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Blue Birds

I have just returned from “The Future of Sport” conference at Northampton Business School where I was a keynote speaker.  One of the panelists that I met was Mark Bradley from the Fan Experience Company.  He has kindly allowed us to repeat some of the case study on Cardiff City FC that has led to its recent awards:

“Today a group of club representatives, industry experts and customer experience specialists meet in London to determine which clubs win a Football League Family Excellence Award for 2012/13. This awards programme, designed not only to increase family attendance but also to promote wider fan engagement, began in 2007/08 after an initial pilot.

This programme, along with its ‘sister’ award (The Football League Family Club of the Year), was the catalyst for the emergence of Cardiff City FC as not only a benchmark for family engagement, but leaders in wider supporter engagement. The Club has picked up the Family Club of the Year award twice in the last 3 years (the other winner was Portsmouth FC), so it seemed timely that my son and I should take a visit to the Cardiff City Stadium to see how things have moved on since our last trip to the Welsh Capital in 2011. What has Cardiff’s experience taught us about supporter engagement and growing attendances?

We saw Cardiff all but end their 52-year exile from the top division with a 3-0 win against Forest on 13th April. As well as being a very good game, with plenty of incident (a lot of which seemed to occur in the dug out), it was a chance for us to have a look at what the Bluebirds have been doing ‘off the pitch’ too.

Our interest stems from the fact that when we first started working with the Football League in 2006 (on the pilot project that was to become the Family Excellence Awards), Cardiff was one of the first clubs to use that feedback as a catalyst for re-thinking their relationship with supporters ever since.

Julian Jenkins, Director of International Marketing / Special Projects at Cardiff City and I met up the day before the game and recalled our first meeting back in 2007. I was sharing the results of our first ‘family assessment’ at his club (during the club’s penultimate season at Ninian Park in 2007). Not only was the family experience a little lacking there (something of an understatement) but the Club’s reputation was so ugly back in those days that any form of redemption seemed light years away. Even now, a ‘Cardiff City’ YouTube search is more likely to produce menacing images than anything else.

We talked about my own personal mission: I wasn’t the sort of guy who would abandon his family to go the football every weekend, so I’d figured that, if I could convince them of the fun we’d have, they’d want to come with me and that would be my carte blanche to become a more regular attendee at the Stadium of Light (another club who’s approach to family engagement has been transformational in recent years).

We talked about the challenge of family engagement. It wasn’t just about meeting some of the overt concerns of the new family (Can we afford it? Will it be safe? Will there be something to keep the kids occupied?) but also a chance to uncover the less explicit needs (How can we avoid standing out? How can I manage my kids’ refreshments expectations? How can we enjoy enough of the atmosphere without adding any interesting new words to my kids’ vocabulary?). Importantly, we recognised that for a club to successful understand and react to this, there’d need to be a significant change in culture and attitude: in effect inverting the traditional hierarchy, where everything served the football, to produce an organisation where everything served the supporter and his or her experience.

A bit of historical context will be useful at this point. Back in 2007 most clubs’ attitude to growth was ambivalent at best. If we win, crowds will increase, if we lose, we’ll have to consider discounting. There were few clubs (with Norwich as a notable exception) who had embarked on a proper dialogue with fans, to find out what the different groups needed and who were actively working with them to deliver.

We’ve always been proud of our contribution to the progress made at Cardiff City and it was great to recall some of the milestones along the way: like the time they ran a family survey after a miserable 0-2 defeat at home to Barnsley throughout which it rained continuously. ‘What one thing would have improved your experience today?’ the survey ran. Not one respondent mentioned the football. The same question was asked in a family focus group at the Club. A 9 year old, there with his Mum, said that he missed the chips and gravy he used to have at Ninian Park. They still served this at the new stadium, but the tray it was served in no longer had a lid to it. This, explained the youngster, led to the gravy spilling everywhere and his Mum subsequently outlawing said purchase. Rather than dismissing this as one isolated, unrepresentative comment, the Club and its catering partner fixed this immediately, giving an early preview of the culture change ahead and encouraging the application of this approach to other supporter groups.

Six years later, in these sophisticated ‘customer experience’ times, customers of First Direct, Sony & Nokia, etc, take some impressing, but what initially encouraged Cardiff on their journey was the fact that football fans’ expectations have traditionally been extremely low. Any business that adorns its customer areas with a variety of thinly veiled threats (do this and you get ejected, do this and you’ll get a banning order, do this and you’ll be arrested) isn’t going to create the sort of advocates who crowd out Apple stores on a Saturday morning. On the contrary: it’s going to create brooding disenchantment, destined to become widespread message board bile.

So it wasn’t long before Cardiff rigged their automated turnstiles to recognise any youngster whose birthday it was when they swiped their card. Three red lights flash, the family receptionist greets the family, the kid gets a gift and usually a ‘memory’ too. Maybe it’s a chance to sit in the dug out during the pre-match warm up, a chance to meet a player or an opportunity to walk a sacrosanct part of the stadium. Whatever it was: it mattered. It made people feel valued; it reflected the magic that binds so many people so emotionally to the Bluebirds and, importantly, for a club so traditionally mired in debt, it meant that more people came to games. In fact, during the period from the last season at Ninian Park to the present day, City has increased their family season ticket base from 459 to 7,250. This is remarkable by any standards and, in terms of growth, possibly only matched by Seattle Sounders (see other blogs here).

