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‘People’s Club’ philosophy guides Everton’s fan engagement strategy

Everton director of marketing, Richard Kenyon, explains how innovative pricing and engagement with young fans have helped the Premier League club shore up ailing attendances.

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“I prefer to call it ‘reputation’ rather than ‘brand’”, says Richard Kenyon, director of marketing, communications and community at Everton Football Club, of the team’s ‘People’s Club’ positioning. “Because it’s something that’s been with the club since we were formed, and it’s built over many many years and is difficult to change. Ours, if used in the right way, could be really powerful for us.”

The idea of Everton as ‘the People’s Club’ is something that guides every aspect of their public-facing work, Kenyon explains. “And it’s not just about being a local community club. It’s not a parochial expression. It’s about doing things the right way, it’s doing things in the true essence of the club. The work that we do with our fans, the way that we open up to our fans, that we listen to our fans, I think all of these things are good messages and support that positioning of ‘the People’s Club’, but what it absolutely doesn’t mean is that we are parochial or not ambitious.”

Fan consultation, Kenyon says, has formed a cornerstone of his work since joining Everton in 2014. At that time, Goodison Park, the stadium in which the team have played home games since 1892, was regularly some way below capacity on match days. “We sold out for some of the big games and dates: the Merseyside derby [against Liverpool, Everton’s city neighbours], Manchester United, the opening day,” says Kenyon. “But we were never consistently at full capacity.”

Ticket pricing strategy

Solving this problem was the number one priority for Kenyon after he arrived at the club. Some of the issue lay with the team’s performance – Everton has not finished higher than fifth in the Premier League since 2005. He was also firm in his view that there was plenty more the club could do off the pitch to attract fans.

The first stage of this, he says, was a “major study and survey of our fanbase” dedicated to understanding “who is coming to the game and perhaps more importantly who wasn’t, and the motivations for that”. Engaging with fan stakeholder groups, including season ticket-holders, the Fans’ Forum – who Kenyon describes as being “like MPs for the fanbase” – and the recently established Junior Fans’ Forum, Everton identified young supporters as a key growth area.

“Ultimately, we wanted to have more young people coming into the stadium,” says Kenyon. “We know that if young people can get to the habit of coming, then they stay for a long time, so we created a number of initiatives to get them through the turnstiles.”

The initial step was to reassess the ticket pricing structure, with a two-fold goal: getting more young people into games and retaining them as they transition into adulthood. Everton reduced the price of an under-11’s ticket to £5 (€5.60/$6.50) per game, or £95 for a season ticket – comfortably among the lowest in the Premier League. Eighteen per cent of the 31,000 season tickets the club sold for the 2017-18 season were held by junior fans.

Under-18s tickets are also competitively priced, starting at £20 per game or £149 for the season; the Premier League average is thought to be about £235. According to research the club conducted last season, on average, one in four fans inside Goodison Park during the 2017/18 season were under the age of 18. This is compared with a Premier League average of one in six, according to the Premier League’s own figures. The group of under-18 season ticket holders at Everton has grown 10 per cent since 2014-15

Kenyon then looked at the leap in pricing from the young adult to full-price ticket, where the club “was seeing quite a big fall off in attendance, those fans in their late teens and early twenties, fans we were obviously very keen to keep hold of and get coming back.”

Another consultation with the Fans’ Forum ensued, the result of which was the introduction of a second young adult category in 2016-1. Fans aged between 18 and 21 now pay £299 per season, while one in the 22 to 24 age bracket costs £380, helping to stagger the price increase – previously, all fans over the age of 21 paid full price.

The Fans’ Forum, Kenyon says, “has been incredibly helpful, and they don’t just say what you might think – ‘tickets should be cheaper’ – or anything like that. They give us good insight and that, combined with the benchmarking we do against other clubs and the market research we perform, helps us to make sure that we’re charging that the right amount for the right age groups.”

In the two years since the second young adult category was introduced, the retention rate – fans renewing their season ticket from one year to the next – in the 22–24 age group has risen to 92 per cent, from a previous five-year average of 74 per cent.

Despite worsening league performances – including consecutive bottom-half finishes for the first time in well over a decade – average attendances at Goodison have been on an incline since Kenyon’s arrival. From a low of just over 33,000 in 2010/11, the club’s average attendance for the 2017/18 Premier League season hit 39,494. In the previous campaign, for the first time in their history, Everton sold every seat for every home league game in the season. “Last season we hit our season ticket sales cap – so basically sold the maximum number of tickets we could sell on a seasonal basis,” Kenyon adds. “We hit that cap for the first time, and we repeated it again for the coming campaign.”

Community engagement

The club has worked to engage more young fans in the local area to come to games in the first place, by offering a range of incentives and experiences for junior season ticket-holders and fan club members. Alongside his position as marketing director, Kenyon is also the chief executive of Everton in the Community, the club’s charitable arm. This dual role, he says, has allowed him to see how charitable engagement programmes typically used by Everton in the Community could also benefit the wider club.

