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Keep the faith | Norwegian Football takes inspiration from the Catholic church to improve its service

When Pearse Connolly set about revamping the marketing of Norwegian national team home matches he didn’t expect to use the Catholic church as inspiration.

  • Norwegian Football Federation teams up with academic to create consistent, compelling customer experience
  • Academic draws on theories around sacred rituals and drama for deeper and more emotional fan journey
  • Design team identify 14 ‘meaningful service encounters’ to do with a match 

When Pearse Connolly, the Irishman who heads digital services at the Norwegian Football Federation, set about revamping the marketing of Norwegian national team home matches in 2014, he didn’t expect to plumb the depths of the Norwegian national psyche, use the Catholic church as inspiration, or employ a graphic novelist to sell the idea to staff.

Thanks to a collaboration with Oslo-based designer and academic Ted Matthews, Connolly and the NFF did all this and more, as part of a project that has profoundly changed how Norwegian football thinks about its fans and matchday experiences.

The project involved marrying ‘sacred theory’, a set of ideas about why certain rituals produce meaningful and highly emotional experiences, to the growing field of service design. This sounds abstract and academic, but Matthews and Connolly believe the outcomes will speak to every sports fan: an understanding of why people actually attend sport in the first place, and an enhancement of the things that make it a compelling experience.

Service design

Service design is the crafting of customer experiences and journeys. “It’s: how do we design the whole experience as a holistic thing, looking at all the touchpoints?” Matthews says. “Then we integrate all these ideas and elements into the experience.”

For example, a service designer revamping an airline’s first-class experience could look at ‘touchpoints’ such as: booking the tickets online, the design and feel of printed tickets, the walk through the airport and lounge, how airline staff interact with the customer. The designer would direct how each interaction should be with the aim of the customer walking away happy with the experience. In the past, such projects were carried out piecemeal by different departments, without a guiding hand steeped in design theory.

Matthews points to Apple as a company that, while not explicitly incorporating service design principles, produces the type of compelling, consistent customer experience that service designers aim for. He says: “It’s about delivering a consistent experience across their devices, their website, their shops, the hardware, the software updates, unboxing the products – everything. They have a very clear vision of what they want to deliver.”

Sacred theory

It is easy to see how these ideas might apply to sports events and fan journeys. But Matthews wanted to take the discipline a step further by drawing on theories around sacred rituals and drama, which he captures under the term ‘sacred theory’.

After working in the corporate world and public sector for more than a decade, Matthews had taken a break to explore the application of sacred theory to service design via a PhD at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design. The NFF project was part of his academic work, alongside projects with Norway’s largest telco and the national postal service.

“My view is that service design has become particularly functional,” he says. “It’s good at understanding things from a customer perspective and making them easier to use. But that can be quite a sad thing in some ways – some experiences don’t need to be more functional. That’s the reason I ended up looking at sacred theory.”

The core idea is that sacred rituals can provide a structure for designing experiences that are meaningful and emotional. Sacred rituals often have similar, three-part structures:

  1. Separation – the group celebrating the ritual is separated but participates in preparatory activity that ‘peels away the everyday’;
  2. Transition – the group comes together and shares a profound experience;
  3. Reincorporation – activity that reinforces the meaning of the ritual, and returns the group to the ‘everyday’, or normal life. Christian marriages, for example, begin with an engagement and stag/hen celebrations, then comes the wedding ceremony, and afterwards the honeymoon and return to society of the newlyweds, whose status has profoundly changed.

Sacred theory “sounds very fluffy,” Connolly says. “If you go and start talking to people about it they just want to hear about brand, or they just want to hear about the commercial aspects. But you’re saying, ‘Take a step back for a minute, because the commercial will all fall into place if you really understand the ‘Why?’ factors’.

“Why are people actually interested in this? Why did football develop against the cultural backdrop that it did, at the time that it did? What does it mean in a society that is changing, where a lot of the factors that drove the growth of football, whether it was the initial growth and participation, then the change to a TV product, are now changing?”

Matthews, from Burnley, England, and a lifelong fan of the local Premier League team, is acutely aware of sports fans’ sensitivity to commercial over-engineering. He knows his work could be perceived as part of that, or an even more malign extension in which fans’ deepest emotions are manipulated. But he believes the application of his ideas could actually achieve the opposite – a preservation of what is most important to fans.

