The future of the football programme

 

The definitive guide to football programmes

 

For over a hundred years football programmes have been the vital accompaniment to any match. Even the smallest, most insignificant game is normally commemorated by the issue of a matchday programme. I know some people who will not count that they have been to see a game unless they can get a programme or at least a team sheet.  They have also been in some instances a valuable commodity, with some programmes being sold at major auction houses around the world for more than £20,000, although ironically these days when programmes are mass produced glossy “brochures”, the programmes that fetch the highest bids on the likes of eBay are pirate programmes, often complete with spelling mistakes and miscredited photos.

When West Ham went on their last “European Tour” there was not a programme issued for the game in Palermo.  There was an official press pack that of course found its way onto eBay, but the greatest demand came from a fake programme issued in small numbers, and sold to arriving fans at Palermo airport complete with photos of Rio instead of Anton Ferdinand, and the recently departed Marlon Harwood instead of Carlton Cole.  Oh, and of course the club were managed by Alan Mildew instead of Pardew.

Original editions of some games are still in great demand from collectors around the world, but has the day of the programme now passed? Modern technology and our leisure time activity means that programmes are out of date the second they are printed. In the days of modern squads there is no finese in what the clubs produce, simply listing the whole squad, rather than listing the potential starting XI normally given to the programme editor by the manager himself. So why do clubs still persist in producing them, and more importantly why do fans still buy them?

I still tend to buy a programme when I go to visit a new club. Take Wealdstone for instance. I have nothing against them – it just happened to be one of the last programmes I bought when they played a pre-season game in late July against Dagenham & Redbridge. The club produced a 32 page programme covering their pre-season games against Dagenham and Watford later in the week for £2.

Value for money? Well not really. Take away 4 pages of adverts, 2 pages dedicated to the team line ups, 2 pages taken up by forthcoming season fixtures and you have 24 pages of content. Plenty there for everyone wouldn’t you say? Well, 9 1/2 pages were taken up to a review of the visitors Dagenham & Redbidge yet there wasn’t a single page devoted to Watford. The rest was a mix of photos and articles that had also appeared on their website. So what value did any fans get out of the programme? 9 1/2 pages for the away team? When there was more Dagenham players than fans at the game? Wealdstone fans surely don’t want to have such detail about a team they will more than likely never see play again.

Social media networks such as Twitter allow information to be shared as soon as it is released to all interested parties with ease. Wealdstone themselves use it to send out club news and update on games. Free software such as WordPress, Joumla and Drupal has enabled clubs to build websites that are attractive, feature rich and can be updated with ease. So is there a place for the match day programme as we know it?

Most clubs struggle to fill a 24 or a 32 page programme on a regular basis. There is a fine balance to be made in the lower leagues between making it profitable by selling advertising space or by filling it with well written and exclusive content that is fresh for the fans who buy it. Fans no longer want to read interviews with players who claim their undying love for the club and its fans, or that their favourite meal is steak and chips. They want something new, or do they? Adverts are usually irrelevant to the club and are simply in there because the commercial manager managed to do a deal on selling the space. How often do you see an ad “Wishing the Club all the best for the forthcoming season”? Simply a space filler.

Carlisle United have taken a very bold step this year. They realise that most of their fans visit the website on a daily, if not a weekly basis. Some will also sign up to the club’s email newsletter sent once a week, and a few will follow the official and unofficial Twitter feeds and Facebook pages. So instead of churning out a 48 page programme filled with old content and adverts for £3, they are producing a much smaller edition for £1. Less content, but more relevant and interesting content.  And the result?  Virtually every edition has been sold out with a penetration rate of over 20% of match day attendees purchasing the programme.

Whenever and wherever England play an international you will find a small FREE magazine being given away outside the group called Free Lions. Written by the Football Supporters Federation it includes items such as location themed quizzes, information on the next away destination (or the current one), special offers for the fans and interesting content written by journalists and not the FA. But what is interesting content?

