Know the score Oct 4, 2022

KNOW THE SCORE: Fan Experience in Football

KNOW THE SCORE: Fan Experience in Football

KNOW THE SCORE is a series of talks where Matthew Lentowczyk – CEO and founder of TISA Group – invites interesting guests to talk about the latest trends, challenges, and best practices at the intersection of business, sport, and technology.

In the eighth issue, Joachim Stelmach caught up with Mark Bradley, Founder of The Fan Experience Company, to discuss how sports clubs can improve their fan experience and engagement. Since 2005, The Fan Experience Company has developed services and solutions aimed at increasing fan experience and stadium attendance across many levels of football.

From our conversation with Mark, you will learn about:

  • How football fan experience and customer service experience share similarities;
  • What currently drives fan experience;
  • Examples of fan experience improvements in European football;
  • The future of Generation Z fan experience and engagement.


Joachim Stelmach: Good to have you with us, Mark. We know that you and your company focus on fan engagement in football, but you come from a different background. Could you tell us more about it?

Mark Bradley: My background is in general customer engagement, in fact, in every other industry apart from sports. Going back 25 years, I was a judge for the British Service Excellence Awards, where we identified businesses from many different sectors that had built their success on designing everything they did around the needs of their customers. 

My years of working in customer engagement prompted me to study customer service around the UK and take detailed notes of my own customer experiences. The final result – was Inconvenience Stores – my book about customer engagement in the UK, or what I like to call, “the world’s first customer service travelogue.” In 2005, my scope of work moved to football clubs, leagues, and federations, and since then my company has worked for clients across the UK and Europe on improving their fan experience. 


Joachim Stelmach: What were your observations after examining the UK’s customer service across the different sectors and industries?

Mark Bradley: Whether it’s public transport, visiting your local grocery store or dealing with a local council, my conclusion is that customer service is not a priority and, therefore, highly inconsistent. The customer experience is a mirror of the soul of the business and needs to be constantly maintained. However, back in 2005, my experiences appeared to show that 99% of businesses were just not designed around the needs of the customer. 

Very often, I found that the organisational charts of these companies were designed with the customer at the bottom (or not even on the chart). Turning the pyramid upside down and letting the customer sit at the top helps businesses


Joachim Stelmach: Like any other sector, sports clubs also deal with customers on a weekly or even daily basis. In 2005 you entered the world of football and created The Fan Experience Company to help sports develop a fan-focused culture. Could you tell us, from your experience, what fan engagement looks like these days?

Mark Bradley: In football, there are very few clubs and even fewer leagues, where the client, or in this case, the fan is put at the top of the business chart by the management. They might say they are putting the fan first and be convinced that they are doing it right, but the reality (underlined by most fans’ experiences) is that they are not. 

From the European perspective, it’s always difficult to draw comparisons with America. However, their mindset from the very beginning is set to that “client at the top” business attitude. Americans understand the link between great customer engagement and the bottom line – revenue. 

Just to give an example of how the club management approaches fan engagement – if you go to an NBA club, the chief executive is expected as part of the franchise agreement every year, every season to mystery shop his or her own club. Going through the whole fan experience of buying a ticket, travelling to the venue, watching the game and buying merchandise brings a lot of insight into CEO meetings, reflection on the findings and shows how important the fan is. 


Joachim Stelmach: You have focused on NBA fan engagement, a topic that we have covered previously in one of our blog posts. We found out that building fan engagement doesn’t necessarily focus on winning trophies and grand victories. There are greater aspects, such as social and environmental matters, that concern the fans.

Mark Bradley: It’s not just about winning, teams that don’t win can grow too, and I mean that in every sense of the word. That includes not only attendance, but also the advocacy of civic support or supporting the local community. Young people are looking at the club and noticing things like their club supporting environmentalism, protecting the planet, green energy, etc. Fans, especially Generation Z, want to see the club moving in that direction and becoming a responsible stakeholder, which directly builds a link between them and the club. However, we must realise that this growth starts from inside the club and the intrinsic design of the organisation. 


Joachim Stelmach: Forest Green Rovers F.C. comes first in my mind when we talk about football clubs and environmentalism.

Mark Bradley: Exactly. They are very well known for going green to the full extent. Their new stadium will be built out of wood, powered by renewable energy, etc. When you want to have a snack, you eat a meat-free pie. All of the food they offer is vegan. They may only get an attendance of 2500-3000 people per match, but a lot of people around the world talk about them and show their support by buying merchandise.  