He says: “Football is a ritual. We know it is. We know what happens when it becomes defiled, and what that feels like. If it’s all about the money or business, something that is essentially quite sacred has been defiled.”

Using a grant from the Norwegian Research Council aimed at seeding cutting-edge design thinking throughout industry, Matthews worked with Connolly and the NFF between November 2014 and June 2015 on a project centred on the experience at the ‘sacred rituals’ of Norwegian men’s senior national team matches.

The grand narrative

Matthews’ first step was to understand why national team football was important to Norwegians, and what were the myths and ideas that surrounded it. Fans, the Norwegian supporters alliance, players, NFF staff, and stakeholders at the national stadium, Ullevaal Stadion, were interviewed.

The aim was “to understand a sense of self for the team, the fans and for Norwegian football as a whole through aggregating legends, stories, symbols, artefacts, songs and other cultural expressions of the community. The Football Association’s archive was also investigated to locate artefacts that had meaning”.

“We looked at the symbols, the big stories related to the team,” Matthews says. “There is the Norway v England commentary in 1981 (the famous ‘Maggie Thatcher, your boys took a hell of a beating’ oration – see video, below). That is an artifact of the Norwegian sense of self. It’s about the underdog that comes through.”

Other stories that back up the underdog narrative include the team beating Nazi Germany in the 1936 Olympics bronze medal match, beating Brazil at the 1998 World Cup and – beyond sport – in stories like that of the ‘heroes of Telemark’ World War II resistance fighters.

The quest of the underdog – one of Christopher Booker’s ‘seven basic plots’ – was chosen as a ‘grand narrative’ for the team that would inform the design of all other parts of the experience. It was chosen as something that would ring true with fans. Norway had always been, and in footballing terms still is, a small nation trying to punch above its weight. As Matthews wrote in a 2017 article: “What is important is that… the myth, a metaphor of some truth, fits with the reality of the situation so as to feel authentic.”

This narrative was not just about one match or one qualifying campaign, but was designed to be used over three years, covering the Euro 2016 and World Cup 2018 qualifying campaigns and, hopefully, tournaments.

“We went from the idea of just selling one qualifying campaign, or one particular match…to this idea of, ‘What’s our grand narrative?’” says Connolly. “…And we found that when we started to build messaging, whether it was radio spots, or the visuals that we did, around the quest narrative, that really resonated with people.”

The narrative is used in marketing campaigns and promotions for matches. Marketing and messaging is modulated throughout the period – ‘turning the volume up and down’, as Matthews and Connolly refer to it – in order to communicate with fans effectively.

“The people that do this really well are the likes of the Catholic Church,” Connolly says. “They’ve been doing it for two thousand years. Turn up the volume Easter on a certain set of ideas, turn up the volume on the liturgy at Christmas, to have the same sort of idea but a completely different feeling.”

Matthews and Connolly conceived of the match as a five-act ritual (click on image below to enlarge).

Each match is a separate ritual within the narrative and is designed in five phases:

  • Before
  • Separation
  • Transition (the match itself)
  • Reincorporation
  • After.

Within these phases, the design team identified 14 ‘meaningful service encounters’ (MSEs) – moments where fans would encounter something significant to do with the match. These MSEs were carefully designed to enhance the fans’ experience, in a way that aligned with the grand narrative. Examples included:

Call-up
To emphasise the importance of a national team call-up in a visible way for both players and fans, instead of the traditional phone call or text message, players were sent specially-designed gift boxes containing the shirt, a message saying ‘Ja Vi Elsker’ [‘Yes, we love’ – a motto of the national team drawn from a patriotic song] and several keepsakes. For one women’s team match, these keepsakes included a booklet with graphics showing the story of women’s football in Norway. Some players posted videos of themselves opening the boxes on social media, allowing this element to reach the fans.

An NFF document detailing the project explains: “Creating a small ritual or meaningful moment would communicate better the sense of privilege and importance of being called up to play for your country.”

