To date, the Career Insight Project at Jobs in Football has focused on roles within clubs and organisations such as the Premier League and English Football League. But there is an abundance of opportunities available, including those opportunities that you create for yourself…
Here, Mark Bradley – Director at The Fan Experience Company – shares details of his career within the football industry. After gaining a wealth of experience in customer service in various industries, Mark launched his business in 2005. His first project was to support the EFL with the Family Excellence Scheme and he has since grown his company to support sustainable growth in attendances throughout Europe. With a successful podcast and continuing to work as a UEFA mentor, not to mention the course he created specifically for the Barcelona Innovation Hub, Mark provides a different perspective on what it is like to work in the football industry. There are also some interesting insights on what he feels fan engagement will look like post-Covid too.
Mark's recently launched Certificate in Fan Engagement course with Barca Innovation Hub - click the image to learn more
I was with a retail bank for 12 years and at the end of my time there, I was part of a team that was looking at how the organisation could differentiate itself. That was my introduction to customer engagement; finding original ways to connect with the customer when our product, which was dictated by interest rates, couldn’t provide that differentiation alone.
We therefore looked at how we could stand out from our competitors through the quality of service we offered our customers, so that’s what started me on my path. I ended up, at the end of the 90s, leaving the bank and joining a small consultancy which offered a network service to businesses in various sectors. They could attend site visits, events and conferences and learn how to be more customer focused from ‘best practice’ organisations.
During that period, I became a judge for the Service Excellence Awards. That was the period when I really started to dig more into the area of customer engagement and I realised that this could be my vocation.
Part of my motivation was the fact that British customer service was average at best. In banking, it took until the arrival of First Direct in 1988 to really change things. In some sectors, such as the restaurant sector, we had to wait for Trip Advisor to come along. All of a sudden, the leisure industry really got its act together and, while I wasn’t thinking about working in football then, it was clear that its own Trip Advisor moment hadn’t happened.
My route wasn’t a traditional one and you could even argue that it’s hard to put what we do at The Fan Experience Company into a recognised existing sector.
Among my thoughts at the time were that I always thought I could write well and I enjoyed it; I knew there was an opportunity to have my writing published in the Yorkshire Post and an industry magazine, such as Management Today. I knew I could present keynotes too. I’d had a go at stand-up comedy a decade earlier and felt comfortable standing up in front of a crowd.
What I lacked was a way to get the attention of the people in the businesses that I wanted to work with. But in 2004, at the behest of a friend who had a small publishing interest, I started keeping notes about the experiences that we, as a family, had encountered as we just went about our day. I realised that with my background – the knowledge and the experience I’d amassed – I could infer an organisation’s commitment to customer service by the quality of my family’s cumulative experiences. Put bluntly, if you get a sequence of terrible experiences with an organisation, you can be pretty sure that the ‘customer’ is nowhere near a priority for the senior team.
Did the business have a brand strategy? Did it have a customer-focused culture, perhaps defined by clear values and were the people in the business trained, supported and recognised when they brought those values to life?
I began to write stories and that led me to the idea for The Fan Experience Company – the idea of using real customer experience stories as a catalyst to encourage senior teams in the business to start thinking differently.
Mystery shopping doesn’t do this, because it is rarely looked at by the senior team. In addition to that, it’s not even measuring the actual customer’s experience. It simply employs a paid assessor to check to see if internally-agreed (or imposed) processes are being delivered. In that context, it’s not going to be capable of bringing about change.
I wanted to send in a real, paying customer and have them write a story about their whole experience – what they went in for, what happened, how the experience made them feel and how their future behaviour and / or perceptions might be altered by it.
The first area I applied the idea to was Tourism and I read some anonymised ‘real tourist’ responses out to a group of people in the industry at a conference. My first book ‘Inconvenience Stores’ contained a lot of my own family’s experiences of UK customer service and, once that was published, opportunities to speak at events and write magazine articles started to increase. My wife Ana and I started to think that there might be a business in this.
