Going Back to my (Grass) Roots

Thursday 15th August 2013 at 3:49PM

It’s cool to talk up the influence on popular music that Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards had as the men behind Chic and their infectious disco beats, but with references to ‘the place of my birth’, ‘getting down to Earth’ and ‘I’ve been standing in the rain, drenched and soaked with pain’, it was clearly their rivals Odyssey who more effectively empathised with supporters of grass roots football. But could fan engagement lead to ‘Good Times’ ahead? Here are some views on growth at non-league and grass roots levels.

Last week’s opening set of Skrill Conference Premier fixtures produced average attendances of just short of 2,000: not a bad return for the 5th tier of English football.  However, it’s hard to know whether this represents a huge achievement, a natural ceiling or if, at this and other levels of the National League System in this country, there are opportunities to grow clubs further. My instinct is that this is possible at every level across the country, but I think we have to embrace some new ways of thinking if we are to harvest the benefits.

There is a natural reluctance to speculate at grass roots levels. Resources are traditionally scarce, volunteers are relied upon and, given the need for financial responsibility, it is understandable if a ‘batten down the hatches’ culture were to evolve – and I’ve certainly seen that at some clubs. In this context, it’s perhaps not surprising that the internal perspective dominates – we do what we’ve always done - and a sole reliance on winning becomes the one and only (but totally uncontrollable) form of driving up attendances.

A key element of our fan engagement philosophy is taking the external perspective – seeing things through the supporters’ eyes – and using this as a catalyst not just for closing the gaps that emerge, but also for encouraging new ways of thinking.

A couple of years ago we worked with the FA on a project where families and existing fans of ‘higher league’ clubs (e.g. Premier League and Football league) took in a game at their nearest ‘non league’ club. For the purposes of this particular project it was steps 1-4 of the National League System: from Conference Premier to, say, Northern Premier League First Division South.

What emerged, very clearly, was the strength of the experience: good quality of football, warm, friendly, accessible, closeness to the action, freedom to move around, fantastic social club, value for money and even the opportunity to meet a former hero (like one of our ‘supporters’ did when he met his lifetime hero Matt Jansen at a game in Lancashire).

However, this USP was being obscured in some cases by a failure to understand the needs of those being targeted. Websites sometimes seemed designed for the already initiated – lacking the sort of info that would make it easy for new people to come along, hassle free and without ‘standing out’ there were aspects of the day that emphasised the need to be ‘in the know’.

Initiatives like the Football League’s Enjoy the Match campaign help clubs insulate youngsters in family areas from bad language, but when the crowds are smaller, the impact of nasty language is all the more damaging. It may well be that managers and coaching staff are guilty of it at higher levels of the game, but they’re seldom heard above the din. At lower levels they almost always are, and this can be a big turn off to people making their debut at your stadium.

Happily the last two years have been characterised by concerted attempts around the country to take this new perspective and act on it. I spoke at any event in Diss recently for the Eastern Counties Football League and they’re supporting their clubs with initiatives designed to curb excessive language at a time when attracting the next generation has never been so important.

Equally, the Northern Counties East League is also embracing ways to appeal to a new and wider audience. After all, all of those things that those ‘against modern football’ wish for are to be found in abundance at these levels of the Beautiful Game. We just have a tendency to hide our lights under a bushel at times in grass roots football and need to recognise and promote our strengths.

One big area is social media and this is an area where much more could be done. Presently clubs at the highest levels of the game are investing in Twitter and Facebook, but is this what the next generation of supporters want?

My 14-year-old daughter, like many of her friends, has abandoned Facebook as it’s seen as something for ‘the oldies’ and doesn’t give her and her pals what they need. All of her activity is on Instagram (especially with it’s ‘twice as long as Vine’ video facility), Twitter and Snapchat.  There are surely opportunities for enterprising grass roots / non-league teams to explore how they could take a lead here, especially if they want to engage with local youngsters.

As is always the case, those who will reap the most benefits will have done so on a foundation of consultation and dialogue. There is an understandable reluctance to do so at many clubs, based on a number of reasons (fear of what fans may ask for, genuine lack of experience in consultation, unfamiliarity with modern tools such as Survey Monkey and concerns about statistical relevance, etc) but as any club going down this path will tell you, at some stage in the dialogue those little ‘diamond’ ideas will start to emerge and the concept of a more sustainable approach to building attendance and advocacy for the club will start to take form.

Hats off to Odyssey, but maybe to Messrs Rogers and Edwards too. After all, their big hit ‘Good Times’ deserves the last word: ‘must put an end to this stress and strife. I think I want to live the sporting life’.

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