A recent Marketing Week interview with the FA’s marketing manager, Lucy Roberts-Hartley, highlighted their renewed focus on the FA Cup and provided an interesting insight into the FA. The article outlined how the FA is trying to re-engage football fans (particularly 18-34 year olds) with the FA Cup by adding ‘more excitement to its messaging in order to stay relevant’. It seems that the FA are acknowledging an engagement issue across the whole sport, however when this is scrutinised alongside the latest Sport England participation data it reveals a more significant and worrying issue. Whilst the FA are seemingly focusing their marketing to address this trend, we believe that there is a wider opportunity for sponsors of the national game.
According to Sport England, in the last ten years the total number of people playing any form of football has dropped by nearly 300,000. If you analyse the (key) younger demographics more closely the results are even more worrying. The number of 16-25 year olds participating in any form of football has dropped from 24.3% to 20.4% in the last 10 years. The number of players dropping out of the sport between 16-24 and 25-34 year olds is 55% compared to the average of all sports where the dropout rate is 17%. Whilst the fall in sports participation throughout the country continues to be a serious issue for broader society, given that one of the FA’s primary objectives is to “promote the availability of the sport to the greatest number of people” these figures should be forcing them to focus on far more than just FA Cup engagement.
Undoubtedly this is a complex issue however one of the biggest contributing factors is the ability for young fans to attend matches. Attending matches has to be one of the most inspiring moments for any young fan, without this experience football becomes just another TV viewing appointment battling for audiences against WWF and X Factor. Purely anecdotally, I was very fortunate to be at the 1986 FA Cup final between Liverpool and Everton, it was one of the greatest memories of my childhood and undoubtedly laid the foundation for a life-long love of playing and watching football.
To demonstrate the ticket availability issue, the cheapest single ticket price on offer at Premier League Champions, Chelsea, is £52, this is almost double the cost of watching the champions of any of the other top divisions in Europe (Daily Telegraph, 15th October 2015). The average ticket price to a premier league match is £54 (Guardian, 23rd September 2015). Since 1981 Arsenal’s season ticket price has risen 380% in real terms (Independent, 9th August 2014). It has long been acknowledged that English football is expensive in comparison to the other major European leagues however this now appears to be having a far longer term impact on the sport. Young people simply do not have the money to go to matches. According to a 2015 HSBC study, the average disposable income of a British 18 to 30-year-old is less than £400 per month. To expect £50+ to be spent regularly on a football ticket is wholly unrealistic.
The Premier League and the FA will point to the increasing diversity of football fans however the longer-term trends highlight that younger fans are losing interest. Whilst comparative fan research wasn’t available when the Premier League began there is some startling data highlighting this trend. At the league’s inception in 1992, the proportion of fans aged 16-20 at Aston Villa was 25%; 15 years later, the proportion of 16-24 year olds in the crowd was just 9% across the league (Daily Telegraph, 13th August 2013). According to the latest Premier League survey the average age of a football fan attending a top flight match is 41. Accessibility is a major contributing factor in engagement which the FA need to acknowledge.
The purpose of this blog in not whinge about the state of Premier League ticket prices or the FA’s inaction, rather to highlight an opportunity for brands within football. Consumers now have far more influence on their brand’s strategy, resulting in marketing becoming increasingly responsive. As a reaction, business is putting greater emphasis on brand (rather than corporate) social responsibility. This should be applied to the brands sponsoring football. More often than not the activations of football sponsors centre around ‘vanilla’ territories such as the celebration of the football occasion (think Coke, Pringles, Budweiser etc.), we believe that this creates a genuine activation gap for some creative and innovative marketing. This gap will enable a brand to take a more philanthropic role (without being too worthy). Whilst Carling’s Shirt Amnesty is very good example of credible value adding fan engagement, we are suggesting taking this one stage further and genuinely assisting in the retention of young fans in the game. Bringing this right back to the FA Cup, one example, albeit very basic, is that brands could assist with the re-distribution of tickets. Over 40,000 FA Cup final tickets go to the Football Family (commercial partners) and Club Wembley, imagine if these were all distributed to the 18-24 year olds (or younger) who couldn’t afford these tickets. Whilst we acknowledge that this is a bit of a utopian suggestion, sponsors could subsidise tickets for younger fans which would not only drive engagement with the sport but also loyalty for the sponsoring brand.
As long as the billions of pounds keep pouring into the sport, administrators will kid themselves that the sport is in rude health however without the next generation of players and fans there is no future foundation. This is becoming a societal issue, not only to prevent the long term decline of the national game but also the wellbeing of a generation. It is a rich territory which, the relevant, brands should be noticing and reacting to as it will pay dividends.