More than an hour before kick off, my son Luis and I had a walk around the family concourse. It was already half full. There were football skills games, a bank of PlayStations, a dance troupe and a magicians school where Mario teaches the kids tricks and then has them perform them to their pals, improving presentation skills, confidence and self-esteem (and leading to significant CSR sponsorship as a result). The kids’ food box included a signed player photo. There was pick and mix. The place was buzzing. But it’s what we found as we walked further around that really showed how the original ‘catalyst’ (of taking the customer perspective) had changed things substantially.

In the away end there were posters thanking the Forest fans for travelling 350 miles to support their team. There was a DVD playing, showing previous Cardiff / Forest encounters and the refreshment staff were all wearing Forest shirts (which were then to be given to delighted fans later in the afternoon). Incidentally, a Birmingham City fan came to support his team at a game earlier this season. A steward noticed he had a flat tyre and asked for his keys. When he came back to his car, the stewards had changed his tyre for him. As a consequence of the warmth generated by these kind acts, Cardiff City is experiencing a 15% year on year increase in visiting supporters. It wasn’t a long time ago that fans feared a trip to the Welsh Capital. Now it’s the first ‘away trip’ on the list.

We walked further around to the Canton Stand: the place you want to be if you want to really get behind the Bluebirds. To reflect a philosophy that has underpinned remarkable growth at the club, this whole experience was designed by a group of Cardiff’s very own hardcore supporters (for want of a better term). They wanted a better beer service, so now you buy your token when it’s quiet pre-KO and then quickly exchange it for a pint at half time (making people happy and driving up revenues by around 40% per game). They wanted some live music – and they wanted to determine exactly which type. We watched a fantastic version of ‘I fought the law’ being rattled out as we walked past. Ultimately, they wanted none of the restrictions that seem to represent ‘modern football’. There are rules of course, but through dialogue and with the support of the Safety Advisory Committee, a far higher tolerance is applied to things like (where it’s safe to do so) standing.

This ethos of engagement extends into community work too. No longer is the Goal of the Month competition solely a focus on the first team. Goals A and B might be the likes of Bellamy, Helguson and Whittingham, etc, but goal C will always be from the Club’s wider community. When a video was shown of a young child with Downs Syndrome scoring for the Club’s junior disabled team, 93% of the crowd voted for him. I hear that many were in tears watching him do a lap of honour with his trophy at the following home game.

The recent ‘big wrap’ Christmas initiative, where toys were collected for impoverished families and under-privileged kids, led to the beneficiaries being genuinely overwhelmed and before last year’s League Cup Final against Liverpool, the club held an amnesty on Liverpool shirts and collected several hundred that went to good homes on Merseyside. They also take a DIY SOS approach to people in the community who need help. Doesn’t this more properly reflect the purpose of a football club?

The hospitality part of the experience is more accessible now. There’s a ‘lads’ experience’ room with table football, cold beer on ice, music and a great seat. All of the Club’s hospitality customers worked with the Club to design the new match day dining experience. This philosophy of engagement and consultation even stretches to retail, where regular email surveys determine what people want to see in their club shop – because when they’ve been part of the design process, they’re going to want to buy.

So what have we learned from this? Had these changes happened at a club with less jaundiced external perceptions, then I don’t think the impact on attitudes to growth across the game would have been so impactful. The fact that they’ve happened at Cardiff City – a watchword for violence right through to the early 2000s – not only shows that anything’s possible, but that it’s possible at ANY club.

Over the years, I’ve come to see progress in fan engagement as having three specific stages.

Firstly, the status quo: post-Taylor Report safe modern facilities, but with an enduring attitude of indifference to supporters’ needs. Simply being safe and modern does not ‘engage’ fans nor lead to growth.

Secondly (and I like to think we’ve played a big part in this) the impact of exposure to real supporter experiences (and the dialogue emerging from this) has seen clubs reconfigure their processes and systems to make it easier for fans to engage. In the context of family engagement this would be the emergence of family pricing, family zones and more engaging junior supporter clubs, for example. My guess is that the vast majority of Clubs have reached this level now, but Cardiff (and a few soon to be celebrated others) has taken a further step.

Step 3? This is where different supporters see their needs (particularly their unspoken ones) reflected in their interactions with their club (match day and non-match day). Involving supporters in decisions that affect their own experiences, trusting their instincts and using their perception of the Club’s identity as your anchor, leads to people feeling cared for, feeling valued and, as a consequence, experiencing a lot of love for their Club. This can transcend performance on the pitch (which you can’t control anyway) and not only revolutionise your own supporters’ view of your Club, but also completely turn round the way the rest of the world sees you.

Ultimately the secret is to recognise that, just as in any other progressive business, growth and engagement is a product of the organisation’s culture. Cardiff’s experience – and it is this that really makes them stand out – is a testament to taking the supporter perspective, using this as an ‘epiphany’ for thinking completely differently about a club’s relationship with supporters and urgently seeking the change the culture and create the conditions for supporter engagement to thrive.

Incidentally, both Cardiff’s game and my beloved Sunderland’s (that weekend) both finished in fantastic 3-0 victories – with mine bringing back memories of Gary Rowell’s famous hat trick in a 4-1 win at St James Park in 1979 (only to see my new found confidence shattered by last night’s collapse at Villa Park). But sometimes it’s not all about what happens ON the pitch and, in this, Cardiff City have a remarkable story to tell.”

Some of the approach taken by Cardiff has to be applauded and could be a good lesson for others to follow suit.  Yet, the decision of moving from Blue to Red and rebranding shows less of a respect and consultation to the fan stakeholders.  Maybe a compromise like attached from Cardiff City Fans Forum is what’s needed – but who am I to decide – it’s surely one for fans to comment on?