I have got involved heavily with Lewes FC’s matchday programme this season.  We realised last season that it wasn’t what the fans wanted.  So now the 40 page matchday prorgamme, which sells for £2 includes 12 pages of adverts, but 28 pages of new content.  Each away team has one page on the club itself, focusing on 10 facts about them whilst each player in the squad has one line on them on the back cover team line ups – for instance Andre Foster “has represented Trinidad in the World Youth Games”.  Other content includes articles that have appeared on this very blog (and Danny Last’s European Football Weekends site such as interviews with Clive Tyldesley and Kevin Day), a fans review of a previous away game and an unusual guide to forthcoming away days.

Why do clubs dedicate, as Wealdstone did, so much information on the away team? The away fans know everything there is to know about their team so its irrelevant to them, and do home fans really care about indept profiles about their opponents? Take West Ham (no, please). Last season when they played Manchester United they dedicated sections on Wayne Rooney and Sir Alex Ferguson – as if any fans who went to the game didn’t know about them.

 

Generated using the TotalFootball iPhone app downloadable from http://www.totalfootballapps.com

 

Stats pages were always the most interesting part of the programme – but again the internet has changed that. The emergence of OPTA has revolutionised the way us nerds watch and analyse football. Want to know the impact of making a substitution had on a game, well there are sites for that too such as the excellent Zonal Marking. Away Travel section? How many fans would take one a programme with them when they travelled to a new away group? Compare that to those who simply type the postcode in their SatNav system to get accurate information including the latest travel. Away fans want to know where

Do we really want to read the egotistic ramblings of the chairman or the manager who throws in every cliche in the book in their description of the 6-0 defeat last week? Pictures from the most recent games? It is hard to make football pictures interesting at the best of time. Some of the best sports photographers I know, such as David Bauckham and James Boyes who specialises in non-league football, focus on the events around the pitch that bring life to the game.

So what is the future? Carlisle’s model is an interesting one and I will monitor it to see if it works. Certainly clubs need to invest in external content, looking at articles not just about their clubs, but about the world of football as a whole. There are thousands of excellent websites out there that produce new content every day – all they need to do is ask.

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23 thoughts on “The future of the football programme

  1. As a Leeds fan I haven’t purchased a match day programme since the European days. Ken Bates’ media ‘empire’ churns out some absolute garbage so the Square Ball is a refreshing alternative and a bargain at £1.

  2. Definitely a point of some interest. As a Carlisle fan myself I think the club’s made the right move. I know they were making not insignificant losses on the programme last season and that it was proving a killer to produce for the committed media staff of one (who is also the club kit manager!). That said, I understand that the club had to fight with the Football League to allow for the format and that they are being seen very much as a ‘test case’.

    Also worth noting is that Carlisle have set out to produce a partner publication for the programme. The club’s first ever magazine, ‘United Scene’ is bi-monthly (so not a cash drain like programmes) and has much more in-depth interviews with players, profiles of away days from ex-pat fans, a ‘Cumbrian Connections’ feature on FL players from the county and quirky ideas like player restaurant and music reviews. The club see it very much as a ‘companion piece’ for the programme and website, all content is original and doesn’t appear online. In that way it’s more like your Lewes offering.

    I’m sure the club’s media (and kit) man Andy Hall will be happy to talk to you about the Carlisle experiment. he is a very friendly and helpful chap.

  3. I still get the programme at every match I attend (and this includes rugby and cricket). And yet I scarcely read them. But it’s a habit, and I still get hacked off if I can’t get one (last occurrence, Scunny away a couple of years back). I get them ‘free’ at Palace as part of my ultra long-term ‘Ambassador’ season ticket at Palace (I still have left to run on the ST 21 years or until we win another league game, whichever is the longer).

    I could sure do them with being less bulky, as they take up a ridiculous amount of space: http://i300.photobucket.com/albums/nn13/calneeagle/Palaceprogrammes1945to2003.jpg (1946 to 2003, some in the cupboard – 2003 onwards take up 2 boxfiles a season elsewhere).

    But I can’t stop, as I have a nearly complete (3 missing) collection of home programmes from 1958 (I decided the year of my birth was a suitable point to aim for completeness( as well as a few from each post-war season. Of course the older ones are more interesting as historical documents, but they were also generally more distinctive from club to club. I would far rather have a smaller, quirkier, programme. The silly thing with my Bath Rugby ones is that I buy them religiously, but have always printed off the final teamsheet before I come to the game.

