There and back again: a supporter’s journey
This week I was asked by someone to write a piece on ‘the supporter journey’. My initial reaction was that it would be easy and kill two birds with one stone as I could use it for this D3D4 article as well.
But the more I thought about it, the more difficult it became.
For a start, what do we mean by supporter journey? I know what they meant when they asked but is it that simple? Are we talking about the actual journey to a game? The wider experience? What about the lifetime journey of a fan?
It was a timely question that I’d contemplated only last week as I’d had plenty of opportunity on the (long) way home from a game. Here’s what I came up with…
The Actual Journey
This is the easy one. Every week, hundreds of thousands of fans make the decision to go to a game of football. I rarely think about it in terms of a journey; it’s almost an autopilot thing – you just get there, not worrying too much about the why. For a home match, this is certainly the case because we have the familiarity of knowing the territory, so we can almost end up in our seats without knowing how. For an away match, like I went to, there are more considerations such as the travel plans, journey times, tickets, parking and so on.
In my case, the 125-mile trip was easy as the conditions were fine, the weather cold but dry and the roads pretty clear. I had to find a place to leave the car (the home club wanted £10 to use their near-empty car park) which I thought a bit excessive on top of other costs, so I parked and walked.
Two hours later, and still very much part of the journey, we do it again in reverse. This time it was still cold but raining too and after getting to the car, found out very quickly that someone had closed the only motorway out of town. So, despite hearing ‘make a U-turn, if possible’ for twenty minutes, I followed the diversion signs that added ten miles and at least twenty-five minutes to the journey.
But shit happens. Of course, losing and a poor performance didn’t help either and it was nearly one o’clock when I rolled onto the drive. On a school night too.
I was wet, fed up and with fuel costs added, about £50-60 down for my night’s work. I wondered if the club (mine or the home club) ever really considered the ‘supporter journey’ in these terms, or do they just think we suddenly appear in our seat, cheer or moan ((in my case both) and then vanish as quickly as we appeared?
I say this because the bigger journey, the match day one, is a trail of missed opportunities and being taken for granted at almost every turn.
The Match Day Journey
For example, how many clubs make it really easy for us to buy tickets and go to matches at their stadiums? Some never answer the phone, some have websites that confuse, some insist we have to travel there to make a purchase (even though you can buy anything online these days) and some give us so little helpful information it’s untrue. For example, as my game was a re-arranged fixture, I had to search back to the original date of the game to find any details about it on my club’s website.
Then, how many make it easy to park? Or affordable? How many smile and welcome us when we turn up (sometimes having travelled hundreds of miles)? How many provide a first-class entertainment experience for us that justifies the costly outlay? How many provide a great retail experience if we go to the club shop, or excellent food and drink? How many clubs really appreciate us being there and tell us (beyond an attendance readout on the PA system)?
A lot of clubs are gradually improving when it comes to new fans, or families, but what about the visiting club’s fans who’ve often made the biggest sacrifices to get there.
That is the ‘journey’ that really needs looking at and working on.
Fifty years ago, when football was a working man’s pastime and you could get in for pennies, it might have been acceptable for them to simply see fans as a generic group that turned up, waved their scarves and rattles in the air and then went home to feed the pigeons, but not today. Not when it’s a multi-billion bound industry.
And fans are forever disregarded as their club plays weakened starting XIs in cup matches and kick-off dates and times are changed at short notice. Because they think that whatever happens, we’ll be back.
Which brings me to the final journey we make.
The Lifelong Journey
At least the long drive home gave me plenty of time to think about the wider journey we make as fans. And just as so many businesses make short term decisions that take little account of the lifetime value of a customer, football clubs make a similar miscalculation.
Without getting all existential about it, there was a large part of that three hours in which I wondered what the point of my club was. In less than two years, it had alienated the fans, got rid of all the (admittedly loan) players and replaced them with younger, cheaper loan players. It was drifting rudderless towards relegation with a manager more than half the fans (thus further dividing them too) want out and with virtually no constructive dialogue taking place between the owners and the fans’ their biggest stakeholder.
As a result, and resting heavily on a meeting last week, many fans are considering boycotting matches.
