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Sunderland Ladies v Durham Women - FA Women’s Championship

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How can Sunderland AFC grow women’s football attendances?

Identity, purpose, marketing, information, a family focus and valuing volunteers - Mark Bradley of The Fan Experience Company sets out a plan for how Sunderland can get more people to Eppleton to cheer on the Lasses.

Photo by Will Matthews/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

It’s great to see the women’s game thriving. Having been banned by the FA in 1921, it’s had a lot of catching up to do in a very short period, so it’s to the credit of everyone in the game – especially those volunteers and players who have never gone away - that so much has been achieved.

Playing football professionally is now a realistic path for girls, while wider messages of equality and inclusion have been amplified by stars such as Pernille Harder, Megan Rapinoe and Hope Solo. Leagues have been established and developed with England (and very soon) Spain having professional top tiers.

Vivianne Miedema, Alexia Putellas and Fran Kirby are all household names while Nadia Nadim somehow encapsulates everything about women’s struggle for equality and justice.

A qualified doctor and football – fluent in nine languages - she escaped Afghanistan (where her father had been executed by the Taliban) and began a new life in Jutland, playing first in Aalborg and Viborg, at international level for Denmark and then famously for Manchester City and Paris St Germain and now in the US with Racing Louisville FC. The claim that women’s footballers can be icons and role models is no idle one.

Who’s the men’s equivalent? Maybe Juan Mata with his Common Goal perhaps? I’m pretty sure he would defer to Nadia when it comes to footballing role models.

Racing Louisville FC v OL Reign
Nadia Nadim of Racing Louisville FC
Photo by Toni Geiger/ISI Photos/Getty Images

Financially, the game is stronger than ever. Broadcasting revenues have rocketed up in just a matter of years. Organisations from all sectors see the power of the women’s game and how it can be harnessed for philanthropic and commercial means.

All of this will be celebrated this summer when England hosts UEFA’s Women’s Euros: a showcase of the game which has already seen a huge uptake of tickets. Big crowds have now become a feature of the women’s game: especially at big clubs, such as FC Barcelona and Atletico Madrid. But that’s the exception, rather than the rule.

Many clubs including Sunderland are struggling to attract fans. So why is this the case and what can be done about it?

The first thing to ask is this: is there a focus on growing attendances at clubs? If there is, much more than simply celebrating its affordability will be happening. Clubs will be ensuring they have a clear identity and a purpose that chimes with people everywhere (relevant locally but attractive globally where your USP and stories can reach people via social media – see Lewes FC, for example).

Just what is the point of your club? If it’s all about the football, then that’s the only thing that you will be judged by. If you’re not very good at it (no Sunderland references, please) then there may be a hole in your plans. If I was West Ham United Women’s general manager, I’d want the club to be standing up for animal welfare, for example.

Before you start looking at marketing, ask yourself the question: do people even know we’re here. Do they know that there’s a friendly welcome, a great vibe, a good social and refreshments experience, loads to keep kids from being bored and … (fanfare), some football too? How about a leaflet drop?

Sunderland Ladies v Durham Women - Barclays FA Women’s Championship Photo by Stu Forster - The FA/The FA via Getty Images

These days, the old communities that defined the North East of England where I was born (Consett, County Durham) have been changed with the arrival of commuters searching for affordable housing.

Don’t assume they know you are there. It may happen that their desire to put down roots may consider with your ability to ‘supply’ a community hub.

So, as well as getting the word on social media, don’t you dare forget the leaflet drop, the school visits, the business circular and any local community radio station. Old-school is good when it comes to starting up.

What about your website? You need a start-up mentality here too. If you’re going to attract new fans along, then make no assumptions. Use your home page as an intro to your club: what do you stand for?

Include lots of FAQs. Have a ‘first time fan’ page. Make sure you can answer the question ‘bringing kids?’ substantially. Just why would I bring my kids along to your club?

Make sure that you’re putting on an experience (with a football match going on) rather than the reverse. That’s what’s caused much of the problem of disappearing fans in the first place (certainly the case for millennials, who want a lot more than earnest endeavour). And when you consider the experience, remember that, for new fans this starts with the website and your socials.

Make it easy for them to commit. Tell them how best to get to the ground. Include bus timetables and rail info. Give them advice on where’s best to park. Take a leaf out of Durham Women’s book and price up the experience. Include the cost of entry, programme, something to eat, etc, so that people whose budgets are squeezed feel like you’ve considered them.

Durham Women v Liverpool - FA Women’s Championship
Durham have made Sundays at Maiden Castle a family occasion
Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Put something on your website that allows first time fans to register as such and then give them a big surprise when they arrive. A scarf for a kid attending his or her first game might end becoming the start of a lifetime love affair with your club.

Consider what your match day USP is going to be. Could it be an element of the experience (a mascot who, by the way, should also be digitised so that you create a family channel through which to communicate between games)? Could it be a food or drink item (warning: the future is vegan)? Could it be a chance to have a drink with the players post-match and discuss the game?

Make it easy to get feedback. Obsess about it. Put links on your website, socials and in every response to every email. Ask people at the game. Convene a group of new fans and invite them in to talk about how the experience could improve and how more people could be attracted to games. Share the results. Use the results to market your club. How strongly would new fans recommend it to others. You can control everything that happens off the pitch. You may be 4th tier on it, but there’s no reason you shouldn’t be world class off it. You just need focus (and a plan).

The final piece of the jigsaw is your volunteers. They’re not at games to ‘steward’ the event. Far from it. They are your ambassadors. Encourage them to see why walking up to a family and high fiving them gives you the edge on (for example) the men’s game where stewards are often passive, dozing or apparently on Tinder for 8 minutes while fans needed assistance (yep, one of our assessors recorded that at a game recently).

Celebrate your volunteers and they will celebrate your club.

Sunderland AFC Ladies v Chelsea Ladies FC : WSL 1
Volunteers set up before the WSL 1 match between Sunderland AFC Ladies and Chelsea Ladies FC at Hetton Centre on May 21, 2017 in Hetton, England.
Photo by Lynne Cameron - The FA/The FA via Getty Images

Follow these guidelines and you’ll have the foundation for growing attendances sustainably into the future. Leave it to the football and, like many women’s clubs who’ve reached for the heights, you’ll be nothing more than a footnote on Wikipedia.

Remember that the women’s game is expected to be more welcoming than the men’s game. People already endow women’s football with characteristics such as ‘family friendly’, so why not exploit that by actually being that way inclined.

Ultimately, while resources may be tight, it’s the will that will separate the successful clubs from those playing to empty, soulless bowls.

If you’ve got the will, this blog will hopefully give you the bones of a plan. Go for it.

Sunderland Ladies v Liverpool Women- FA Women’s Continental Tyres League Cup Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

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