    Lewes’ programme sounds great, but then the Rooks seem to have so many things right.

    • Oh yes. That IS a vinyl version of ‘Gentle Giant’s ‘Octopus’. And I haven’t finished decorating – there will be wallpaper there. One day………

      And I am somewhere quite high on autism spectrum questionnaires…..

  4. I presume you were taking the piss about the ‘sense of reality’, BTW. At least I don’t poison myself with Slovakian sausages… Anyway, reality is vastly over-rated.

  5. as a designer of matchday programme’s i like the questions you are asking in this article, well written!

    i agree the content should be more fan based and steps are being taken (slowly in some cases) to incorporate twitter/facebook etc as some clubs wake up to this so hopefully fans voices will be heard more with this

    the point with your stats you will find some clubs, however right or wrong wont want to have their tactics written down in black and white and analysed even if it in the public domain and media critics are discussing it.

    im all for the fans becoming more involved in the programme process with articles, views and feedback as long as clubs cant restrict what they are saying, to a point obviously, re the carlisle programme a couple of seasons back they had wonderful fans (who could write a good article) columns who gave different views but with there own character which was interesting to read.

    maybe the carlisle small programme/magazine is the way to go in the future

    • I think the clubs should be more welcoming to approaches. Some of the best writers on the internet/blogs actually support the smaller clubs where their help would be more appreciated.

  6. I’m a season ticket holder at the Lane, but hadn’t bought a programme for 20 years until Tuesday night vs Inter. Nice A4 glossy thing with some interesting content but not sure it’s worth a fiver! Will probably remain a one-off purchase (until the knock-out stages anyway….)

  7. I’m in my ninth season as editor of the Maidenhead United programme. Last season I decided to go for the one pound option, to give people that wanted a programme the basics at a price that didn’t rip them off. The result was more sales, lower production costs and a profit without advertising revenue so I have continued in the same way this season.
    I’ve also spent the time I saved adding club related content to the website, Twitter and my blog
    To be fair with regards away club details, they are required to be inserted by the league.
    My review of the book pictured at the top of the page
    http://educatedleftfoot.blogspot.com/2008/01/you-can-divide-football-supporters-into.html

  8. Good stuff Stu,

    As regular purchasers of non-league programmes we’d like to give a dishonourable mention to Corinthian Casuals for selling us a much anticipated programme for what we thought was a meagre £1. For our quid we got two pages of A4 copier paper folded in half and it contained a team sheet (which was wrong) and was about 50% ads.

    Taking the piss.

  9. Best programme I’ve come across this season was at Percy Main. Included in the ticket price, it had an opinion piece, a few bits and bobs about the teams and was just enough to get me through half-time. Most of the others I’ve come across are either chock-a-block with adverts or in the same vein as Corinthian Casuals above.

    Great piece.

  10. Very nice use of an early 60′s Port Vale Graphic for the Lewes F.C. programme. I did something similar when i produced the cover for the Willington A.F.C (ex-Northern League stalwarts) many years ago. I use an early 60′s Bradford City programme graphic.

    With regard to programmes I go to games in Germany and they are usually given away free all the way up to the Liga 3 level. Bundesliga 2 charge 1/1.5 euro and Bundesliga charge 2 euro. I always get a programme in Germany. PL programmes are too expensive – i just want the team line-ups some back ground, some history, the league table and how the reserves and youth teams are doing. Not worth 4/5 GBP.

  11. Programmes have never been as big in Holland as it is in the UK. But we have a fair share of collectors. Nowadays Dutch clubs tend to give them for free as a kind of service. This is useful for the match visitors as they can easily see the team line-ups. That is the most important function of the programme for the majority of the visitors. I want to see what players are on the pitch. Of course for Ajax, Feyenoord or PSV I will know them but for Spakenburg or IJsselmeervogels, to name a few less well known teams, that is much harder.

