The Blueprint for the Future of Non League football – Listen to the Fans

In the return of our annual series of what changes could be made to Non League football, we are blessed with a set of experts on grass roots football.  First up is the man behind @Nonleaguefooty and a When Saturday Comes regular, Andy Ollerenshaw.

I’ve been intrigued this season with the excellent work that the English Football League has been doing with regards to something loosely referred to as ‘Fan Engagement’. The Football League has worked with consumer experts to understand about the finer details of customer relationships, something that has been a long time needed in our game. In essence, this is all about understanding what fans of clubs really want. And there have been some positive and encouraging results, as fans begin to feel that they are valued.

The question is: could this approach work in non-League. My reply would be “why not”?

8687230616_070ce2148e_bFootball is the strangest of industries. The big, high street companies work extremely hard, and spend an awful lot of money, on building emotional involvement between their brand and their customers. Football is curious in that this emotional bond is already there, but oddly many clubs simply sell football as a product and don’t tap in to the discernible passion of fans. The lower down the leagues one looks, the more important it is that this this bond is exercised, to help and benefit clubs. Simply selling tickets for a game isn’t all a club has to do – football fans want so much more, and this is equally true whether we are talking Premier League or Isthmian League.

So my blueprint would be for the non-League football community to embrace an approach of improved engagement with supporters. Many clubs are doing this already, with Lewes and Marine probably two of the best examples. But a lot of clubs simply plod along, relying on the one or two volunteers who have been around for decades. They live each new season exactly as the last, stuck in a mental rut of “this is how we’ve always done things” and, against all odds, somehow survive on gates of less than 100. The work that the volunteers do in these clubs is beyond reproach, but a little lateral thinking could help ensure survival for many.

So what can be done?

The simplest form of fan engagement is to talk to your fans. Sounds obvious, doesn’t it, but how many clubs actually do this? Sit down, in open discussion, with your supporters. Invite their views. Ask them what they want from their club. Make them involved in decisions that affect the club. And most importantly, listen to them.

There are a surprising number of non-League clubs that don’t do this and at the same time are puzzled at why their gates don’t increase. The typical business strategy for football clubs is one based on hope – hope that the team performs well and that this will attract more people through the turnstiles. For the majority of clubs, this is fundamentally flawed.

Fan engagement doesn’t have to be a complex or complicated exercise. A simple series of meetings or a survey can get the ball rolling. Surveys at Football League clubs in recent years have shown that it’s not all about results on the pitch; fans don’t consistently say that how their team performs is the single most important thing. What fans actually want is to feel valued by their club. To feel involved and not feel alienated. At a superficial level fans may ask for a number of things, whether its cheaper entry, more family entertainment or different beers in the bar. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter how these requests are dealt with. The important thing for clubs is that you listen, are seen to be listening, and do what you can to act upon the request. If supporters feel valued they will come back and, what’s more, they will bring their friends.

Also, be brave and imaginative with your offers. Think about discounted tickets at certain matches. Give kids free entry. Reduce admission for locals. Try the odd ‘Pay What You Can’ type days – you’ll be surprised with the results. But be careful how you sell these offers. If you have long-standing fans that for example, have season tickets, ensure you don’t alienate then with offers you are providing to others. This could be counter-productive as you’ll find it hard to encourage season ticket holders to renew if they feel they are excluded from regular promotions or deals.

This concept should work within non-League just as well as it is working in other levels of football. The beauty of running this type of initiative within non-League football is that it can be appropriately scaled and needn’t be overly onerous. Agreed, yet another volunteer at your club will need time to organise it, but the benefits should be worth it. The positives cited by a number of Football League clubs – Doncaster Rovers, Cardiff City, Bristol City and Port Vale are leading the way – include greater sentiment from fans surrounding club decisions, deeper loyalty from their fan base and improved revenue streams.

But overall, it surely has to be worth a go. As someone quite famous probably said “the most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.” In this respect, non-League football fans are no different.

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One thought on “The Blueprint for the Future of Non League football – Listen to the Fans

  1. A very bold plan indeed, Andy, but one which I sadly think will never catch on.

    The problem with a lot of non-league clubs is that they do not help themselves. They do not market themselves to new fans and seem quite happy just to plod along as you imply. The committees like their own little world, and no nay never shalt anybody come along and try to change that.

    People complain all too readily that there is no ‘new blood’ coming in to replace the ‘old fossils’ on club committees. Well, how can the younger people take an active interest when it is usually the older club members who don’t want new ideas or to try out new things. My Uncle’s friend Gwyn (sadly long deceased) was on a club committee in the 1960s, and was asked by a friend if his club would stage a concert fronted by a band called Tyrannosaurus Rex. The club committee declined saying they did not want ‘a noisy racket’ or ‘the wrong sort’ coming down to the club. I think that most people will know what became of Tyrannosaurus Rex…

    Talking with fans is something only a handful of clubs would even contemplate. Most only care about money. If it’s there then fantastic, and if it’s not well they can then always blame the town/village for a lack of support.

    Non League is definitely going through tough times, but we cannot always blame the Murdoch-Premier League or the recession for clubs suffering. Clubs now have to adapt to new ways of thinking and doing business. As in evolution (if you believe in it), adaptation by species saved them from extinction. This is the stark reality facing every non league club across the land, and those that are inventive and believe that the club does not belong to a bunch of old codgers in suits have a far greater chance of surviving into and beyond the 2020s than those clubs who bury their heads in the sand like ostriches.

    Maybe it is also time to ask just how well the FA is doing with regards to its running of Non League, and to highlight the ways where the FA needs to improve on it. Then again, how many trees would be needed to be felled in order to compile that report?

    A very good read, nonetheless, and it’s got tongues wagging already!

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