The purpose of this model is to provide football federations, leagues and clubs with a framework on how they can grow attendance on game days. There is a general acceptance that achieving success on the pitch will have a positive impact in terms of attendance. Relying solely on results is a poor and unsustainable strategy to growing attendance, therefore we created this model. Admittedly, attendance can also depend on the opponent the team plays. In sports economics, this is called the drawing potential of the away team (Kesenne, 2014). This does have an impact on attendance but again, it is not a sustainable strategy as a team will only play against a top team a limited number of times at home per season (this also is the case for local derby games).
Why should a league, club or federation want to increase attendance? Apart from the obvious financial benefit (ticketing, food and beverage sales on game days), more attendees mean a more valuable proposition for sponsors/broadcasters as well helping to create the right atmosphere during home games.
This model is intended for use by football federations (national teams), leagues and clubs. The model can also be applied to other sports (like rugby, cricket etc.) who have regular league appearances over a sustained period though this is not included in the scope of this blog.
Clubs and federations should focus on the elements that are within their control (e.g. pricing, customer service, stadium cleanliness, etc) and mitigate against the elements they can’t control (e.g. other competitors, competitive imbalance of the league, weather, team performance, away team etc).
The model has been created by Geoff Wilson and Bas Schnater based on their own club and National federation experiences within the football industry. The model has been reviewed and supported by Mark Bradley (www.fanexperienceco.com), David Fowler and Dr Paul Blakey (University of Worcester) and has been tested with leagues and teams in terms of application and usability before publication.
The model is broken into three broad elements:
- Foundation necessities
- Resource commitments
1. Foundation necessities
The first broad element that must be in place in order to realize sustainable attendance growth is to have a clearly defined vision, mission and culture & heritage. A clear vision and mission provide clarity of purpose and direction for the entire organisation across all departments. The vision statement clearly defines where you want your federation or club to be in the future. In essence, it states your ambition as an organisation, providing direction on where you are heading. The mission simply describes the current purpose and activities – what you do, for whom, and what are the benefits. A mission statement helps to clarify the role of the federation and activities with its stakeholders. It asks the question, why do we exist? The goals and objectives derived from this vision and mission will then guide the organization through this process. It is therefore important that growing attendance is an important part of the long-term agenda of the organization. This ensures all departments are aligned and justifies the allocation of necessary resources. Everyone should buy into what your trying to achieve in terms of sustaining or growing attendance at home games – it’s not just the job of the marketing department!
A club or national team must have a clear understanding of its cultural surroundings which are deeply rooted in the team’s history and heritage. Closely linked to this are the club’s or national federation’s values: this provides a framework on how staff and fans should behave. Having core values allows fans to identify themselves with the team and brings the fans together in terms of their support. These core values express who they are as a group, what they believe in and what they stand for., Being part of the ‘tribe or clan’ is one of the basic human needs (Funk, Filo, Beaton, & Pritchard, 2009) with the behaviour of staying part of the group through the highs and lows of the team’s performance on the field, (a concept called performance tolerance) (de Ruyter & Wetzels, 2000). A great example is the fans of the Northern Ireland International team. They have created a core identity (the Green and white army; GAWA) which combines a set of values & culture which are portrayed in the stands during games – fun, passion, togetherness, inclusiveness. A club or national teams culture determines whether, for example, the focus is on fun or whether it promotes the club’s history/heritage. The culture creates the atmosphere that permeates every aspect of the club or national team. Is the atmosphere relaxed or intense? Supportive or competitive? This should all be considered during this stage of the model when growing attendance.
The club or national federation should identify with the values, culture, history and heritage alongside the fans so that a strong foundation is established of who they are, what they believe in and how it is portrayed on match day and non-match days (Wilson & Fowler, 2016). The fan culture ensures a sense of ownership and togetherness with the team.
Read: Fan Engagement, from match day to every day by Geoff Wilson & David Fowler
If the organisation is not 100% clear on why it exists, where it is heading and does not have a deep understanding of its cultures/values/history and heritage, then whatever activity is planned is not grounded in a firm foundation (Draebye, 2017). Also, it will undoubtedly lead to internal communication inconsistencies which can result in external branding inconsistencies. It will make it more difficult for fans to connect themselves to the team as different interpretations about the brand will exist (Boyle, 2017).