Well, I’m a football fan and I have been since I was 5 or 6 so I can’t say I was shocked at the level of customer service when I first looked into it since being a fan, I knew how it worked. There was a very narrow attitude to fans. They came because they did. They came more if we won. If we lost, we might have to be more creative in pricing or in marketing games. Clubs didn’t feel that they influence a fan’s attendance behaviour beyond this. They exist to pursue sporting glory and when that doesn’t happen, there’s little they can do.
In a nutshell, there wasn’t really any visible alternative growth strategy – not a controllable, sustainable one anyway. I’m often surprised that non-elite clubs don’t have a plan to fill their stadia. Let’s take a club with a stadium that fits 12,000 people, but who have an average attendance of 5,000 and who sell 2,000 season tickets. It looked to me that, in most cases, the annual aim was to sell sufficient season tickets and shirts to create a budget to run a team during the season. The belief that they cannot influence attendance beyond simply winning seemed to be constraining their thinking.
Change never really came for football like it did with leisure and hospitality. There is still a level of complacency in football with a view of ‘they will keep coming – it’s their club so they will just keep coming’.
It’s an interesting question because in any other industry, customer engagement is not seen as a cost centre, it’s a profit centre. If you understand what matters to your customers, who they are and what natural groups they divide into, then that absolutely makes a difference and has an impact on the bottom line. If somebody would strongly recommend your business or service to friends and family, then research (see Net Promoter) shows that they will remain loyal to you. Businesses have become adept at taking feedback from their customers and using that to predict customer intention. Football doesn’t do this.
If you take complaints for example, they are generally labelled as an occupational hazard but the best companies realise that complaints are an opportunity to improve and to lift levels of customer service. For me, the way a complaint is managed and resolved is a microcosm of what that organisation’s values are; what is seen as important. Complaint handling actually became a profit centre in the 90s while, to this day, in football it’s not given the priority it deserves.
Before I started the company, I did a little bit of work with the Premier League and with Cathy Long, who I know you have previously interviewed. The work involved helping Premier League clubs to understand the entirety of their fans’ experiences, not just the 90 minutes of the game.
I actually have a lot to thank Cathy for because she spoke with Darren Bernstein, who was working at the Football League at the time, and suggested these approaches may be of interest to him, given the attendance challenges many clubs had.
It was a perfect opportunity because many Premier League clubs were selling out at their stadiums and they didn’t have any issues with attracting fans. However, the EFL, or the Football League as it was known then, certainly did. There hadn’t been any significant research into the fan experience as far as I was led to believe, but Darren felt that this idea of showing what the matchday experience is really like for a fan may have a desired impact of getting clubs to sit up and take notice
We quickly identified the ‘new family’ as a group where there might be opportunities to get some quick wins, in terms of better understanding their needs and modifying their experiences to reflect them. The hope was that this project (The Family Excellence scheme) would lead to change.
The family we used for the pilot phase of the project was my own. We attended 30 consecutive matches: 15 clubs, 5 in each of the three divisions and we visited each club as both a home and away supporter. I remember some of the clubs: Southampton, Yeovil Town, Torquay, Leeds United and Norwich City (which already stood out then as a club that understood its fans and worked closely with them and their match day teams to make people feel valued).
From those visits, it became clear that there were two opportunities available. One opportunity was that we could pinpoint gaps and make recommendations that would help the clubs to improve. Another was that a poor report might serve as a ‘wakeup call’ to senior management in a club: enabling them to see exactly what it is like to be a fan bringing young children to their stadium.
Some clubs were early adopters and saw it as a great opportunity: Middlesbrough, Cardiff, Huddersfield Town, Doncaster Rovers ... there were lots of clubs in those early years that really picked up on the idea. This then gave me the opportunity to build a business in an industry that I love, to be able to do something that nobody had done before and to be learning along the way too.
In 2008/2009 we started working in Ireland and Scotland and then around 5 or 6 years ago we started working in other parts of Europe: Denmark, Norway, Finland, The Netherlands, Estonia, Moldova, Belgium, etc. We are now UEFA Mentors too (we work with them to help them grow leagues in different parts of Europe.
