Great Expectations

Friday 21st August 2015 at 10:03AM

There’s nothing quite like the sense of anticipation that fills the air before the first fixture of the season. Will the 1-1 draw in the pre-season friendly at Rhyl signal a remarkable away record that will see the boys promoted back to the National League before Guy Fawkes’ Night? Or will the Bucks fail to win a home game until February?

Of course, being someone lost to rational thought on account of a lifelong addiction to Sunderland AFC, I always favour the negative outcome, since anything else is a bonus. Applied to that collective of semi-retired journeymen & feckless ingénues (who’ve persuaded their other halves that Wearside is the new shopping Valhalla but kept quiet about the fact that every contract signed up there means wages are cut by 50% if we go down) this means we’ll perfect our descent to the Championship this time, rather than blowing it at the last moment by taking 7 points from consecutive away games at Manchester City, Chelsea and Manchester United (2013/14) or by carelessly throwing it away by successively beating Southampton, winning at Everton and drawing at Arsenal (2014/15).

The fact is, for the vast majority of football fans, glory is not only just out of reach, but further away than the New Horizons spacecraft. We hope ‘big’ but think ‘small’ and fear extinction. And yet, being honest about the long term footballing possibilities of our clubs could open up a new way of thinking, where instead of being known for our on-field exploits, we embrace a set of other factors that grow our club more sustainably.

I was speaking to the chairman of Lewes FC, another supporter-owned club, the other day. He told me that one of his favourite business mottoes was ‘get big, get niche or get out’ but was only just beginning to realise that it was a perfect philosophy for his football club too. The Rooks, because of their proximity to Brighton & Hove Albion (with their amazing new stadium and ability to hoover up most of the young talent in the area) and also because of their proximity with relegation out of the Ryman Premier League, could seriously not expect to get ‘big’, but they’ve certainly created a niche with their imaginative match posters and their five recently constructed hospitality beach huts (£260 a match, Sky Sports, beer fridge and Wi-Fi for a group of friends).

This was one of the factors I presented on at the National Leagues’ conference at St George’s Park last month. One simple question took the discussions in an interesting direction: what is the most common approach to recruiting volunteers in the National League System? Word of mouth (according to recent research). But ask the question: what is the most effective approach to recruiting volunteers and research showed that ‘word of mouth’ is nowhere near the top of the list. In fact, local university / college internships was the method that worked best. There were clubs present who had increased attendances following relegation. There were some who had seen the age profile of their fans fall. Others had seen revenue from off-pitch activities increase dramatically, while one club (St Helen’s Town: currently exiled to Ashton Athletic’s ground) is now getting 15,000 views of their new on-line match day programme and seeing a huge increase in corporate partnerships and sponsorship as a result.

These clubs had some unifying habits: a focus on recruiting the right volunteers and supporting them; strengthening the profile of the club in the local community through themes rather than matches; making it easy for new fans to engage; improving the match day experience; experimenting with new approaches to developing local business partnerships and making social media work for them (including little things like following back – not just gathering followers). Becoming ‘niche’ doesn’t mean a rejection of progress on the pitch. Neither does it mean becoming Shropshire’s own FC St Pauli. But it’s somehow more appealing than putting it all on an away win at Lowestoft.

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