2. Resource Commitments
To grow attendance sustainably, resources must be allocated strategically. This includes:
- Cultural engagement and leadership. The support of the Chair, CEO and/or Marketing Director are fundamental when seeking to grow attendance. It is strong leadership that not only will provide direction, but it will also ensure that implementation is operationalized and the necessary appropriate resources will be reserved(Elberse, 2013). Senior leaders must be fully engaged in the programme from the very start and commit appropriate resources to make it happen (Bradley, 2019). This includes growing attendance being part of strategic meetings. The culture within the organisation must allow staff to safely share new ideas and programmes. Leadership should therefore develop a healthy working culture. It is this senior leader who then connects this to key elements such as heritage, history and organisation values (ECA, 2018).
- Marketing research. It is vital to conduct qualitative and quantitative research with your fans. It is important to get an overall evaluation on the quality of the fan experience. This will help to understand what improvements are needed. Analysis of transactional data (ticketing, merchandising, fob, data etc.) stored in a centralized CRM-system will help to construct an overall overview. It will expose opportunities on what to improve which can then should be reviewed each quarter. But for fully reliable results, qualitative research methods should also be considered. Have direct interactions with your fans to discover what they need when they visit the stadium. Methods to get this information could be via focus groups, interviews or surveys, D School methods or other customer experience measurement tools (Lindsay, van Leeuwen, & van de Peppel, 2017).
The impact of local competition from other sports and entertainment offerings must be taken into consideration. Who are they, what is their experience like? Are you both going after the same audience? Research must be conducted to understand the competition better as well as developing an appropriate action plan.
Finally, it is also important to conduct desk research. It is important to gain a deep understanding of your potential fan base. What are the different segments who you don’t reach yet, what is the customer lifetime value assigned to each segment, how can these segments be reached? It is vital to conduct desk research regularly and then to create plans on how to gain access to these potential fans.
- Resource allocation includes areas such as; training hours provided to ensure well-trained stewards, parking staff, friendly hospitality staff, bar staff etc(Ferrand, 2017). These front-line fan contact moments all need to be staffed by people who have been given the right training i.e. customer service, dealing with families, security. Nothing is more negative to a fan experience than bad customer service from club employees. An experienced marketing team must also be in place with the right marketing budget assigned to be able to connect to the desired audience. In addition, ongoing training in staff must be maintained alongside the recruitment of staff with the right skills and personality across the organisation to employees who are in direct contact with fans. Also, budgets should be reserved to improve the fan experience. As Formula 1 has shown, investments in fan engagement and the fan experience can result in increased revenues and therefore seem to be a commercially logical choice.
- Communications strategy. A communications strategy focuses on areas such as: communications objectives, implementation plan, annual content plan, relevant platforms/channels to market for your various fan segments. A clear, simple and consistent message must be created which can unite fans and engage them beyond the matchday experience. In addition, compelling content which is delivered across a range of digital and non-digital platforms should be actioned. As Fiona Green, managing director of Winners puts it, key is to “get the right message, to the right person, at the right time, on the right platform”(Green, 2018). This is where CRM can also be used. The club and or national federation should distribute this content in the right way via direct channels (social media, web, email, app, messaging,) and also via the channels of communication partners (influencers, digital media, traditional media etc). Engaging and interactive content with a consistent tone of voice must be established. This content must be amplified through a wide range of partnerships such as external digital blogs/websites, the players channels or broadcasters. The content created should not only focus on the club/national teams’ history and heritage but also on the current team / players / legends / heroes. Especially in the age of social media, bringing the fans closer to the players will give them a stronger affinity to the club/national team.
It is vital to ensure the same creative message is communicated through all these channels regularly. To feed the appetite of the modern football fan living in an information society, strong storytelling techniques should be applied around game days to extend the game day experience to more than 90 minutes (Rein, Kotler, & Shields, 2006). It will help fans to warm-up and to follow the team overall rather than just following the games.
Refer to the KNVB video which show how they are applying storytelling around the game: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=1&v=hoIqp3rUx5Q
Growing attendance does not mean you only focus on acquiring ‘new’ fans. Communication & Marketing strategies must be developed for the various sectors of your fan base such as the ‘hard core’ and casual fan. Retention strategies must be implemented alongside acquisition plans as the cost to acquire a new fan can be significantly higher than retaining an existing fan.
