You’ll have heard a lot this season on the disconnect between supporters and clubs these days. Some, however, are trying to reverse that trend – here’s Andy Ollerenshaw on how Doncaster Rovers are trying to re-engage with their supporters.
On the 22nd of March 2013 it was announced that West Ham United will become tenants of the Olympic Stadium. Alongside the footage of all the mutual back-slapping led by Boris Johnson and Karren Brady, an outraged West Ham fan stood outside the Boleyn Ground clearly unhappy with the decision. Barely holding back tears she complained “they haven’t consulted the fans about the move… as far as the club [West Ham United] are concerned, fans don’t matter”. In recent months this sentiment has been aired regularly by football supporters, whether the subject is ticket prices, fixture changes, club re-branding or a more esoteric disenchantment with ‘modern football’. There is a shared feeling that fans in the Premier League and Football League are being increasingly marginalised by the clubs they support. Fans now have a louder voice than ever before through Supporters Trusts and organisations such as the Football Supporters’ Federation and Supporter’s Direct and the use of social media, but there is increasing criticism that clubs to do not listen to what they have to say.
But some clubs are listening. In the past five years or so there has been a marked and quite noticeable increase in the number of clubs that are not only prepared to listen but are also proactively engaging with supporters. The degree of clubs’ relationships with fans vary greatly. The most basic stance held by many is that as long as fans are safe and sound on match days, then all they have to do is sell tickets to retain their fan base. Then there are those who do more than just keeping fans safe, realising that their supporters have different needs. These clubs will, for example, encourage families to attend match days with offers of discounted tickets and provision of family seating areas. This approach will encourage return visits, but will not necessarily lead to growth.
Then there are a small number of clubs who understand that growth can be achieved with a more detailed awareness of what their fans really want, through what is often referred to as ‘fan engagement’. This is best exemplified by the philosophy at Doncaster Rovers. Their Chief Executive, Gavin Baldwin explains “it’s about working in partnership with your supporters. Don’t make assumptions. Find out what the club means to them. Talk to them about what matters in their relationship with the club”. Doncaster Rovers have worked hard in the last year or so to engage with their fans and learn about what they want from their club and have found that it is vitally important to make their fans feel appreciated. Martin O’Hara is secretary of Doncaster’s Viking Supporters Co-operative, an independent supporter’s society. He explains: “A modern business might just sell something like coffee, but works really hard at building emotional loyalty by making its customers feel really valued. Football’s curious in this respect” he adds “there’s no other industry that enjoys so much emotional loyalty from its customers and yet, bizarrely, it often treats them like they were simply buying a commodity”.
Fan engagement doesn’t have to be difficult or complicated. Doncaster Rovers have proved that it is the small things that make the difference. Picking kids out from the crowd to let them sit in the dug-out during pre-match warm up; players telephoning supporters to thank them personally for renewing season tickets; giving away free tickets to local charities and allowing fans to question the owner and other shareholders in open, transparent sessions. One of the recent innovations at The Keepmoat Stadium was the appointment of a fan to the role of Supporter Liaison Officer, who now has his own office space at the ground. Probably the most charming example of how Rovers do things comes from when they were looking for a new manager in January following the departure of Dean Saunders, and an eight year old fan applied. He was formally interviewed by club Chairman John Ryan.
Doncaster Rovers are not alone in realising that fans need to be valued. At Cardiff City, the club have for some time worked alongside fans to better understand why many fail to renew season tickets. Having games where season tickets holders could bring a couple of friends for £5 or £10 was a popular idea and demonstrated (along with other schemes) that their existing season ticket holders are valued just as much as new ones. Season ticket sales at Cardiff have rocketed in recent years. Since early 2012 Huddersfield Town have been talking with fans about all aspects of the club and in January they ran a comprehensive survey about what the club does online, quickly reacting to complaints about their website. Crawley Town have started a similar process by launching their first ever fan’s survey and Bristol City have put steps in place to encourage dialogue, focussing on discussions about whether to stay at Ashton Gate or relocate.
The small group of clubs taking this approach are trying to change cultures that have been engrained over many decades. Those doing so are realising the benefits; greater sentiment from fans surrounding club decisions, deeper loyalty from their fan base and improved revenue streams. O’Hara sums up how the approach has changed Doncaster as a club. “We found what unites everyone at the club and our version of fan engagement here at Rovers feels quite authentic. Everyone, including the supporters, knows what the club stands for, so everything we do is filtered through this shared belief”.
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