But losing a fan doesn’t mean that they are £25 lighter on the turnstile on Saturday. It is the money they might have spent on other tickets or even a season ticket. Or multiple season tickets. It’s the hundreds of pounds they’ll spend on food and drink at matches, the countless replica shirts and other merchandise. And that’s just them as an individual – what about all the people they talk to and the negative word of mouth they spread, and the lost potential revenue from all of them too?
Think about how much you’ve spent on your club in one season. Then multiply it by the number of seasons you’re a supporter. Losing fans means losing substantial amounts of income that is not sustainable over any reasonable length of time. It leaves clubs in the perilous position of hoping that it all goes fantastically well on the pitch and that alone will paper over the cracks.
It’s quite a gamble. By my calculations, of the 120 clubs in the top five tiers of English football, only five can win a championship and only another eight can achieve promotion. Throw in European qualification and a few cups, and it’s not a lot of success to go around.
It also shows up that we fans, while at a tender age, are so inadequately capable of choosing which club to follow. It’s probably a choice we should make in our late thirties, when our head can overrule our hearts. But of course, that’s not practical so we decide too early, like an under-trained Luke Skywalker racing off to face Darth Vader, which club will dictate our supporter journey for the next fifty to eighty years. No wonder most of us completely bugger it up!
You get all kind of things rattling around in your head when negotiating the Snake Pass at half past eleven, with lorries whistling past your ears, rain spray blocking your view and lighting at the bare minimum. Like ‘what on earth was I thinking all those years ago?’
But do we choose the club, or does it choose us?
My own rationale was based mainly on proximity. They were my local team and I could walk (at a push) to the ground for home matches. My Dad was working on Saturdays and my Mom said she didn’t want me catching buses with all those ‘trouble makers’ so it kind of limited my choice, that was if I was insistent on supporting a league club and didn’t want to wear out a pair of shoes every week.
But if I’d known I’d be driving 125 miles through the rain after watching an abject performance on a cold, Tuesday night in Lancashire, maybe I’d have been prepared to walk that little bit further thirty-odd years ago.
But we could all pick a winner with hindsight, couldn’t we?
In the real world, we can’t fast forward a quarter of a century and say ‘we will be languishing in League 2’ any more than we can predict being purchased by a multi billionaire and owning the Premier League by Christmas.
We can make calculated guesses of course, but they are not always educated ones. For instance, a fan born in SW19 in 1977 will have been born when their local club was in the Southern League, yet in the years since will have seen them become a league club, win the FA Cup, reach the Premier League, move dozens of miles, change names, have a new club reform in their name and start again at bottom rung and get back to the third tier.
That’s quite a journey and probably a bit extreme, but you get my point. In the seventies, if you picked them as your club, you’d have never have guessed how ‘crazy’ that choice would turn out to be. The next time you hear a kid say they support Liverpool, Chelsea or one of the Manchester clubs, cut them a bit more slack. They might be glory hunting, but they’ll be having the last laugh in twenty years, I promise you.
Yet, even at the top of the ladder, it’s not all a bed of roses. Mainly because it doesn’t matter on the size and strength of a club; if they neglect to engage with fans and think about the journey they are on too, they will run into problems.
Only this week, the Manchester United Supporters’ Trust (MUST) issued a statement after manager, Jose Mourinho, compared the quiet atmosphere inside Old Trafford with the ‘absolutely incredible’ atmosphere at Portsmouth. The trust said that the decline in atmosphere was by no means limited to Old Trafford but an issue affecting clubs throughout the country. True.
It also said that the ‘atmosphere is primarily dependent on the perceived relationship between the fans and club – including the degree of supporter ownership and engagement’. Equally true.
Clubs have to realise this and quickly. It doesn’t matter if it’s the Premier League or the National League. The rules are the same, the fans need to be engaged with the club and if they aren’t then the atmosphere, as well as many other things, will steadily decline. Clubs only get twenty-odd chances per season to get it right. The old-fashioned way of engaging with fans – opening the gates at one o’clock, making sure everyone has a pie and Bovril and then getting them out as quickly as possible after the final whistle – is as outdated now as goalie’s picking up pass-backs.
Fans expect more than that. And in a time when they can stream movies (or live football matches) without getting off the sofa, clubs have to do more. This should be providing more than just a ninety-minute game of questionable quality.
Because if they don’t, more and more fans will ask themselves ‘why are we here?’ and realise they don’t need to be.
Rant over. Now I’ve got write the other article on the supporter journey.