This week, I spoke with Kevin Rye, the owner of fan engagement experts, Think Fan Engagement. In this interview, Kevin touches on how his career in sport started, his perception of fan engagement and how clubs can optimise relationships with their audiences.
Q1) Kevin, it’s great to have you on Ash’s Sports Talk. How did your sports career begin?
I stumbled into it really. On my 30th birthday, the league place where my childhood club Wimbledon had worked so hard to achieve was unjustly given away, and we fans had to start over.
I’d already been battling alongside fellow Dons fans to try to stop it from happening, and then it became about making AFC Wimbledon a reality. We didn’t do badly, did we?
Q2) Let’s hear more about Think Fan Engagement. What inspired you to start the company, and what do you bring to the sports industry?
I worked for Supporters Direct/SD Europe for 11.5 years. SD helped promote and increase fan involvement in the running and ownership of football clubs and the game more generally (Supporters Direct has since merged with the Football Supporters Federation to create the FSA, but SD Europe is now an independent organisation.)
When I left in 2015, I initially tried to consult directly with football clubs but found that whilst they could understand what value I’d bring regarding fan engagement, it was hard to work out exactly where I would fit. One of the big problems then was that fan engagement focused on apps, data, output, or selling – immediate ROI. In contrast, in reality, it’s an extension of Stakeholder Engagement. It should be a critical and strategic part of every club, incorporated across the business from the board to the ticket office. I explain the relationship between fans and clubs as being like two different dialects being spoken – ‘fan’ and ‘club’, and that we need to start understanding each other!
So I created the Fan Engagement Index to define, measure and benchmark Fan Engagement: to create the common language. From it, we can also understand the ideas and practice in fan engagement that work, and share that with clubs, fan organisations and those in the football and sports industries.
We also have the Fan Engagement Pod, a regular pod where I chat with a guest about their approach to fan engagement. We also publish episodes with fan engagement expert Bas Schanter and Sports Marketing guru Tim Crow, ex Synergy (now part of Engine). We’ve also just launched our first piece of work in the sport of Rugby League – a survey of fans.
Q3) I’m keen to hear your perspective on fan culture in football. How influential are they to football clubs? Plus, do you feel clubs know their fans just as much as their clubs know them?
Quite often, fans do know their clubs better than clubs know their fans. Fan engagement isn’t just a way to flog more tickets, merchandise, or to get likes for ‘bantz’ on social media. Fans are often quite dislocated from the decision making at their clubs – as we saw with the European Super League and Project Big Picture. They often feel like the only route they have is to run a campaign or take direct action. Far too often, clubs do something first and then, maybe, ask the fans about it and often face a concerted campaign to reverse a bad decision that they could have got right had they listened first. It’s a waste of energy for everyone! Instead, clubs should consult and engage throughout to improve how the decision is made in the first place. It really does work!
Q4) How do you feel football clubs can gain more of a personalised understanding of their fanbases?
Technology can help, of course, but that’s just one tool and only goes so far. What we’ve seen throughout COVID is how important human relationships have become. You can talk about ‘brand reach’, but ultimately, clubs are institutions that have relationships with people. The way to manage those relationships doesn’t involve sending out a questionnaire once a month. You need to be prepared to listen and do it often. People like Paul Barber at Brighton do it, likewise Denise Barrett-Baxendale at Everton, or Ben Kensell and his colleagues at Norwich City. There isn’t really an excuse!
The other irony of our age is that we’re all told we’re individuals, yet clubs still spend a lot of time regarding fans as a homogenous lump! All fans are not the same. In every fanbase, you’ll find some fans prepared to be activists and call for change and who want to know every detail they can about how the club is run, owned and funded. Others are more concerned about ticket prices and matchday experiences. But many of them want to know that the people in charge are sensible, looking after their club, and maybe like to ask a question every so often. You can identify who many of these are through data, but listening, genuinely engaging and showing a human fact is the most important factor.
Q5) With fans returning to stadiums in larger amounts, what more do you feel clubs can do to optimise the stadium return for the average football fan?
Essentially, fan experience can become a far more natural thing when you’re getting your fan engagement right, as you’ll be in the right space culturally. People like Mark Bradley at the Fan Experience Co have been trying to get that into people’s heads for years, and I very much see what he does as part of the right overall approach to running a club that works for fans.
I would urge every club to ensure that they’re listening to their fans now, including their supporters’ trusts and groups, fans parliaments, fans forums, via social media, individual fans through surveying or other means.
When fans turn up, they need to feel like they’re returning home. I don’t think they need a red carpet rolled out, but remember that this is the first time most of them will have been to watch their club play in over 1.5 years. These are places they love and revere. You need to respect that.
Q6) how do you feel data has revolutionised the way clubs can engage with their audiences?
Data is a signpost, and these days the quantity of it means you can get insights that weren’t possible before, but I often don’t think it’s used in the way it could be. People like Fiona Green from Winners and consultant Bas Schnater, get frustrated at clubs not realising the real potential of the tool and how It helps to unlock possibilities and conversations and measure how people feel. But they know that data isn’t a person, and data won’t often tell you the detail, richness, or reasoning behind something. We still need ears, eyes, a brain, and to be good human beings!
Q7) As much as I love talking about the industry, I’d love to hear the same about the people I interview. What are some of the key challenges you’ve faced with the Fan Engagement Index and your sports career?
When I started doing traditional consulting, I tried to fit into something that others didn’t understand. I had to have the confidence to realise that something different needed to be done. I’ve been really fortunate to work with some seriously good people in my time. There are three who have been particularly important to me because they encouraged me to have confidence, take risks, and trust my own judgment.
The first is the former Chair of the Wimbledon Independent Supporters Association & then founding CEO & Chair of AFC Wimbledon, Kris Stewart. He got me involved, and because of how campaigns like those work, I got to do some amazing work, including a hugely impactful opinion poll carried out by ICM Research, a borough-wide marketing campaign, and loads of communications strategy work.
Secondly, Phil French, now Director of Public Affairs at the International Olympic Commission (IOC), greatly influenced my career. Vital even. He was my CEO at Supporters Direct and help shape and mould me in so many ways he probably doesn’t even realise. Most importantly, he helped me become much more disciplined, thoughtful, and trust my judgment.
Last, but by no means least, a dear friend of mine, Paul Simpson, trained me in media relations: he helped me understand how strategy has to connect with what you do on the ground. I learned that Public Relations is something that shapes leadership and culture within organisations too. He also taught me to do things with a bit of style. “Show a bit of leg”, as he puts it!
Q8) Kevin, reflecting on this discussion, what is your key piece of advice for someone wanting to work in sport?
Always give it a go, be prepared to ask questions, and don’t be afraid to disrupt a bit. That doesn’t mean tipping all the tables over, but it does mean being prepared to think outside of the box a bit sometimes.
Wow, what a brilliant interview with Kevin. It’s refreshing to hear how he perceives fan engagement uniquely from many others in this era. His point about having a human approach to your fan engagement strategy speaks so much truth but can often get overlooked. Not only is this valuable from a marketing standpoint, but from a career perspective.