    The function of the programme has changed indeed. All information about clubs can be found on the internet. I hardly read the programmes anymore. I just skip through it as the time spend on reading has shifted from paper to the internet. Also the information, as Stuart mentioned, is not interesting enough. Most of the times it is rather full of clichés with the ‘Chairman or Managers view’ leading that ‘Boring, boring’ League. I believe though that a piece of paper will always be more convenient than an iPad or mobile phone to view the line-ups when you are actually in the stadium or at least give me the nostalgic feeling that it is part of my match rituals.

    The other major reason why I keep buying them is that they are my football memory. I always keep the ticket, the programme and a match report as a memory of all my football fan years. As years go by I tend to forget about matches and this way I can remember the special moments.

    Recently I started logging and presenting my attended matches and memorabilia on-line ( http://www.footballfans.eu/fan/6/Footballfrans/collection ). Doing that I realised that the old programmes that I collected, had much more ‘value’ in the old days. There was no ‘other’ information, it was virtually the only source of official club information. While I was logging my record on-line I wonder if I will cherish my virtual PDF-match programme in 30 years from now as much as I cherish the old paper match programmes that I have in my collection. Who knows?

    So what’s the future of programmes? Looking at the Web 2.0 developments it is about time that clubs really start to embrace the fans and let them help in their process in all sorts of ways. There is an awful lot of talent every fortnight watching their games and clubs are just not able to see the potential. They mainly see them as ‘cash cows’. If they can mobilize them, for example just starting with the match programmes, they could fill the programmes with very good articles that fans like to read. Interesting is that in the Netherlands, the major soccer magazine, Voetbal Internaional, spends more and more articles on the experience of the unknown fans and amateur football. That is really appreciated by the readers.

    So I am curious whether there are clubs where these developments have already started?

  12. Unfortunately, I believe, like with much football memorabilia, that for programmes the end is nigh. I remember my young days when I had dozens of England / Wembley programmes as well as huge numbers of other clubs as well as my much loved (and still owned) Villa collection. It was no great shakes to ask someone to bring back programmes from various games as, at 10p or so, my older brother / father was happy to pay over such trifling amounts. Nowadays, it’s a significant cost to purchase a programme, particularly Wembley ones and so I do question where the next generation of collectors is coming from, Certainly, I don’t buy them for my children as they are not interested enough to warrant handing over £6 for a glossy, large, yet ultimately shallow and fatuous programme that doesn’t know if it wants to be a comic or a broadsheet and ends up being neither. It’s an indictment on many modern programmes that they contain less comment in 100 pages, than many of the old 8 pagers from the 50′s and 60′s. I buy out of habit. However, I’m already questioning whether my Villa subscription will be renewed next year.

  13. Interesting piece but very harsh on Wealdstone, who always seem to win the Ryman Premier award for best programme – I think the one you happened to see was for a pre-season friendly when the production team were all on holiday. I must admit to an agenda here, as I contribute to the Stones programme, and you’ll be pleased to hear that our ‘penetration’ is 50% for home attendances, that’s at least 250 for every game. We keep it interesting with original, amusing features that never find their way onto the internet, and the fans respond by contributing enthusiastically to the prog. We love producing it, and they love reading it. Result!
    Incidentally, as a newspaper print journalist I’d love to believe that electronic data will never completely take over… and you are right about football programmes, they are a memento of the occasion that can never be wiped from a database.
    Tim Parks

    • Hi Tim…Thanks for your comments. My only guide for the programmes is from the game I was at – for Wealdstone it was a pre-season friendly. From a Lewes point of view we produce 250 and sell upwards of 230 as well as an online edition. If we had our way we would produce a much smaller “matchday” programme with zero ads whilst an online edition would be monthly and more of a magazine.

  14. Just as a further comment on price, a believe the ceiling price is £2, right from non-League to the top tier. I would certainly baulk at having to pay a fiver or more for a Premier League programme, and echo sentiments that they are often identikit, glossy productions containing nothing that you didn’t already know
    Yes, at Wealdstone we charge £2 but there are around 30 pages (in a typical 48-page mag) of interesting, original, well designed material. People buy it, like it, are part of it, and don’t feel ripped off.
    Tim Parks

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