Team bus design and arrival at the stadium
An initial design for graphics on the team bus that had large images of players standing in kit with their chests puffed out was rejected for not fitting the underdog narrative. A more modest design was chosen focusing on the team’s crest and a stencilled list of matches to which the bus had transported the team.

The design team sought to enhance the moment when players got off the bus at the stadium and where fans greet them. Players were asked to wear suits instead of tracksuits and headphones, to reflect the importance of the occasion. The bus had traditionally pulled up in a carpark next to a busy train station, which made for a distracting backdrop so the view to the station platforms was covered with large graphics displaying snowy Norwegian mountains and the team motto.

Stadium playlist
During the build-up to matches, the DJ in Ullevaal Stadium had been playing high-tempo pop music. After feedback from fans, the playlist was changed to Norwegian songs and anthems that home fans would know and sing along to. The fact that away fans would not know the songs was considered a positive – it enhanced the competitive atmosphere inside the stadium.

Results

Did all this work produce the desired effect? Did Norwegian fans enjoy amazing matchday experiences – ‘collective effervescence’, to use sacred theory terminology – and pack the stadium as a result?

Connolly and Matthews admit they don’t yet have strong data showing positive results. Norway’s poor performances on the pitch hit attendances during the project. Post-match interviews and surveys with players and fans at the stadium returned positive results, but have not yet been conducted rigorously. However, there are other signs of success, and Connolly is effusive about the future for the method.

Service design principles were used to create a fanzone for Norwegian Eliteserien (top-tier) football club Odd that proved so successful the model is being rolled out to all league clubs compulsorily. “We get 1,000 people into the fanzone at Odd,” Connolly says. “People come earlier and spend more.” The fanzone was created using service design principles, and according to Connolly was “not just a commercial fanzone, but a fanzone that would emphasise their story, their symbols, their view of their future… In the fanzone you have a series of activities that tell the story of the club”.

The NFF has also created a tool, Match+, for league clubs to work out their role in their community, their symbols, and their narratives. “The feedback from clubs is great,” Connolly says. “It’s a very simple set of tools for them to start to communicate based on these things.”

And as part of the federation’s strategy at national-team level, the commercial department has two new strategic goals based on measures of fan sentiment: “Make me proud”, and “Give me a good social experience”. These aim to discover the effectiveness of the service design measures. The federation is working with digital media measuring firms on a tool that will scan Norwegian media and social media before, during, and after games to see how people respond to their experiences.

Connolly says: “If you actually took the approach of: ‘This is a story, this is an experience, it has various moments in it,’ then I think, just as you do in screenwriting, just as you do in drama, you can both have an effect on and emphasise certain elements that will give people a better experience. And the causal effect of that will be a deep relationship with your team. That’s why I think there’s a huge amount of potential in this discipline.”

Evangelists required

Because the adoption of the service design approach is so pervasive, touching so many aspects of an organisation, it is critical that it has the backing of senior staff, Matthews says. Connolly’s enthusiasm was the key driver within the NFF.

“When designing front-end experiences, you have to work with back-end delivery,” Matthews says. “Experiences are ‘co-designed’ at the point of consumption. That is dependent on many different people. You have to make sure everyone is on board with the concept. This means the security staff, the ticketing people, the guy selling sausages in the venue, right up to the boardroom.”

To help communicate the project internally, the NFF employed an artist to create graphic-novel-like imagery illustrating how different parts of the project would play out.

Matthews and Connolly say the additional cost of introducing service design thinking into a sports organisation need not be too great. The NFF project had a total cost of about €100,000, of which €60,000 was funded by the Norwegian Research Council. Connolly said this included initial research that would not have to be repeated in future. He has also used the project to develop some low-cost tools – PDF guidebooks, essentially – that will allow others in Norwegian football to employ the principles.

Effective employment of the principles would probably require one full-time staff member at a venue being in charge of experience, Matthew says. “It’s about arranging things in a particular way rather than buying a load of new stuff – so not a colossally large amount of money,” he adds.

Keeping fans onside

Matthews is wary of his work being interpreted as manipulative. The meaning people attach to sport makes it both perfect and dangerous ground for sacred theory-driven service design.

