Why Families?

Wednesday 26th December 2012 at 9:36AM

This season we had the fantastic news that our the Football League Family Excellence Awards would continue into its sixth season while the SPL Family Champions Programme would embark on its fourth season. In both countries, family advocacy and attendance is up (dramatically in some ‘benchmark’ clubs).  But what about other fans? What about the hardcore fraternity? People often ask me why we seem so obsessed with families, when our main aim is growth through fan engagement.

Some people, quite understandably, think our aim might be to oust the traditional working class core fan and replace them with middle class families whose discretionary spending potential is more aligned to clubs’ aspirations. Others think we’re actually just focused on the UK family experience (and to be fair, someone should, since it’s so dismally pathetic at present).

To understand our approach you have to go back to one of the fundamental principles of change management: the value of comparing the internal (organisation) view with the external (customer) view and using the emerging gap to create a catalyst for thinking differently about common challenges. 

If you ask people INSIDE the organisation for their views on what motivates the customer, what matters to them most and how well they think we deliver on our promises and then asking the same questions to REAL CUSTOMERS, a gap always emerges. 

This ‘customer experience’ deficit not only quickly focuses the organisation on what they need to do differently to improve performance, but the shock of being exposed to the real experiences of customers can also be decisive in encouraging business leaders to take different approaches.

This idea has underpinned our approach since we started our enterprise in 2005 but also explains why we focus a lot of our work on the ‘new family experience’.  The family group offers huge potential to clubs – at all levels of every sport – not just because of the fact they are plural, not singular fans – but also because they represent the handing down of the baton to the next generation.  They also represent an answer to the eternal problem of attracting funding. 

If a big local employer has just laid your Dad off, you’re hardly going to welcome the appearance of advertising boards proudly displaying their name at your beloved club.  However, if you’ve grown and segmented your fan base inside the stadium and created a vibrant family area, there are opportunities to develop CSR (corporate social responsibility sponsorship) as Cardiff City have done in partnership with SONY and L&G.

However, sport has such a myopic view of what its product is (the ‘football’, for example), and who its customers are (usually a misplaced belief they they’re all core fans purely motivated by the performance on the pitch) that when you expose a new family to this experience, the experience deficit puts them off.  Or at least that’s what we found when we began our work in the UK several years ago.

Families have some obvious needs: safety, quality, child-appropriate facilities and, initially, a price that will attract them. But they also have some more internalised perceptions, needs and expectations: the need to avoid hassle, the need to avoid exposing the kids to unwelcome experiences, when to arrive, what to wear, how to get the best from the day, what food might be on sale so they can manage their kids’ expectations, etc. So, naturally, when we worked with actors to recreate the family experience for Football League clubs in 2008, the shock of discovering the size of the deficit subsequently led to the biggest single season leap in family advocacy across the League since we started: a reveille of the loudest and most effective variety.

Those clubs who have prospered most by re-focusing on the family opportunity have all got the following in common: they’ve responded at senior levels to the ‘wake up call’, they’ve established lines of communication with families, they’ve involved families in determining sensible and creative solutions and they’ve maintained a dialogue that has allowed them to grow the family base, even when aspects that apparently influence attendance (such as results, weather and kick off times) have had little or no effect.

We may have initially focused on families, but it’s the philosophy behind the approach that drives growth, not the target of it. By exposing senior club officials to the real experiences of core supporters, similar gaps emerge. 

We think it’s about winning, they tell us it’s about effort and performance. We think it’s about price, they tell us it’s about affordability.  We think they want better facilities, but they actually want to experience something that reminds them why they love their club so much. We might think a damp hamburger in a dodgy heat-retaining bag might be the epitome of the refreshments experience, while all they want is food that defines their Club.

The exercise has helped many clubs to re-discover their identity. Is Doncaster Rovers, for example, a modern, thrusting performance-oriented source of local pride? Yes, you would think so. But talk to core fans and a picture of an embattled community, unified around the ‘little man’, unimpressed by bright shiny stadia and committed to the ‘muck and nettle’ of the early days of their recent phoenix-like rise emerges (when, I learn, Sheffield United actually donated much needed equipment to give them a leg up).  Middlesbrough’s parmoburger has been a big part of a reconciliation of fans post-relegation in 2009.  Shrewsbury’s core fans love the partnership with a catering business from the local community has led to a range of simple, fresh items that’s recently won them the Football League’s ‘best refreshments experience’.

Most importantly, using our philosophy of comparing the internal and external view of the core fan experience has led to a re-focus on consultation and engagement. From Liverpool’s supporter committee to the impressive work Motherwell are doing in their community, there’s a readiness to re-think what’s important, to stop making patronising assumptions, to abandon the ‘we know what’s best’ approach and to partner with fans (of all types) towards a more sustainable and engaging Club.

The best example remains Cardiff City.  They began their journey towards the end of their time at Ninian Park (where they had 459 family season ticket holders and 6,000 regular season ticket holders). 

The industry tells me that a new stadium will usually provide an uplift of 10% (outside of any increase owing to winning promotion, for example). But Cardiff haven’t won promotion (their fans don’t need me to point that out) but have done us and our cause a huge favour by demonstrating that our philosophy works.

They started with the family experience, a direct response to our Football League Family Experience pilot in 2007, and now have 7,000 family season ticket holders (is that a 1500% increase? You do the math). Having created a fantastically innovative family area (on a nil budget originally) they then took our philosophy to their core base, fully engaged, identified what mattered and embarked, in partnership with supporters, on the development of a partisan ‘home end’ (of which I’ve written much previously). Next season they’ll have 20,000 regular season ticket holders and will hope to build on the 42% increase in pre-match revenues that they’ve achieved in the last 12 months.

‘Ah’ you tell me. ‘But the owner changed the home shirt from blue to red for this season. How fan-focused is that?’ Fair point. Bit of a curve ball none of us were expecting as matter of fact.  But what I would say to those people engaging in a bit of schadenfreude is that Cardiff City has built up a lot of credit with its supporters through what it’s done in recent years – particularly its commitment to maintaining a two-way dialogue with supporters.  The initial response may have been brutally negative, but watch this space. You might be surprised at how things can evolve at a club where ‘season ticket holders’ are referred to as ambassadors and who design the things that matter to them in partnership with their Club.

I guess if we’re honest, some Clubs would appreciate an influx of prosperous, well-behaved, high spending, middle class family groups. But that’s not our purpose.  Our aim is to encourage sport to take growth seriously and adopt the principles of service excellence.  If it takes a new family to expose how badly some clubs do it, then that’s fine by me – and I suppose, by future generations of supporters too.

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