stand, etc) and rather than adopting the previous remote and detached attitude to the fact that there may different groups within the supporter base with different needs, the match day experience is now being pro-actively designed to create touch points that reduce fan effort and create genuine fan value. It clearly works. The correlation between a winning team and increasing performance is often broken at clubs pursuing this path: we may win, we may lose, but our family attendance is increasing and will continue to do so.

There are a number of catalysts for this change of approach in recent seasons. Some are purely financially driven: we need a new way of thinking to steady our ship in choppy waters and since such and such a club has made it work, then we ought to try. Some are down to a ‘wake up call’ and this is where we have played our part (the Football League’s Family Excellence Awards programme provides each club with feedback from a genuine local family attending their first two games and the League follows up with seminars, best practice, benchmarking and, ultimately, recognition by one’s peers). Some are down to the influx of new senior teams with a background in business, curious at football’s past inability to market itself on the one thing that makes it special: the deep emotional connections it creates. Some are a result of research: a clear indication from existing supporters that there is a significant gap between their expectations and the experience they receive. But the one thing these epiphanies have in common is a common next step: family engagement.

Reading FC’s website contains a PDF of the concourse food menu, allowing parents to pre-order a kids’ box and determine whether it should be savoury (less healthy) or healthy in nature. Other websites have ‘first time fan’ sections: easily accessible and not just containing the basic information required to get you to your first game (directions, costs, parking, etc) but also aimed at reassuring your more internalised concerns, like how to manage your kids’ expectations on food; how cold it might be, whether you’ll be sheltered, what there is to do before kick off and where the ‘magic’ is on a match day. When Colchester United sends out your tickets they do much more than that. You receive a fixture list that doubles as a minute-by-minute Family Guide to the match day, forms for junior membership and, spectacularly, brightly decorated letter templates that your younger kids can write a letter to the mascot on or a letter to their favourite player (because when they get to the family concourse, they’ll find a special letter box through which to post their letter).

At Middlesbrough, every new family get a special welcome call from the club after booking for their first match. They’re then invited to come to the family Zone an hour before kick off where they receive a personal welcome (not ‘personalised’ which indicates something anodyne and manufactured but real and genuine). They then receive a wonderful surprise … oh go on, book your own tickets and find out.

At Cardiff City, who during the four first years in the new stadium increased family season ticket sales from 459 to over 8,000 (without winning anything) and who became something of a benchmark for others as a result of that, they rigged the turnstile so that when a young child swipes their season card (on a weekend when it’s their birthday) three red lights flash in the inside, the club’s family liaison officer presents herself and the family receive a treat (sit in the dugout during the pre-match warm up, get an upgrade to hospitality, meet a player or some other ‘money can’t buy’ experience’.

Derby County were the first to allow families to register their first attendance and, as a result, they’d be surprised in their seat with a visit from the mascot or another ‘money can’t buy’ experience, while Sunderland has created a fully immersive family zone that projects films onto walls, provides a range of activities and is drawing families from all four corners of God’s Own Stadium to fill it, such is its powers of engagement.

At Birmingham City they have the ‘High Five’ tradition now where one of the players will run alongside the front of the family zone raising his hand as he passes so that every kid can leap up and give him the famous greeting.

Clubs lower down the League have a natural advantage as they more easily get to know their new families but sometimes, in my view, they suffer from an inferiority complex believing that only larger clubs have the resource and capacity to do this sort of thing. The opposite is true and we’re starting to see more and more engagement of the sort practised by Plymouth Argyle in their fantastic family zone infect other clubs’ strategies and, as a consequence, delight more and more families.

The best testament to the progress being made on the family engagement front is that there is now a new and more powerful catalyst for change than ever before: everybody else is doing it and we don’t want to miss out. Family engagement is, for me, the best indication that football is ready for the future and ready to grasp it with both hands. 5 million kids can’t be wrong.


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