“It has a lot to do with your motivation and why you are designing something,” he says. “You can design the artificial, or you can curate what is meaningful for people…Football is in a good position to use this because football is meaningful. You maybe wouldn’t want to use it at a launderette.”

Arguably, the approach has produced results that a stereotypical, ‘old-school’ sports fan would welcome – players in suits, scrapping pre-match pop music, and, as Matthews says, “trying to get people to put away their mobiles, and take part in the experience.”

The NFF met with hardcore Norwegian national team fans early in their project. “They are the ones that are most sceptical, who will just say, ‘Forget it, we make our own culture, this is our department’,” Connolly says. “You have to respect that. But you can also say to them, ‘We’re trying to understand what motivates you and how we can work with you to emphasise those things that do it for you…so that more and more people get the same relationship, and feeling, and meaning that you do.’”

Elements of the experience that were important to these fans were analysed for improvement. Connolly continues: “They talked about this idea of the gladiator effect, the cauldron effect, of standing on a terrace…but that on the way into the arena and on the way there it doesn’t feel like that at all.” Flags, symbols and signage were introduced at the stadium train station, on the walk to the stadium, and around the stadium itself to try to achieve the desired effect.

“Each of these little touchpoints along the way, you work with the fans to emphasise it,” Connolly says. “And you have to be very, very clear: ‘This isn’t to squeeze more money out of you, this is to make it a better experience.’”

A new approach

Switched-on sports organisations have been making some of the changes instituted as a result of the NFF project for years. Matthews and Connolly point to English Premier League club Everton as one organisation that has developed a powerful understanding of its place in its community, and used that effectively in fan engagement.

What is significant about the sacred theory-led service design approach, they say, is that it provides a methodology for doing these things in a consistent, considered way, right across an organisation.

“Some clubs and associations do this, but they do it ad-hoc,” says Connolly. “I think the value of the rigour that comes through an academic discipline could help us structure that up.”

Even before considering the ‘sacred’ elements, service design principles could be employed to good effect in sport, he adds: “Looking at where the friction points are, looking at where the pain points are, and trying to take that away. That’s also an area of the industry in which we can do a huge amount.”

But the sacred elements provide the secret sauce that gets Matthews and Connolly excited. Again, they are not the first to think deeply about this – there is plenty of academic work, such as that promoted by the Football Collective, around why football and sport is powerful and important to communities.

“I think most people in the commercial departments at clubs and associations are either unaware of that work, or don’t really use it in a productive way,” Connolly says.

He adds: “We’ve become very sophisticated at certain elements. We’ve got really good at understanding supply-side management for ticketing or whatever – a whole set of things on the business side. But we lack the real, deep: ‘Why do people bother in the first place?’”

Some may interpret the approach as simply ‘good branding’, but it goes beyond that, he says: “People who get brand and put it at the centre of things are on the way. But I definitely think there’s an opportunity – that this complements the brand stuff – to add this aspect of a deeper meaning and a deeper relationship that I don’t feel you get through brand.”

Matthews and Connolly believe the refocus demanded by their approach could have a genuinely positive impact on fan communities.

“There’s a lot of theory about how shared collective experiences have a positive impact on you, your local society, and on a national level, which I don’t think the industry really does enough about,” Connolly says.

He adds: “In general, people are living more comfortable lives but sharing [fewer] things together. I think… that sports in general and football in particular has a huge opportunity to say these are basic human needs that we’re answering here.”

The future

For now, Norwegian football is the only testing ground for Matthews’ work. But both men think the approach has potential to be rolled out to other sports organisations.

“This is something that, if we got some of the big clubs to think about it and do it, that it could start a broader movement around it,” Connolly says. “I talk individually through Uefa and Fifa to people at clubs, and they get it. But it’s, ‘Where do I start?’”

Matthews points out that the challenge for major clubs that are global brands is different than for national teams and smaller clubs. How do they appeal to fans around the world, while also putting this big focus on their roots and supporter base?

“With football, there is a community,” he says. “You need to find the story and narrative that people relate to and reflects who they are… It’s easier with Burnley than for Manchester City.”

Whatever the club, you get the sense he would like to give it shot.

This article features in SportBusiness International’s 2018 Fan XP report. Browse the sections of the report or download the full PDF document here.

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