Every sports team in the world wants to play in front of a huge crowd, yet a consistently-packed stadium is an elusive dream for all but the chosen few. Winning is the sure fire way to ensure a healthy following. But as your Mum always told you; “You can’t always win, darling.”
Someone comes first, someone comes last, and most fall in between. Inescapable mathematics. So is there another way?
How would you make sure your team sold out its stadium every week? Is there a strategy that will “fireproof” your crowds against indifferent form?
Many a sports administrator has died in pursuit of this sporting Holy Grail. So does that mean it’s impossible?
No, but neither is it simple.
I spent a couple of years in sports administration, trying to resurrect basketball in a once-solid market. It was the Hunter Pirates (Newcastle Falcons 2.0) and it’s a long story.
Suffice to say there were four key aims, gleaned from endless case studies and the prevailing wisdom from great sports administrators around the world.
1. Make sure that you had value for money regardless of the result.
A game night experience that appealed equally to the ambivalent CEO of a local company, and his obsessed ten-year-old son was critical. There were quality mascots, dancing, creative on-court games – stuff that was feel good and fun but not expensive.
All successful teams have their own unique take on this, from wearing cheese hats to singing Waltzing Matilda to samba dancing. Essentially, a guaranteed good time with the possibility of a win.
2. Build Loyalty.
Loyalty is a simple concept, but a hard one to make reality. All successful teams have crusted on fans that are created in a number of ways, many beyond the team’s control.
Some are indoctrinated by Dad from the time they can kick a ball, some are locked into a social circle around the club, some have a magic moment that galvanises brand loyalty, such as a Grand Final win.
Manufacturing loyalty without heritage is tough. That is, it is easier to make a fourth generation Dragons fan bleed for his club, than it is to get a Melbourne Rebels fan to do so.
You have to sell tomorrows, not yesterdays. Hope, not history. It can be done, but you need convincing promises, and a social environment that parallels the sports experience.
Most importantly, you make them care about the players.
3. Make the players real.
Why does anyone regularly watch a TV show, finish a novel or go to see a movie sequel? Because they know the characters and they care what happens to them.
Ditto in sport.
Every Manchester United or Indian cricket team fan can give you a Wikipedia-like back story about every player. They know their high points and depressions, their nitro and their kryptonite.
Establish a relationship and the fan will turn up to the tragedies and dramas as well as the victories.
Stand for something and someone. A town, a demographic, a world view, something.
Give yourself a flavour. You know who the Lakers are playing in front of, you know who the All Blacks represent.
It provides a narrative at first, and ultimately a mythology.
Any one of these elements will not bring success and even all of them will not be enough.
But throw in the odd exciting player, the occasional win, a public looking for the niche you are filling and an ounce of luck and you may find more people want what you are offering.
So, how successful is your team? How many of these boxes are they ticking? What other things are they doing that seem to work?
For the record, I parted ways with the Hunter Pirates. They walked away from many of the principles above, mostly for financial, rather than philosophical, reasons.
The money dried up and they no longer exist. So that’s one more thing you might want to have in your toolkit – money.
Yes, mostly, you’ll need lots and lots of money.