Knicker(bocker)s to fan engagement!

The New York Sticks take to the floor, and the prawn sandwich brigade go for refreshments!

The New York Sticks take to the floor, and the prawn sandwich brigade go for refreshments!

Since the new CEO and Marketing Manager arrived, we’ve heard much from CTFC about fan engagement- and rightly so. The signs are that both Richard and Ryan are quite aware of the need to work with their committed supporters if positive change is to be realised, and that is extremely heartening. But truth be told, the need for this engagement is undoubtedly motivated by financial concerns. As a supporter, I cannot be anything other than delighted with the success we’ve had over the past few years, but I’m also a realist. Success comes at a cost. You only need to look at our average crowds to know that we’re punching above our weight. The question is, what do we do about it?

Football clubs have a number of ways in which they can make money. But their primary income is always going to come from putting bums on seats and feet on terraces (where these still exist). Our crowds have improved massively over those last few years, but despite that, there are still acres of empty space at most home games. If we are to push on and achieve sustainable success, we need to fill more and more of this space, more and more often. How?

I won’t be exposing any secrets when I state that attracting a bigger family audience has to be key. That means attracting your audience at a very early age- get them young and, generally, you’ll keep them. Try to attract them after they’ve already developed an allegiance to Chelsea, Arsenal et al and you have an uphill battle. From a club point of view this attraction policy needs to be twofold; firstly it means getting out into the community, particularly the schools, and bringing the CTFC message to a captive audience. The CTSA, for whom I look after communications, are helping with that, and hopefully this role will grow still further. Secondly, however, it means making the matchday experience attractive in terms of cost and entertainment- and that isn’t just about the quality of the football.

Recently I went to watch the New York Knicks play at Madison Square Garden. Now I’m not generally a lover of the American approach to sport-for example, cheerleading for me does nothing but promote the sexualisation of young girls- but the Garden was full, and there were many, many families present. And the children were both happy and engaged throughout, despite the fact that the experience went on for two and a half long hours when the match was only 48 minutes long! So, what did they find entertaining? Well, just about everything.

Basketball, unlike football, has lots of stoppages. More stoppages than action. Time outs aplenty and long breaks between periods, with 20 minutes between the second and third. So if you want to keep your audience entertained, you have to work hard at it. The least successful entertainment- though as you’ve already noted, I’m biased- was the cheerleaders. Slick and professional they may have been, but even the dads seemed less than enamoured. The other entertainment, however, was a very well thought out mixture of action, games, giveaways, music and interviews. Firstly, a resident drumming group-the “New York Sticks”- played powerful and exhilarating rhythms from the middle of the court. Mascots entertained the younger children much as our Reggie does. Video games on the big screen, “Free throw” competitions, a rather ingenious use of a giant floor mounted noughts and crosses game in which contestants representing each team had to score a basket before running back to the centre to put down their appropriate nought or cross- each of these went down well. The biggest “alternative entertainment” option, however, was the propelling of free gifts into the crowd- and I say propelling with good reason as many of them were fired from a cannon! All the children went to the front to see whether they could catch something, many were successful, and there was much excitement. Then, when the game finished, all the players threw gifts to the children before leaving. Oh, and in any gaps between activities, lots of loud, upbeat music played (mind you, they also played music during the game, which was both bizarre and distracting).

Additionally, away from the court, numerous sellers wandered up and down the aisles selling pretzels, programmes and “candy hats”. A candy hat, for the uninitiated (including me), was a bag of candy floss (cotton candy) on which was sat a child sized Knicks hat- I’d never quite seen anything like it. But on the subject of food, much was child friendly. Fries – or pretzels- served in a box with a special compartment for a dipping sauce (melted orange cheese seemed particularly popular) were a particular favourite, as were pizza slices.

The Knicks on the attack- which was just as well, as their "defense" was useless!

The Knicks on the attack- which was just as well, as their “defense” was useless!

So there you have it- the US sport experience in two paragraphs. By the way, the Knicks lost. They haven’t had, by their standards, a successful season in more than 20 years. Yet every ticket sells for every game, in a city with more entertainment possibilities than perhaps anywhere on the planet, so they must be doing something right.

Now I’m not going to suggest that all of these concepts would work at Crawley Town. But some of them certainly would- and if we want to fill our ground, we need to make the entire experience enjoyable, particularly for our younger supporters who often have a shorter attention span than us wizened old timers. What do we currently offer this audience on a matchday? Reggie, who is very good but, for me, underused. A family stand which is well managed but half empty. Some rather uninspiring burgers and chips. And occasionally some exhilarating football!

So, what to do? Firstly, we need to get the price right. There is a balance to be had, but family tickets for the East Stand are too expensive. Perhaps if a family ticket for the family stand was priced at around £40 for two adults and two children you’d have some chance of filling it? Given that the family area is limited in size the cost implications wouldn’t be too great, and if you get lots of children sitting together it increases the volume, their enjoyment, gives a focal point for your entertainment options and makes the old curmudgeons behind the goal happy because they don’t have to be involved! And if the children are happy, the parents are happy, and they might just want to repeat the activity.

Next, lets look at the entertainment. Could we perhaps have a Junior Reds club outside, with a video games console etc? This was something that was attracting hundreds of kids at Madison Square Garden before the game. Games like the noughts and crosses, penalty shootouts etc shouldn’t be difficult to organise. Throwing some cheap branded – or perhaps signed- giveaways into the crowd wouldn’t be too expensive but would make the experience memorable. Getting the players involved at full time would be good too- if multi- million dollar earning basketball players can spend two minutes at full time engaging with the crowd then it shouldn’t be too difficult for our lads. Mind you, I’m not advocating we use a cannon! Fill the gaps with no activity with suitable music. Also, get Reggie more involved. He’s brilliant, but desperately underused. If he isn’t involved, he’s wasted. The kids love him- indeed, we are all entertained by him- but he doesn’t always get the chance to express himself; a collection of games before and after the game would utilise his abilities. Oh, and get him into the schools too- he’s a fantastic marketing tool.

Finally, lets get the food right. Football food is generally mediocre and not especially child friendly. Ours is not an exception to this rule. There’s money to be made too, if we got it right. Perhaps we should- shock, horror- ask the kids, perhaps via our Junior Reds, what they’d like to eat, and act on their suggestions?

Crawley Town will never be the New York Knicks. For that, I give thanks. I want sport, not showbusiness. But we could undoubtedly learn from them. How we engage with the younger members of our community will go a long way towards determining our future success. I, for one, would be glad to have a stadium full of noisy kids. Because that might just mean that, a few years later, we’ll also have a stadium full of noisy adults, giving us financial sustainability and shouting the team to greater success.

Ian, CTSA Comms