Not just the ticket

Pushed by the pandemic to go digital first, Scotland’s football clubs can now take advantage of new commercial and community opportunities.

By Duncan McKay

This article first appeared in Issue 22 which was published in December 2021.

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The pandemic forced many clubs to start thinking about their ticketing, and the transfer to digital is more than an easy way to sell tickets. It gives clubs something else: data, and the possibilities for that data is wide-ranging, in both commercial and community opportunities.

One popular theory about the pandemic was that it changed everything. It is not one I subscribe to. For me, Covid-19 was a lightning strike that exposed cracks and faults that were already there. Problems that existed before have only been exacerbated by the pandemic, but as of yet, nothing has fundamentally changed too much.

This is just as true for Scottish football. Before the pandemic, we had 42 senior clubs, a vibrant supporter base and governance in-fighting. Fast forward to the final quarter of 2021 and we have 42 senior clubs, a vibrant supporter base and governance in-fighting.

What the pandemic did expose was that many clubs were analogue in a digital age. The scramble to upgrade websites to support streams and find new ways of communicating with fans was palpable. Some clubs did it very well, others less so.

Football returned to empty grounds and we watched from laptop screens but it didn’t feel the same for the majority. Then restrictions eased and slowly a small sense of normality returned. But there were some differences.

Football fans have become au fait with the concepts of red zones, vaccine passports and e-tickets.

Whilst fans adapted, multiple clubs have come through the pandemic and haven’t adapted to this new normal. At least one Championship club still operates away ticketing as an in-person experience. In 2021. When not all your fan base work traditional hours or, heaven forbid, choose to support their club from beyond its local vicinity. Digital ticketing services are now as crucial to matchday operation as stewarding and pie stands.

It does beg a question: what does the future of ticketing for football in Scotland look like? 

One company thinks it has the answer: they’re called Fanbase. Thousands of lower league fans will be familiar with the Edinburgh-based company through its mobile app. Across Scotland, 45 different sports clubs have signed up with the company and the vast majority of them are football clubs.

Chief Executive Alasdair Crawley explains their situation prior to the pandemic: “We were working with Linlithgow Rose and we were focused on working with other clubs at Lowland League level and below, but it was a hard slog trying to convince others to go digital with ticketing and other propositions.” Enter the pandemic. “Then the world was flipped on its head,” adds Crawley. “Even at the start of the pandemic, we were ready to onboard a new team [onto the Fanbase system] within 60 minutes.”

The pandemic forced many clubs to start thinking about their ticketing, and the transfer to digital is more than an easy way to sell tickets. It gives clubs something else: data, and the possibilities for that data is wide-ranging, in both commercial and community opportunities. Lower league clubs now have vital information about their supporters that previously they didn’t possess: information about repeat purchases; what time these supporters are arriving; information about which supporters are buying tickets but perhaps not attending. On the commercial side, utilising digital data will allow clubs to have a better understanding of their fans, which in turn (and if handled correctly), will allow them to convince sponsors of the value of associations with their club. On the community side, a club can see if a regular fan stops attending and can make contact to ask if there’s a reason behind that non-attendance, whereas previously it would only be guesswork.

Crawley cites the East of Scotland League’s Dunbar United as an example of a club that’s thrived with the move to digital ticketing. Crawley points out that by thinking data rather than tickets, the club have managed to quadruple their revenue in comparison to pre-pandemic times.

If our clubs want to look for inspiration in tight finances in their ticketing operations, then they can look to a fellow Scot for inspiration. Angus McNab is the CEO/President and General Manager of Toronto-based Canadian Premier League side, York United. The eight-team CPL is still in its infancy, this season being its third, but it has managed to survive the pandemic. McNab is responsible for both on and off-field activities for the club’s owners, which includes ticketing. 

Playing in a hyper-competitive Toronto sports market is a challenge for the club as it tries to establish itself. To gain an interest, York United tried free tickets as a way of getting fans in. McNab said: “Complimentary tickets are pretty common in North American soccer as clubs have looked to use sample and trial as a strategy to build an audience, but we just devalued the product as people always knew they could get in for free.” The club has reduced by 40% the number of ‘comps’ it gives out which has led to both higher attendance rates for paid tickets and their highest ever paid attendance against local rivals Forge FC in the first home game of the season.

What has worked for the club is incentivising the fans to act as advocates for the club. York United have a referral scheme for supporters. “We know the best marketing is word of mouth and fans bringing along friends and growing the community we have at matches,” says McNab. “We are not like European football with years of tribal rivalry so we can say to people, ‘come on, bring a pal along and join us’.” Fans who recruit others to become season ticket holders can earn rewards which can be redeemed at any point. Recruit one new season ticket holder and you receive a $25 gift card for the team; recruit five and you’ve got four different options; if you happen to recruit 20 people then York United will take you and a guest to an away game with transport, ticket and hotel included.

With the pandemic causing uncertainty for all clubs, York United decided to introduce a three-year season ticket for those fans who could commit. Fans who could do so would get a price freeze for two more seasons as well as a free replica shirt. McNab notes: “This makes commercial sense for us as they will hopefully also purchase a jersey again in future years and this supports the club, so is somewhat of an incremental sale for us as well.”

Perhaps because attending football in Scotland has been passed down from generation to generation, there is sometimes a sense of going to the football ‘because that’s what you do’. This is fantastic if you happen to come from a family that were in the habit of going to the football. But that’s not a luxury that exists for McNab in Toronto, which means they have to work harder to attract fans. They have to inviting them on a journey. McNab says: “The key for me is inspiring Canadians to dream bigger. 2026 is a massive year for the game in Canada with three cities hosting the World Cup. I want guys to have come through our program and be on that field for Canada. It’s why the CPL has been established and we are building the future of the sport in this country. We want our fans to feel equally as proud of what is being built and celebrate their role in this as much as any executive or single person – we know this only works with them.”

Looking back to his homeland, McNab says: “It is very idealistic of me and removed from the reality of why things work, but I’d love Scottish football to be more unified in the club game, powering Scotland’s international aspirations and success.” 

Speaking of the future, Crawley says Fanbase will be revealing a “gear change” in the coming months that will enhance the ticketing experience for both club and fans. Crawley has a vision of clubs below the Premiership using their product, going digital first, which would “enable Scotland to create the most consistent and advanced ticketing experience in European sports if not the world.”

Ultimately, any changes to ticketing have to be backed up with an enhanced strategy to engage with fans. Having data is useful, but it’s what you choose to do with it that will be the difference between success and failure for clubs in the next decade and beyond. Scottish football will face challenges of increased competition for people’s free time at the same time as the cost of living continues to rise. Thinking smarter, rather than harder, could be the solution for many of Scotland’s clubs. 

This article first appeared in Issue 22 which was published in December 2021.

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