Over the last wee while, I’ve been chatting with some mates about how they ended up supporting ‘their’ team in the Irish League.
Most were influenced by their family (usually their dad, uncle or brother). Others said it was because the team was local (that’s why I support my hometown Carrick Rangers). None said they used any ‘normal’ decision-making process.
You know: make a shortlist of possibilities, weigh up pros and cons, consider implications of making a choice. Selecting a team to support isn’t that practical.
One thing all those I spoke with had in common, though, is that their first match experience was through invitation. Brought by a family member or encouraged to go with a mate who was already a fan. None had gone solo.
I remember my first Carrick match as clear as if it were yesterday, even though it’s thirty-five years ago. Talked into going by a friend who was already a die-hard fan. To be honest, without that invite I don’t think I would have gone. One game, though, and I was hooked. There is something special about attending a game. It’s impossible to describe: you have to experience it.
Change is Difficult
Applying a bit of amateur psychology to this, here’s a thought: doing something new is often challenging, daunting and maybe a bit overwhelming. If you can’t overcome that ‘fear’, you tend to talk your self out of making that change or at least postpone it.
As the Northern Ireland Football League looks at ways of increasing attendances, making it easy and worry-free for potential fans overcome this ‘fear’ may be the way forward.
The messages coming through social media from the NIFL and the clubs are more positive and professional than ever, but a simple ‘buddy’ strategy may be more effective.
Thinking like a potential new fan, here’s what may be going through my head if I was contemplating going to a game for the first time:
When should I arrive?
Where can I park?
How should I dress?
Can I get any food or drink In the ground?
Will there be a specific place where I should sit or stand?
Where are the toilets?
By now, I have talked myself out of going, and I haven’t even checked the admission price.
Help is at hand
Step in my ‘new’ buddy. An ambassador for the club. He/she is a passionate supporter with in-depth knowledge of the club’s history and tradition (the ‘wiser’ in the title. Get it? Oh, never mind). Happy meet or speak with me in the run up to the game to help deal with any anxieties I have about going. I’m met outside the ground before the match, directed through the turnstiles and helped to get the best matchday experience.
My buddy stays with me during the game and at the final whistle, asks how I enjoyed the few hours in the ground and encourages me to return for the next game.
In work, we call these folk colleagues or mentors. No reason why clubs shouldn’t have them too. Rest assured, the product is good enough to get repeat business.
Making the first day easy to cope with may well be the start of a beautiful, long term relationship.
In that fine long-trodden tradition of attending by invitation, I took my niece to her first game three years ago when she was just eight years old. Three years later and she is about to get her second season ticket and will go to the majority of away games.
See, it works.