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”?
Football 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.