Wolves Fans Parliament were given an insight with a difference at their latest meeting when the club invited Ryan McKnight to speak to them.
Ryan is a football industry researcher and consultant, former chief executive of Stockport County, the ex-editor of FC Business – a respected journal for the football industry - and a Wolves fan.
He was commissioned by the Club to do some independent research earlier this season and was encouraged to prompt some 'healthy discussion' with his interesting, researched views on supporters' viewing habits.
He made the point that what he was about to present were a small sampling of conclusions and recommendations following the research and not an immediate agenda or position of the club itself. Additionally, he ratified that the research’s core was about how clubs should position and market themselves to buck the trend of declining attendance.
He kicked off by asking if fans wanted to see a change at their club? A unanimous show of hands was given by the Fans Parliament members as well as a similar show from the top table of club officials.
But when he questioned whether fans should also change, the response was one or two hands being shown from the floor. Ryan added, “Surely we have to look at ourselves as well and ask ourselves if we are part of the problem?”
His research was based on finding out the most popular perception of a club's function and learned that many supporters said: "Be successful, win games." But he queried this. "I suggest that success-only propositions are illogical," he argued. "Clubs need to work to a model of why you attend and why your family attends.
“Supporters have reached this position as a result of what clubs have come to stand for…..not a lot beyond winning! We know this because clubs that stand for something different have a totally different culture within their fanbase”
Ryan clarified that this doesn’t mean an abandoning of hope for supporters and a change in fundamental position of the club would have no impact on the abilities or efforts to win games and/or experiences promotions and trophies but would appeal to the ability of the club to grow support in any absence of perceived playing success.
Ryan pointed out that 55 per cent of the 72 Football League clubs were showing attendance decline this season and, in the last seven years, only four clubs had been able to attract bigger crowds without the catalyst of a promotion. Of those, only one were on course to keep that going by the end of this season.
“What does that say about us?" he asked. "It seems to me it's no longer unconditional support of their clubs.....more a case of: I will love you on condition that you do X, Y and Z.......”
He suggested that while most in the room would regard themselves as being Wolves fans 'from cradle to grave', he referred to the background of social media and fan engagement in the game today and asked whether it should be viewed more as fan appeasement. On the recent protests over planned price increases at Anfield, he said it was interesting there had been no walk-out over the issue of there being no Scousers in the Liverpool squad.
Referring to Wolves, he added: "Attendance-wise, we are 27.77 per cent down on seven seasons ago and filling 60-odd per cent of the ground capacity. We are getting equivalent to about eight per cent of the population of Wolverhampton in to see the games.
"The club's highest average attendance was in 1950. That was 48,000, which meant that back then that about one in three people from the town were coming to see games. Some people now say they are off to the cinema or going bowling but the easiest way to have a relationship with the place you are from is through your football club. What other traditions do people have other than to say 'My dad was a Wolves fan'? I have no other tradition in my life. How can any alternative to going to the match trump having a tradition that has been in your family for 100 years?
"I did some research for the Football League last year and 64 per cent of clubs had average attendances lower than six seasons ago. Including those that have consistently lowered ticket prices.
“What are the expectations of being a fan of a certain club? What experiences do you want to have? If it's one based purely on regular success, it's illogical because statistically speaking that is unlikely to continually happen and hasn’t happened for fifty years. Yet, a large group of fans in all clubs are saying: Win games or I won't come.”
Ryan described value for money as 'a perception, not a calculation' and said there was plenty of evidence to challenge the generally held view that lower admission prices meant higher attendances, whether for season ticket holders or on a match-by-match basis. "Price plays a smaller role than we give it credit for, I'm saying clubs must abandon a success-based approach as their core marketing message only. It's illogical to take the position of a success-based approach." He referred to clubs such as Athletic Bilbao model, where a strong feeling of local pride is the very soul and identity of the club, partly from the fact the club field only Basque-born players. "If they lose three in a row, their attendance goes up," he revealed. "Clubs must stand for something that drives loyalty.
"Wolves could be a real active leader in promoting the game and observing things that other clubs refuse to do. Be the active lead on promoting civic pride of the city! I want this club to be political. I want them to speak on national issues to drive disproportionate loyalty towards themselves.
"Did you know that in Wolverhampton we have the highest percentage of people without any educational qualifications? We also have an acute alcohol problem in the City. The research showed that most people see Wolves as an organisation that should be promoting and helping the city in a deeper way. It’s only when you align values (and not results) are you developing loyalty.
“What could we do straightaway to improve things? Get rid of season tickets? Why do the club have to re-sell the idea of being a Wolves fan every 12 months? It shouldn’t be a contract you sign every year, we are committed to the Club for life, right? We could adopt a total membership model......you do it habitually and it's the club of your parents or your birth or where you’re from or whatever reason you have for supporting the club. Supporting it from the age of six till your death bed is something to be proud of but something we are seeing less of as the game ages.
“Wolves get the equivalent to eight per cent of the city of Wolverhampton watching games here at Molineux and I haven't included areas like Lichfield, Tamworth, Stafford, Cannock etc. Devolve some responsibility to supporters – everyone will agree that that’s too low.
“Commit to a new constitution and be pioneers of the game again. We're not talking about any old club......we’re Wolves and were pioneers of the game, with European football and matches under lights. We need to challenge the status quo again, be different and inspire new reasons to support the club like what happens elsewhere. Supporters are jealous of the Dortmund fans, aren't they?”
Ryan went on to discuss the promotion of the game and suggested how that might be done differently. "I don't like to see pictures of players used as marketing tools......not if they don't share our values and probably won't be here in a few years. I'm a father and it's really more important to me that my daughter becomes a Wolves fan than whether we make it back into the Premier League. The imagery and marketing should reflect the things that motivate loyalty and behaviour rather than short-term actions. I, like any fan, want us to be in the Premier League but will I stop supporting them if they’re not….of course not.”
In the Q and A session that followed, Jeff Bagnall raised the point of how many Wolves fans were actually from the city because he said he knew may who turned up at away games who were from outside Wolverhampton. Recessions and the amount of football on TV were cited as reasons why fans might decide not to go to games. Ryan added: "Where football gets it wrong, is the big difference between cost and affordability." And he underlined his message by saying: "Remove the notion of relying solely on success as a measure of our support. The pressure of success is as stifling as the hope of it. Statistically, we have got an enormous chance every season of not getting promoted. Of course we shouldn’t abandon the hope of playing success but against the reality and the forces within football we need to implement new things along side this to cultivate a stronger base of lifelong supporters.