[Following on from John’s excellent post about his experience reaching out to the local community to build support for Auckland City FC, I thought it might be cool to ask a few other clubs to tell us about what they do. With more people sharing what works for them, there might be some ideas that resonate and can be picked up and used elsewhere. Birkenhead United jumped out as a good place to start. When I go to games at Shepherd’s Park the place is always swarming with kids and they all have a very obvious and genuine personal connection with the first team. So I asked President Dave Newick to tell us how they do it. If you would like to share how your club builds community engagement, I’d love to hear from you. My contact details are on the ‘about’ page.]
By Dave Newick
When Enzo approached me and asked me to contribute to the discussion started by John Palethorpe about the Auckland City experience with community engagement through schools, I had mixed feelings. The first thing I thought was that I really liked what Auckland City have done with reaching out to the schools. It looked like it really worked and that’s fantastic.
Obviously it was also great to be asked to comment in my capacity as the President of Birkenhead United, but I wondered whether what makes Birko strong in community engagement can actually be put into words. When I have tried to do that before, after 30 minutes peoples eyes have glazed over and they are desperately trying to change the subject, so I’m not sure I will actually be able to do that here.
But I’m going to try. The first thing I’d say is what I told Enzo. We don’t actually have a recipe for what we do. Our approach is make day to day decisions in line with our vision, our culture and our values.
All of those things are about community. Community comes first. Aspirational success second. Don’t get me wrong in that statement. We love to win things. We plan to win things. Aspirational success is important to our community by giving people something to aim for, but if we have got the community piece right, the rest tends to fall into place.
So the first thing I would say with community engagement is that for Birkenhead it is a bone deep, DNA level belief that community is important. Our belief is that if you just pay it lip service, you’re going to struggle as it cannot be a manufactured thing to build crowd support.
Why you ask? Because in this crazy, busy, disconnected, virtual world we live in, people need to feel part of something real. They need to know that their kids are buying into something that is based on family values, which is going to make them better young men and young women. They want to be connected to success and something that brings them together with their neighbours and other local people. Or they just need escapism and something to do with their mates.
And that’s the hard bit. Setting a culture, values and vision and driving towards that doesn’t just take time, it’s the path less travelled because frankly it’s just easier to give in to the money first, bankrupt the club for the coaches ego kind of approach.
A bit harsh? Maybe, but unfortunately true in too many cases.
How did we start this process? Birkenhead was lucky in that we had a group of life members who had been at the club for 40-50 years. 3 generations of families playing, administering and being part of the club. This beating heart gives the ‘balcony welcome’ experienced by many a player at the clubroom end of the grounds. What you don’t see is those same people in tears, lost for words at how much winning the Chatham Cup meant to them.
Now you can’t replicate that in a heartbeat. But every club has people who have been involved in it or who are involved in it and who have passion for the game and the club. The trick is getting them rallied behind what you are doing and where you are going.
John was right. Kids are the key. But kids will only get involved on a long term basis when they feel connected and want to engage and most importantly, the parents feel that same connectivity.
We work hard to encourage kids to be connected to the Men’s and Women’s first team. That means the same speech every year to the squads about taking time to forge relationships with the kids. Being a role model. Watching their language off field and on field. Organising balls boys and girls. Encouraging first team visits to midgets and juniors on Saturday mornings.
The return on that investment is; Engagement. Belief. Trust.
A quick story to illustrate the power of this. A young lad from one of our rep teams who is quite a good wee player, was coached by one of our first team all season. When we made the Chatham Cup final he had a photo taken with his coach, Tom Davis. That picture now sits framed on his dresser and it is important to him that he grows up to be like Tom Davis. Mum and Dad are connected with the club as a result.
Now if we can get that happening through the majority of football clubs in the country then we will have a very good game indeed. Perhaps even something worth sponsors and television audiences buying into in numbers.
One of the ‘totem poles’ is having a supporter brand. It’s the same in any successful professional football or sporting club. We branded our supporters the “Red & White Army”. Now you can come up with a catchy name and brand, but it means nothing if people don’t get what being involved actually means.
It’s not just about turning up Saturday. It’s about feeling connected and feeling part of something. That something will differ from club to club and in some it may not exist, but I can tell you this. It’s not just about winning. Some of the winningest teams in NZ have poor crowd support. My guess is that is because all of those players have been bought and are in a cultural wasteland where they feel well…..nothing. If they feel nothing how can you expect them to play as if winning matters? How can you expect that to generate crowd and community buy in?
But conversely you can have a team that doesn’t win everything (but you can’t lose all the time) and gets crowd support whatever the weather, because it matters. Because supporters feel connected to a community of like-minded people.
So let’s try and recipe out what has worked for Birkenhead United to date:
- Sustainable engagement is bone deep.
- It’s a long term thing.
- You can’t fake it and you can’t buy it.
- Community comes first. Aspirational success second.
- Set a vision. Set your values.
- Work out what your club culture is.
- Kids are vital.
- Connectivity between players and kids, players and supporters, supporters and supporters, parents and players, parents and all of the above with the club is important.
NZ Football understand that engagement with community as important. They saw the embodiment of this at the Chatham Cup Final when the Red & White Army arrived in their droves from all ends of New Zealand (even Glenfield), because they felt connected to what it was about.
The questions I have are:
If the above is true for all clubs and the Birkenhead experience is the recipe for community engagement, (I’m not saying it is, I’m just sharing our experience) then what is the best option for the National League?
Can you have community engagement that is actually bone deep with a franchise? It’s got to be a yes or no answer. There is no in-between option.
If you can, why has it not happened in every franchise before now?
It would appear to me that NZ Football is at a crossroads. Is community engagement really important? As in DNA level important or is it actually just about getting bums on seats which is something quite different?
The great thing is that we have a voice in answering these questions and that voice will supposedly be heard if enough people send the message.
A grassroots sports photography enthusiast based in Auckland, New Zealand, and a fan of the most magnificent football club on earth - A.S. Roma.