The Family Excellence Scheme was introduced in 2006/2007. Clubs receive 2 visits a season from 2 different experienced assessors. Our assessors produce a detailed report for the club which we then convert into a summary report, which contains details on the club’s strengths, weaknesses and improvement opportunities. The report also includes benchmarking data, so that clubs can compare their results with the ‘best in class’ in each division and overall, too. There is also a best practice event at the end of every season with the highest achieving clubs receiving recognition. It’s been running for 14 seasons now, evolving to embrace developments in social media and fan experience technology.
Mark as part of the Fan Experience panel with the EFL
With the introduction of the scheme, there was almost a mini-revolution and within 10 years, junior attendance was estimated to have increased by 37%, which is the equivalent to 6 million more youngsters watching EFL football. This is starting to dispel the myth that growth is all about the football. In our view, it’s about the football experience, and that’s something you can influence.
On this subject, an interesting insight is to look at those clubs that have experienced ups and downs on the pitch but have been able to sustain a high level of attendance. A good example is Norwich City. For three decades now, they have been a club that has moved up and down the football pyramid, generally towards the top of the Championship or in the Premier League, although they did have a spell in League One too. They have focused a lot on building a close relationship with their supporters and having a supporter representation board that sits with the club and discusses key issues, such as season ticket prices. There was a time in the 90s when Norwich were promoted and on the advice of their fans, they only lifted their season ticket prices by the cost of inflation. Another club who were promoted at the same time, took advantage of their new status in the Premier League and lifted their season ticket prices more significantly. Both clubs were relegated the following season and Norwich ended up selling more season tickets that following season because of the respect they had shown to their supporters with their pricing strategy.
Few attempts have been made in the operational world of football to define what fan engagement is. Academics will tell you that it is the sum of the transactional i.e., the behaviour of attending matches, buying shirts, buying tickets etc. and the non-transactional i.e., the emotional behaviours.
I like to simplify that and I say it is everything we do to understand, respect and develop the fan’s emotional investment in the club. I believe there are four key factors for clubs to consider when looking at the area of sustainable growth.
The first is for the club to identify what makes it unique. What would the town lose if the club wasn’t there? What does the club stand for?
There is a huge emotional connection involved in football and the more that clubs can do to understand that connection, the more they will be able to do things that resonate with their fans. There’s another point too. If your values are just about winning football matches, then that narrows your ability to attract new groups of supporters. But by developing values that transcend the football, you can begin to extend your reach and diversify your fan base. That’s the starting point for any club looking to implement a sustainable growth strategy for attendances.
The second is communication and engagement, so the extent to which you work in partnership with the fans and the community. Do you honestly engage with your fans like they are a key stakeholder or do you keep them at an arm’s length? For example, does your social media simply broadcast or does it attempt to engage? I read recently that in one league this season 35% of clubs have yet to respond to a single fan tweet.
Factor three is the fan experience, which is developing more of a digital focus. Lots of youngsters, who are getting into a career in football and other sports, are looking at the digital side, but what I would say is that digital has been with us for around 15 years but going to the match has been around for more than 100 years. My concern is that clubs outside of the elite are focusing too much on digital (which can’t be monetised to any significant degree) and not enough on the match day experience, which for many is the revenue source that keeps them viable.
The final factor to consider is the people who work for the club: the extent to which they buy in to the need to value fans and the extent to which the club supports them in this aim. One person having a bad day and providing poor customer service is natural and most people will understand that, but if your fans are treated poorly by 2 or 3 people consecutively, or there is overall inconsistency, that’s damaging the prospects of sustainable growth.
One of the best pieces of advice I have been given was to tell people what you are going to tell them, tell them it and then tell them what you just told them. If you are hosting a workshop with multiple objectives, people won’t remember it 6 months down the road. But if you have 1 clear objective, that gives you the space to support your argument; to present in-depth examples and open a wider discussion.
I do enjoy it though. When I was younger, I used to go to stand-up comedy clubs in London and while I could never do it myself, it taught me that if you add a little bit of humour into a business environment where they are perhaps expecting a formal approach, they will think you are a comedy genius!
As I mentioned previously, I feel like I have always been good at writing but I think I have learned how to get to the point quicker. I am also more confident in speaking to hundreds of people than I am in speaking to just one person. I’m not sure how to explain that.
