Last week was an odd contrast for me. On Thursday I was fortunate enough to be asked to speak at Watch Me Think’s Customer Empathy event. It was a great event with a packed room full of marketers eager to understand how they can better understand and connect with the people who engage with their brands and their products week in week out.
At the same time, I was receiving confirmation of my flight to Azerbaijan to watch a game of football. Yes, you read that right, Azerbaijan. The contrast came into stark focus; if ever there was an industry that could do with learning some empathy about its core customers it is most certainly football. Never has there been an industry blessed with such riches which continues to treat its most loyal customers with such utter disdain.
All this a week or so after we heard of the sad passing of research industry stalwart, Ken Parker. A brilliant researcher and an obsessive Spurs fan, he also co-authored the brilliant MRS paper, The West Ham Syndrome (https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/147078539703900306). This paper examined the unique paradigm of football fans who remain fiercely loyal to a football ‘brand’ irrespective of product performance or customer experience. It's clear these themes are as relevant today as they were when the paper was written.
Putting a business rather than fan head on for a moment, it’s easy to see why this might be the case. An analysis of the accounts of the so called Top Six reveals that match day income accounts for between only 11 and 24% of total income. Yet this is simplistic interpretation and ignores the indirect impact which fans are having on clubs’ revenues.
Of course there are the ancillary purchases which are often toured in the press; the replica shirts which change at every increasing frequency at an ever higher cost. Fancy a Nike Vapor shirt anyone? – yours for a snip at just £89.95 at a club shop near you. However, far more important are the intangible aspects which fans bring to the club of which by far the most significant is atmosphere.
Just look at the way the success of the English clubs in European Semi Finals was reported. Long, lingering shots of the Kop in full voice or montages of Pochettino and his players coming out to sing songs with the fans. The broadcasters get it – the armchair fan wants to feel like they are part of the select group of fans in the ground; it needs to feel almost as good as being there. They’ve even started showing us the fan that lives inside every pundit, endlessly sharing the reaction of Lineker or Ferdinand on social media (was I the only one worried about Glenn Hoddle’s heart?!).
For the governing bodies who run the game, they are so far removed from this experience that they have not only lost the connection, they appear to be in danger of misunderstanding their own business model. In most media/ audience businesses, it is now widely accepted that there are two primary business models at play; if you pay for the service you expect an experience but if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.
Football is a strange anomaly in these times where fans pay to see ‘the product’ but are crucially they also a key part of ‘the product’ which top level clubs use to drive up their broadcasting revenues. The equation is simple. A better atmosphere helps create a better product which can be sold for higher broadcasting revenues. Empty grounds or grounds filled with neutral, hospitality tickets generate no atmosphere, the very heart of the brand proposition starts to erode and with that the suits at UEFA are in danger of killing the golden goose.
In terms of the recent debacle of European finals with paltry ticket allocations for supporters of Tottenham and Liverpool and the ridiculous cost and travel burden placed on both Chelsea and Arsenal fans, it’s clearly the administrators rather than the clubs who have a case to answer. On the whole, there’s no doubt that Premier League clubs have begun to wake up to the importance of away supporters in particular in building atmosphere at games. Since the launch of the ‘Twenty’s Plenty’ campaign there has been far more attention given to ensuring that fans can get to matches in more affordable ways.
Against this backdrop, the European finals feel like a missed opportunity for the clubs to show genuine empathy with their fans. In the case of the Europa League, both supporters have had a strained relationship with their respective club’s hierarchy over recent seasons and this could have been a great opportunity for the clubs to show they genuinely cared about their supporters by offering subsidised travel. Sadly, rather than seizing the opportunity both club have instead offered travel packages at nearly £1,000 a head which , judging by the rumours of poor take up, they have wildly misjudged the price elasticity of.
Football may have nearly come home last summer but empathy for fans feels a lot further away….