Customer Services expert Mark Bradley has headed an innovative programme assessing the family experience at Football League matches. Here he explains how this is helping League clubs to attract new fans.
If, like me, you attended your first football match with your father, you'll know how important families are to football's lineage. Whether it coincided with an outstanding 6-0 victory in a derby match (not me) or a depressing 0-0 in a relegation season (me), there's no doubt that your first family experience will have helped define your attachment to your Club.
My own first football experience took place at Roker Park in 1969.I'd gone with my Dad, in my Uncle Ken's Ford Capri.We stood on a freezing Roker End, dodging delinquent seagulls, with my father's only solace being his son's subsequent commitment to the Black Cat cause.Only because I felt so sorry for him.
There's something magical about a relationship with a football club.It can transcend results and performances on the pitch and embrace every aspect of your life - and with 750,000 youngsters having attended Football League fixture in the last three years thanks to The League's Fans of the Future initiative; it's clear that the bug is catching.
But while the 2007/2008 season, once again, saw Football League crowds break the 16m barrier, the game still has to work harder to attract its future fans. The make up of the family group has changed, competition for customers in the leisure industry has grown, expectations have increased and Football League research shows that the average age of the football fan has increased to 38 in recent years.
In response to this The Football League launched Fans of the Future in 2005/2006 with the aims of attracting youngsters to 'live' football and encouraging them to develop a passion for the game.
A season later, I became involved.The Football League asked me (footie fan and grumpy customer service campaigner), my wife Ana and kids Luis and Elena (all new to football) to experience matches at 15 different clubs from all three Divisions. What was the matchday experience really like for the first time family?
Well, to be honest with you, pricing is the first problem. People new to football have formed a perception that football is expensive, but it is a perception that clubs are already addressing.
The innovation shown in recent seasons by Bradford City, with their £138/£69 adult/child season ticket offer and Huddersfield Town, with their recently announced centenary season ticket deal (it can cost as little as £200 for a season ticket for a family of four), recognises that clubs can only impress new families if they can get them to come along in the first place. And if you can't commit to a season ticket, clubs like Bury can offer you specially priced tickets, regardless of how the family is made up (for example, one adult and three juniors for £23).
And once we turned up? Well, there was the odd steward who was even less sure of his surroundings than we were, but there was a really warm welcome at Yeovil Town, for instance.Not only has the club recruited a fleet of warmly welcoming volunteer stewards, but the West Country Club also operates an Away Family Enclosure. Granted, there are some perception obstacles to overcome, but why shouldn't the away experience be attractive to families?
There were the mobile food kiosks at last season's Play-Off winners Hull City.You don't need to go far at the KC Stadium to get your chocolate bar; they're available at the end of your aisle! And when you factor in super-active Roary the Tiger, the kids are soon pestering us to take them again.
Pester-power is important, as it's often kids who influence the parents' decision to return.Clubs like Crystal Palace have players signing items in the Club Shop prior to kick off and Peterborough United go further. They don't just sell replica shirts.You can buy Posh players' pre-worn shirts - all tidied up, individually autographed and ready to be worn at a future game.
Family Fun days are great - we wish there were more! Our kids still remember the Northampton Town Santa, the face painting at Cardiff City and the Steel Band at Coventry City's Ricoh Stadium.Ipswich Town even had a fun fair this season.
That's not to say there wasn't a downside to some of our experiences. Finding a telephone number for the ticket office on Clubs' official websites could be easier, leaving us feeling that football hasn't yet really got to grips with the needs of people genuinely new to the game.
Some food kiosk experiences left a lot to be desired, both in terms of product quality, price and service; yet innovations like Southampton's Little Saints Diner and the Delia influence at Norwich City (she makes two new 'match pies' for every home fixture) point the way to happier customers and more revenue.
Pre-match and half time entertainment is equally important in entertaining the kids during your team's annual poor patch (albeit tending to involve chipping a ball into a receptacle of some description). But ultimately it was those clubs who know that families base the decision to come back on more than just the football, who attract and retain fans most effectively.
Building on this, The Football League announced its Family Excellence Awards scheme in August 2007 to recognise those clubs who provide an outstanding family experience and to share and promote good practices.
Based on a programme of independent 'mystery family' visits to all 72 Clubs, the scheme announced its first winners in March. The three divisional 'Family Club of the Year' winners were Norwich City, Huddersfield Town and Wycombe Wanderers and 32 Clubs received the Family Excellence award, in recognition of the fantastic family experience they offer.
To support clubs efforts The League has produced a Best Practice guide and held seminars to allow the clubs to exchange ideas and address common issues.