Mark is widely recognised as one of the leading figures in Fan Experience, and regularly writes for leading publications like FC Business
I don’t fit the ‘sales consultant’ label though and I feel like my job is more of a vocation. But it is a business and it earns a living for my family, so I need to focus on doing this right. You give absolutely everything because it is something you really believe in but that sometimes means that, to borrow an analogy from football, you miss an open goal or misplace a pass!
I am still self-critical and have my doubts at times, but this uncertainty means that I am probably learning more now than I have at any other time in my career.
It has been a huge challenge for us. Our core service is detailed fan assessments and empty stadiums means we have had to pause and take a look at what we do.
So, during this enforced break, I have written an online course in fan engagement for Barcelona FC. They have a facility called the Barcelona Innovation Hub and its origins are in the values of their club. They want to develop and share knowledge with the football world and further afield. So, they set-up this eco-system/university facility and they approached The Fan Experience Company around 18 months ago.
They said they were looking for expertise in fan engagement . It took me 6 months to write the course and it was a really useful exercise as I was able to revisit my experiences and read academic journals in great detail for the first time. It is nice to know that the course is there for anybody who wants to study fan engagement. I hope it proves to be a useful way for people to get into this area of the industry as previously, there was no qualification available that covers both online and physical (i.e., match day) engagement.
Mark at the Barca Innovation Hub during his time working on the Certificate in Fan Engagement
In general, I think Covid may do what Trip Advisor did to the leisure industry. There will be several football clubs who will do what they have always done but I do believe Covid will be a catalyst for change.
Clubs need to act now. I expect they’ll need to focus on creating feelings of reassurance among their fan bases and, when they can actually return, to show some love.
There will be some clubs who haven’t done anything in terms of fan engagement during this pandemic period, such as a survey for fans to provide feedback on what their attendance intentions are post-Covid. I actually wrote a blog called ‘Ask the question’, as I have found there is an informal correlation between those clubs that spend time in dialogue with their fans and those clubs that are great at fan engagement. I suspect that a lot of clubs have battened down the hatches, are just getting through each day and making the assumption that the moment significant numbers of fans are allowed back in stadiums, everyone will return. But that flies in the face of what we’re hearing.
The United Nations estimates that 1.5 billion people around the world will have lost their job because of the pandemic and generally speaking, many of those people will be in communities that traditionally attend football matches. So, while we have seen a lot of fans give up the price of their season ticket to help their club this season, that can’t continue in perpetuity – it’s a one- off. If they have to pay for a season ticket next season but without any football to watch, I’m sure a lot of them won’t do it. And that’s not just season ticket holders; it will affect those who only buy tickets to individual matches too.
You will also have those supporters who are concerned about returning for medical reasons and then what I see as the ‘German-style’ fans who have this ‘until we are all allowed back, I’m not going back’ mentality.
Finally, you have those fans who will have just lost the habit of attending football matches. If things go as I think they will, then it’s going to be 18 months in which fans have not been able to go to games. In the interim, fans will have spent their time doing other things; taking up new hobbies, cycling, going for walks with the family. I know from friends within my own circle that they don’t feel any less of a fan if they just watch it on television. And that’s dangerous for clubs whose biggest source of income is from the match day.
If you put all of those factors together, you are in a situation where at best, it would be dangerous to make assumptions about a boost in fan attendance which might then be maintained. At worst, you are going to lose a significant percentage of your fan base for good.
So to reiterate, if you don’t have a strategy to fill your stadium and all you are doing is consciously or subconsciously selling enough tickets to create a manageable budget, then you’ve not got a sustainable approach to fan engagement.
One initiative that I like was implemented pre-pandemic but it has served the club well during this time and that is the virtual mascot hub at Doncaster Rovers. It allows the club to have a line of communication to families outside of the match day and to aid their delivery of family-related content and messaging.
I also admire what Anthony Emmerson is doing at Stoke City. Anthony has previously worked in the Community Trust at Middlesbrough so he really understands the challenges that communities face. One thing he did was so simple but so effective. He just reached out to supporters through all of Stoke’s communication channels and said “If you need a chat, then we are here.” I read in the EFL’s magazine recently that lots of fans took him up on this.
