Mark Bradley shares his top ten tips for increasing attendances in 2018

For most of the clubs I know, maintaining or increasing attendances will be their biggest challenge in the season ahead. Achieving sporting glory will always be the ultimate objective, but most of us know that this is as likely as your accumulator bet coming up. (My first one this season contained a fairly straightforward bunch of bankers. ‘Chelsea home to Burnley’ I thought. ‘I can’t lose.’).


But I know, without any doubt whatsoever, that a club that builds its strategy and culture around four key pillars: Meaning & identity; Authentic supporter dialogue; Consistently excellent fan experiences; A valued and motivated workforce will thrive – regardless of how well it performs on the pitch. If only one would.


Engagement based on short-term ‘miracle’ moments like Leicester City’s remarkable 2015/16 campaign is not sustainable, as it requires a consistently repeated level of performance to thrive. However, when you look at the way clubs, especially at this wonderful time of the year, position themselves with fans, it is always about ‘achievement’: pursuing goals ON the pitch.  It’s rarely about getting closer to fans. Is it any wonder that many clubs struggle for sustainability when engagement is not even a strategic priority?


16 years of working in football has made it clear to me that discounting is not an effective alternative path to sustainability. Price mustn’t be a barrier to fans, but it’s engagement that has a stronger influence on whether or not they return. Sure, winning will get them coming back too, but you can’t control that and, as many will tell you, those fans that come along in the soft glow of glory are the first to desert when failure comes knocking.


In my more despairing moments of existentialist angst, I often wonder whether the solution to this would be for clubs to simply lower supporter expectations. As a Sunderland fan, I think I’d warm to a strategy defined by terms like ‘scraping through’, ‘looking for the positives’, ‘battling’ and ‘having eleven fit players’. But I’m consoled by the knowledge that any club that follows my advice below can look forward with much more confidence.


Here are my top ten tips for 2018:


Make Supporter Engagement a Priority


Most businesses say engagement is important, but customer value isn’t measured, senior officials don’t talk about it, it’s not a priority at meetings and, as is abundantly clear to anyone who works in the organisation, there are far more important priorities. There’s something of this in football clubs, where the defining culture is one of aggression, perhaps understandably when one considers the importance of achieving sporting glory. However, when this culture of aggression infects supporter-facing parts of the club (ticket office, stewards, refreshments staff, etc.) then you have a problem.


If you’re a senior official or decision maker at the club, make it clear not just through what you say – but also what you do – that fans matter. Ask about feedback; include engagement on meeting agendas, base recognition around acts of kindness to fans and share performance stats with your people.


The leaders, of course, are key since they set the tone for the rest of the organisation. If the CEO never shows any interest in ‘listening’ to the customer, then why should I do anything different? If, however, before a game, he or she is out talking to supporters in the stadium vicinity, then all of a sudden, the stewarding team is on its marks too.


The biggest thing you can do to revolutionise perceptions of your club is to value match day staff. Give them a purpose beyond leaning against a wall and not knowing where the club shop is; give them ‘freebies’ to give to kids or away fans, recognise them – have supporters choose the ‘steward / volunteer’ of the month and then have a high profile ‘end of year’ awards night for your own people perhaps driven by a social media campaign; show them that they are appreciated and, believe it or not, they’ll make your fans feel good too.


Talk to Supporters


Most supporters believe that their clubs keep them at an arm’s length. Sometimes this is because of a feeling that ‘we can’t please anyone’ and often simply because it’s not been done before and we’re not sure how to do it.


So, my recommendation would be to put in place a process for generating feedback, whether it be simply an ‘engagement’ hashtag or even Twitter Polls, a regular face-to-face supporter forum or a quantitative survey. 


Share the results widely – especially if they’re constructively critical; thank fans for input; tell fans what you’re doing with their feedback and make it a big moment when you implement a change fans have been calling for.  In addition to generating useful improvement data, the simple presence of these processes will create more positive perceptions of your club.


Measure Supporter Engagement


What we measure defines us also. If all we measure is attendance, then we can only guess at what is driving that.  However, if we’re on top of the factors influencing attendance, we’re naturally better placed to take remedial action.


There is no typical fan of a club. There are different groups. So what are their characteristics? What represents value to each of them? It’s indicative of the ‘arm’s length’ attitude many clubs have to fans that while congratulating ourselves on how wonderful our latest piece of ‘digital engagement’ is, hardly any of us ever use social media to ask our fans what they think or how they feel.


What is the reason for non-renewal of season tickets? What is the reason an irregular supporter has started to come more often? How strongly would supporters recommend the club to people who’ve not been to games before? How easy is it to deal with the club? How valued do you feel as a fan? These are big steps towards sustainability and growth.