This element of the model deals with putting the activities in place to realize the strategic elements of the model. As mentioned earlier, it is vital to have a consistent message across all platforms telling the same story. This will help in unified team identification and will stimulate positive tribalism and identity. This can be done through leveraging key moments in the team’s history. Clubs and federations should facilitate this accordingly. The brand should therefore be consistent, not only in its messaging but in the overall delivery of the brand promise (Willems, 2017) .
Another element how sports organizations can grow attendance sustainably is by allowing and facilitating positive tribalism to happen. A good example of positive tribalism is that of the Tartan Army in Scotland. The use of ‘the tartan’ provides a strong symbol that unites the fans for the national team – tapping into their history and heritage as a country.
The final strategic elements required to growing attendance include:
- Improve the fan experience (Match day)
This pillar covers fan engagement on match days both at the stadium and away from the stadium. This focuses on the following areas:
- customer journey to and from the stadium. Walking in the shoes of the fans is a great way to identify the customer journey on game days. (Schnater, 2016)
- quality assessment of the physical matchday product
- cleanliness of the stadium, price of tickets relative to the overall experience, fans activity at the stadium (quality of entertainment in the fan zones etc), quality of food and beverages, helpful/friendly and knowledgeable staff/stewards, access into the stadium (car parking, turnstiles access), experience of shop (range of products, quality of products), atmosphere inside and outside the stadium (this also includes fan songs and singing sections). In many cases the location of the stadium can be a hindrance, but this is where frequent transportation to and from the stadium comes into play. The stadium or venue plays an important part in growing attendances. For example, families might not come to the stadium unless there are clean toilets or “family areas”, disabled spectators need specific facilities as do fans of an older generation.
Various ticketing options should be created by the club and federation to meet the needs of their various fan segments. It is important to find the right ticketing options that optimises attendance (ticket packages, pricing, various places to purchase a ticket).
Data can be used to identify key pain points in the fans experience. This insight should be used to improve or change the experience on game day. Also, regular market research will expose new trends which will become part of the fans’ expectation. For example, esports is a great market trend but the concourses do need to have space to fit in esports pods. If the concourses are usually congested and you add more elements to it, it will have a contrasting effect.
- Improve the fan engagement (non-match day)
This pillar covers fan engagement outside match days both at the stadium and away from the stadium. This will include areas such as:
- attracting new events to the venue (esports etc)
- ensuring a high-quality experience for fans on museum/stadium tours
- use of the venue and stadiums for business
- retail and other uses during the day
- create unique experiences for fans (for example, train with the team, travel with the team, eat with the team or a player)
In addition to organising activities at the venue, it is important to also include projects, programmes and activities away from the venue on a regular basis. This will strengthen the bond with the sports brand and will lead to increased interest in visiting a game.
- Ongoing Community interaction and engagement
This pillar focuses on the constant engagement with the community. It is vital that community activities are not one-off programmes but foster deep engagement with the community performed regularly throughout the year (ECA, 2019). These programmes must seek to embed the club or national team into the community and therefore become a logical part of life. The club or federation must try to connect this with partnership activities which link into the overall strategic plan. Once the club or federation has become an integrated part of the community, attendance will grow.
The aim of this model is to provide football leagues, clubs and national federations with key building blocks to help grow attendance at their matches. We understand that sporting performance also plays a part in growing attendance but as an industry we can’t solely rely or focus on this. This model provides tools to help grow attendance sustainably.
This blog provides an overview on growing attendance at clubs and federations. Behind the model is a range of toolkits and templates for each stage that would bring about implementation of the model.
Geoff runs his own Sports Consultancy, working with clients such as FIFA, UEFA, AFC and FIBA across the world. He is also on the board of Tourism Northern Ireland. You can follow Geoff on twitter @geoffwnjwilson connect on LinkedIn at linkedin.com/in/geoffwnjwilson
Bas has worked on the club side for many years where he successfully implemented data-driven strategies and has grown attendance. Now, he works in media and is an independent sports consultant who works for federations and clubs around Europe to increase attendance. You can follow Bas on twitter @BasSchnater or connect on LinkedIn.
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