There are many other examples of clubs that build their identity and fan culture around certain civic and social ideas. Bohemian F.C. has successfully demonstrated that they are more than a football club. They are wholly driven by their community’s needs and, as a result of this, they help refugees, work against homelessness, rehabilitate prisoners, etc. At the end of the 2010s, the club wasn’t in great shape, but it’s now breaking attendance, awareness and commercial performance records. 


Joachim Stelmach: Your experience of football fan engagement started off in a very peculiar way – as a family activity. Could you please tell us more about your first major project in the English Football League?

Mark Bradley: We were kindly recommended to the English Football League to encourage clubs to realise the potential of getting families to come to football. Bear in mind that this was in 2006, and anecdotal data told us that factors such as perceived anti-social behaviour, poor quality food and little or no activities designed for kids were all barriers to attendance. 

What we came up with was following the instinct from my book, Inconvenience Stores. For the whole of the 2006/2007 season, my family and I attended 30 games across the EFL as both home and away supporters. 


Joachim Stelmach: This must have been a quite fun experience for you and your family?

Mark Bradley: It was a bit of a thing to ask my wife to come along, as she’s not a massive football fan, but it was important to get the full family experience. As a result of the findings we created, the Family Excellence scheme (whereby all clubs received regular fan experience assessment visits) and, in the following ten seasons, this helped to increase junior attendance at football games (tiers 2, 3 and 4 of English football) by 37%, meaning some 6 million extra youngsters were watching football.  It still continues today and the EFL is, once again, achieving record ‘start of season’ attendances. 

Many of the clubs used this as a catalyst to do their own impressive work. At Cardiff City, they increased their sales of family season tickets from 459 per season to 7,200 per season in 4 years. 

Elsewhere, clubs have introduced solutions such as diverse as creating magical ‘first time fan’ experiences for kids attending their first game (including watching the warm-up from the dugout, meeting a player and getting a free hat and scarf) to entertaining and educating warm family rooms and even dedicated queuing lines for families with small kids. So while winning consistently is always going to lead to increases in attendance, taking the blindfold off clubs and helping them to see what it’s like to be a fan, has shown that you can grow attendance without winning, as long as you make fans feel valued. 


Joachim Stelmach: Today we live in 2022 and technology is having an influence on football. Where do you see technology crossing paths, or perhaps improving football fan engagement?

Mark Bradley: Digital fan engagement has to be part of it, 100%. However, I don’t believe it has got to drive the whole thing. I think digital has a really important role to play. For example, how smooth and easy it is to buy a ticket or providing dedicated web pages and directions for each type of fan, family, season ticket holder, etc. 

Feedback is another big area where digital is of great help. Unfortunately, it doesn’t happen often that clubs ask their fans for their feedback. AZ Alkmaar had done it in the past, where after each game, regardless of the score, they would ask their supporters via email about their matchday experience. 

What I think is also hugely important to point out is the global growth of football club brands. In the last 20 years, Premier League clubs have gained a huge following around the world. The digitalisation of football clubs has played a significant part in this phenomenon. Clubs travel to South-East Asia and North America to play matches and release club tokens. Without the reach that digital gives you, this would be far more difficult

I’m still not sure about the value of NFTs and Fan Tokens in football because this can damage the sacred relationship between fans and their club.  Anyone – someone who might not even be a fan – could potentially influence decisions at your club.  I don’t believe the process of engagement (i.e. speaking to fans to get their opinion on things that matter to them) should be commercialised. It looks like exploitation to me.  But, as we know, football will follow any quick path to money without considering what fans feel.  


Joachim Stelmach: Fan engagement differs from generation to generation. Currently, one of the hottest topics is how to engage Generation Z fans, who are far more different than any other generation so far due to the digitalisation of media and entertainment. What are your thoughts on the future of Gen Z fan engagement?

Mark Bradley: One major observance is what I like to call the “Formula One” tendency of following players and individuals rather than clubs as a whole. That’s definitely something that’s come out really strongly in the last 10 years. The best example is the case of Cristiano Ronaldo and his fanbase, who followed him from Manchester United, through Real Madrid, Juventus, and back to Manchester United. 

What’s interesting is that we already saw that in women’s football. Many female players started out in small clubs where the crowds are small and the fans get a better chance to meet and chat with the players. Basically, the relationship grew much stronger, and so when they moved to another club, the strength of the relationship meant that many fans followed too. 

Moreover, I’ve seen research that suggests that Gen Z fans will follow players not only because of their skills or accomplishments but also because of their lifestyle, personality, values and interests.  Marcus Rashford’s campaign against food poverty is just one example of this. 


Joachim Stelmach: Mark, thank you for accepting our invitation and sharing this discussion with us. We hope you enjoyed it!

Mark Bradley: My pleasure, thanks for having me here!