Recognise that the make-up of your fan base is changing


Let me ask you one question: does your club have a high profile female voice? Women and girls make up a growing segment of your fan base and yet remain under-represented in boardrooms, management teams and on a match day.


When I speak to female supporters they see this translating into a variety of disappointments and many massive missed opportunities. Why not make 2018 the year when you begin to understand what drives your female fans’ perceptions of your club?


Recognise Achievement


In the course of our many football trips most of the magic we see is off the pitch: refreshments staff who see how much a young family has to carry and offer to take their purchases back to their seats for them; a steward who helps a little lad to obtain an autograph; a ticket office telephone assistant at Peterborough United who picks up that a caller was bringing his kids to their first game and then offers to meet them on the day and invites them to meet a player.


At Oklahoma Thunder, when club reps are observed doing the right thing, they are immediately rewarded by supervisors armed with tokens that can be exchanged for discounts at local stores or gifts at the end of their shift. This particular approach might be too ‘American’ for some, but that’s no excuse for not finding ways to reward people for ‘doing the right thing’.


Make the most of your Supporter Liaison Officer


Although clubs range in size, resources and potential, they all have a Supporter Liaison Officer (SLO). To what extent is your SLO driving engagement? This is a particularly easy ‘open goal’ because the SLO is a fan – so he or she is more likely to understand how the club is perceived and where the gaps are. So, are there opportunities for the SLO to take a more direct role in implementing change?


Walk in the Supporters’ Shoes


Every NBA chief executive is expected to undertake a personal ‘garage to garage’ assessment of his or her club’s game day experience. From planning attendance (website and social media) to travelling to the game; from parking up, to enjoying the pre-game period and everything that happens once inside the arena, they have to experience it all personally. This is non-negotiable. Why? Because of the value it adds and how important it is to the NBA brand and identity.


Be Different


When Ana first attended games with me as part of the EFL’s pilot prior to the 2007 launch of the Family Excellence Awards, I used to get excited about introducing her to the delights of whichever club we were at – while she used to describe the experiences as ‘same song, different lyrics’. 


If she were an existing fan of the club, it would have meant something more of course, but as a new fan – and as someone potentially exerting some influence over the family’s leisure spend – she wasn’t being engaged.


All she felt was ‘sameness’ as we travelled around, when she was expecting something different.  She assumed each club would loudly promote their USP. She was wrong.


This got me thinking about ‘identity’ because without that, new fans can only base their decision on where to go on the quality of football – by definition, the club furthest up the pyramid.


So, what makes your club unique? Is it an aspect of the club’s history, the industrial heritage of the town, a local food item or a story? I recall AFC Telford United celebrating the local village of Dawley by resurrecting connected icons such as Captain Webb, Fatty Foulkes, George Cadbury and the Pig on the Wall – don’t ask, and featuring them on that match day.


Lewes FC does it through imaginative promotional posters and a match day experience aligned to something much more abstract than a simple game of football, but few others even consider this. If you’re not going to be sweeping all before you on the pitch, then what’s making you different off it? Make 2018 the year you start to be nice to away fans.


Don’t Get Left Behind


I’m always suspicious of claims by the App development industry that what they do represents ‘fan engagement’. Fan ‘content’ or ‘entertainment’, I’d agree with, but what connects a fan to his or her club transcends the device in the hand and the content on your screen. 


Having said that, however, the world is changing fast and clubs can’t afford to be left behind. More than 50% of people now browse on smart phones or tablets and yet expect to be able to find everything they need there. YouTube is globally the most used medium. Kids have abandoned Facebook in favour of Instagram and Snapchat and more and more clubs are forming eSports squads. A connected club communicates more effectively, so how are you going to engage in 2018?


Ask Why?


There are immense opportunities in our sport that cannot be addressed simply by succeeding on the pitch. We need to transcend the 90 minutes and pursue the deeper connection that drives the love for the club.  But when you consider that supporters are more likely to know what their clubs stand for than the people who own them, you have a simple explanation for enduring disenchantment.


Put it another way: how many leaders in the UK don’t know their own companies’ brand values? My hope is that clubs devote some time in 2018 to considering how they are going to build a strategy that goes beyond winning because, as most fans know, the real badge of honour is presented to the fan who has suffered most. They pursue glory while we glory in the mundane. 


Ken Magson, a Doncaster Rovers Supporter of 50 years, recently passed away. His headstone reads ‘I fear the worst’.


Happy New Year! I wish you all health, happiness and peace.


Image: PA Images