Two hours after every home game, AZ Alkmaar in the Netherlands send an email to everybody who bought a ticket to the game with a survey of just three questions. Because they do this, they don’t have to make assumptions about what fans might want. They know.
Brondby IF in Denmark is also great; they have a dedicated covered fan zone which allows direct access to the concourses. It has a theatre, bars, dining area, kids’ area, shop… They have the greatest family room I have ever seen, with a mini football pitch and activities for all age groups. Just amazing.
There is also FC Copenhagen – Brondby’s main rivals just across the city - who have a DJ and Rapper behind the home goal. It’s great because it works in engaging and retaining high school aged supporters, which we don’t do too well with in this country.
Going to the games is the most enjoyable part. As a young fan, I couldn’t afford to go to Sunderland games regularly, although going on a lesser basis made my connection with the club that much stronger. But now, going to different clubs and taking in the atmosphere is wonderful. You have a team to follow for just one day, fans to meet, experiences to enjoy and I have been able to see some remarkable places from Estonia to Norway and from Spain to Belgium.
The airports! Waiting for flights and flights being delayed.
I am not big on digital either. I would have already been in my mid-40s when Facebook launched so I still find what’s now basic to many people something of a struggle.
Many European leagues are picking up on sustainable growth ideas and again, it tends to be individual clubs who spot the opportunity. As we move across Europe from west to east, the game is much more based on winning. Finishing 3rd or 4th to qualify for Europa to get that money and then invest in players to do the same thing again. The idea of fan experience doesn’t even exist. So we are doing some work in that area at the moment, in Moldova and Estonia. Using a combination of club identity, community engagement and fan experience improvements, we are seeing some impressive numbers there now, largely thanks to the team of Community Development Officers that we have developed in partnership with UEFA and the local FAs.
It will also be interesting to see what happens in women’s football. It has been a joy for us to work with the FA and the FA Women’s Super League and Championship since inception 10 years ago. The women’s game doesn’t come with the cultural handcuffs of the men’s game. In the early days, the difference in experience that the game offered made it a really unique proposition but now, the challenge is to stop it becoming another version of the men’s game. I’d love to see a re-focus on getting people to come to games. As Megan Rapinoe said a couple of years ago (and I paraphrase): if all your marketing and branding achieves is that young girls see us as heroes, that’s money wasted. Make me want to come to the game.
Mine is a story about an early interest in customer engagement which, thanks to a lucky turn, led to a career in the sport I love, so by definition, it’s difficult to describe a career path for a young person. But another way of looking at it is to encourage people to follow their interests and develop niche knowledge. Take a punt on an area of business that you believe will grow more and more significant in the future and become the expert that people go to.
But, if I’m honest, the greatest piece of advice came from a friend called Alex Dmitrijev, who worked at JK Narva Trans on the Estonian/Russian border. He was one of the Community Development Officers I mentioned before. In actual fact, he was having some difficulty in persuading the club hierarchy to go along with his ideas.
So I asked him, “What have you learned?”
He said, “It’s easier to apologise, than ask for permission.”
The proof is in the tasting as, only a couple of months into the job, with the club losing 6 in a row and sacking their manager, he grew attendances by more than 400%. So that’s a great piece of career advice!
I know clubs are going to need more of what we do. I saw something interesting on social media the other day that asked if football was a new sport, would it become successful and the general consensus was, no it wouldn’t. It was quite interesting to read, especially as football is going to have to behave as though it is a new sport because of the effects of the pandemic.
I want to do more writing and speaking and less intense travelling. Before Covid, I was away most weekends carrying out assessments in Europe, and while I loved that, it does become tiring because all of the flying, combined with a full working week. I am now reaching a point where I am ready to take a back seat.
It’s also my dream that one day, a club will get into a European competition because they are the best in Europe at looking after their fans! We already have the Fair Play place, so why not one for being the best club at Fan Engagement?
Researcher/Editor: Sascha Gustard-Brown
Sascha is highly experienced within the area of Supporter Engagement, having held the positions of Head of Supporter Engagement at Luton Town Football Club and Supporter Liaison Officer at West Ham United. She is currently working on small supporter engagement projects in sport and freelance writing in football.