“Our community programme has always had a youth engagement strand out in schools, working with disadvantaged young people through Everton in the Community,” Kenyon explains. “What we’ve done off the back of that is invested in a program for junior schools, which came about from one school who told us that they had a group of Evertonians who used to just get together at lunchtime and talk about the club. So we thought, ‘well actually, why don’t you become our first supporters’ club?’ Just like we have adult supporters’ clubs, who go home and away and are very loyal fans, we thought, ‘why don’t we create these clubs in schools?’”

Since piloting the scheme in 2016, Everton now has 160 official junior supporters’ clubs – Kenyon explains that “we wanted to keep it low and make sure we could give each of these schools a really good experience, being able to send players along and really engage with each kid”. Most of them are in the Liverpool area, although some junior fan clubs have started to crop up overseas, with one as far afield as Australia.

“But it’s predominantly local children and, again, we try and make it really engaging,” Kenyon says. “So when we go, we take first team players or people from the football side, as well as community coaches. We’ve helped them with tickets for games and that kind of thing, just to try and keep the younger Evertonians hooked and also get some other mates to ‘turn blue’ as well. We’ve got some evidence that that’s been happening.”

Kenyon notes that engagement-led programmes, which are “the right thing to do and will give us a return eventually”, but don’t offer an initial obvious revenue rise, are often “hard to get past the financial director and chief executive”. This, he says, has become easier over time, as several of the recent programmes – particularly with regards to youth engagement – can now be mapped against the increase in young fans coming to the stadium on match days.

“Our hope is that these concepts will lead to either retention or greater loyalty,” he says. “And those things are hard to quantify in the short term, but obviously we understand the commercial gains that follow if we get it right.

“It’s really been an engagement strategy. The football is absolutely what it’s all about, and the biggest accelerant to growing a fan base is going to be winning trophies. But we do everything we can around that to improve the overall experience.”

New stadium on the horizon

One of the major reasons behind the timing of this engagement push is Everton’s proposed move to a new stadium at Bramley Moore Dock, on the banks of Liverpool’s River Mersey. The new venue is expected to open for the start of the 2022/23 season with a capacity of about 55,000 – over 15,000 more than Goodison. By creating significant over-demand for season tickets now, Kenyon hopes to ensure the new stadium is full from the first game.

“We will have more seats to sell but we’re in a good position because we’ve been growing steadily over the past few years,” he says. “We have an active waiting list now, so the demand is there, and what we need to keep doing is make sure we’re the sort of club that fans keep coming to, we want to make sure we’re still that same club so they’ll stay with us. If we can keep building the loyalty and the number of the fans we’ve got I’m very confident we’ll fill the new stadium.”

A major opportunity around the new stadium, Kenyon explains, will be the ability to have a more flexible range of prices on tickets: “You can sit in the stands at Goodison, halfway up, and still have a pillar in front of you. Some of the best areas of the ground still have some obstructions. It does mean it’s difficult to increase the ticket prices. We won’t have those challenges so we’ll have the opportunity to put the ticket prices up at the top end, but we’ll always want to maintain our commitment to affordable pricing. It will just be a bigger range than we’re able to have here.”

The BBC’s Price of Football report for 2017 found that Everton’s lowest-priced seat, at £38, was the most expensive entry-level ticket in the Premier League. The club’s highest-end ticket, however, is among the cheapest in the division, at just £11 more. “What we’ll have at our new stadium is improved facilities, the opportunity for a greater number of premium seats and hospitality provisions, and I think there’ll be the opportunity even in general admission to have a higher top-end ticket,” says Kenyon.

This will follow another major period of research and benchmarking against other Premier League clubs – in addition to, Kenyon is keen to note, teams from other sports and disciplines. “It’s not just the Premier League clubs that we look at, it’s globally to look at what other sports clubs are doing and also other organisations to engage with their audience,” he says.

“So we’ve looked at the way other clubs and leagues do things. We’ve gone to everyone from the NFL and MLB in America to the Twenty20 cricket league in the UK to look at how they do things like fan zones, how they put content on the big screens. [However,] just because it’s working well somewhere else doesn’t mean it would be necessarily right for us. So they’ll always come back in and bring those learnings to test them out and discuss them with the Fans’ Forum.”

This is how the People’s Club approaches all fan-facing initiatives it intends to implement. “We look at every one on a case-by-case basis, and we do talk to our fans,” Kenyon says. “We might go with a tonne of research and a recommendation in mind, but we listen to our Fans’ Forum and if they if they tell us something that’s different to what we’re thinking then we’ll either go back out and test it or we’ll listen to their advice, because they’ve really helped us make what we think have been very good decisions in the last few years.”

 

 

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