For many clubs, it’s time to push on towards security – securing that play-off place, securing that place in a division for another season. For those, like Ipswich Town fan Gavin Barber, safely in mid-table without fear up of heading up or down after the final ball is kicked, talk starts to turn to whether you are willing to go through it all again for twelve more months…
“What is a club anyway? It’s the noise, the passion, the feeling of belonging, the pride in your city” – Sir Bobby Robson
Oh look – the season ticket renewal brochure has arrived! For a club like Ipswich, all too depressingly accustomed to another year of grinding underachievement, it must be an annual challenge for the marketing department to come up with new incentives to tempt a jaded supporter base back for another year: or at least to find a new way of saying “look, we know it’s been crap, again, but please come back next season, please, please, it’ll be better, honest…”
As it happens, the timing could be worse for Ipswich. Town are on an enjoyable if unfamiliar run of good form at Portman Road – five consecutive home wins at the time of writing. But attendances are way down on hoped-for figures: only twice this season has the 20,000 barrier been broken. The current run is nice, but it will take something more sustained than that to bring back those who’ve become disaffected by years of mediocrity. So what have the club come up with?
A price freeze – that’s good. A 12-month interest free payment plan – also good, and a welcome response to supporters’ requests, as is the introduction of a new under-20 price category in the North Stand lower tier. A 50% rebate if Town are promoted next season (stop sniggering at the back). Online renewals! How very 21st century.
So far, so good. It is, overall, a fairly decent and affordable package, as these things go. But enough of the numbers – what stirring words are within the pages of the brochure, to rally the faithful? What motivational bon mots are here to convince the doubtful West Stander that next season – next season, definitely – will see the glory days return to Portman Road? What is there to tug at the heartstrings, touch the soul and convince the wavering fan to trust hope over experience and tick that box that says “renew”?
Look no further than page 2 where Chief Executive Simon Clegg lays the sentimentality on with a trowel:
“It’s important, towards us standing on our own two feet, that we optimise future opportunities and minimise risk”
Sorry Simon, run that past me again?
“Optimise future opportunities and minimise risk”
Right, well. That should get the missing thousands flooding back through the turnstiles shouldn’t it? Picture the scene at breakfast tables across East Anglia. “Hey!” yells Mr or Mrs Undecided Season Ticket Renewer to their partner, spluttering cornflakes everywhere, “have you seen this? I wasn’t going to get a season ticket for Portman Road this year, what with the football having been so crap and everything, but now I know they’re optimising future opportunities and minimising risk, I’m getting my incentivised ass down that ticket office before you can say ‘benefits realisation plan’.”
The game, as Danny Blanchflower famously observed, is about glory – doing things in style. Many of those who receive these brochures grew up watching Bobby Robson’s Ipswich. There are some whose memories stretch as far back as Alf Ramsey: a larger proportion fondly recall the good times under George Burley. We keep coming back because we cling to the hope that we might start to see something – even just a spark – to suggest that Portman Road could feel that exciting again. We bring our kids because we can just about convince them that Jay Emmanuel-Thomas’s skills and Michael Chopra’s goals are exciting enough to make the more mundane bits worthwhile – and because we don’t want them to miss out if the glory days do return.
It’s too easy to romanticise the past, of course. Ipswich’s decades under the stewardship of the Cobbold family are spoken about in reverential terms, but it was Patrick Cobbold who sanctioned the redevelopment of the West Stand in the early 80s, a financial miscalculation which forced the break-up of the team that Robson had built. Another former chairman, David Sheepshanks, was well-regarded for being a genuine fan but was in charge when the club went into administration in 2003.
Clegg’s message to the 2012 generation is designed to tell a story of financial responsibility. I get that. I get that it’s important and I get that these conversations have to happen in the boardroom. What I find depressing is the idea that anyone at the club would think that words like “optimise” could help to sell season tickets: that any kind of management-speak could re-kindle the dying embers of emotional connection between club and fans.
The Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein once made the mistake of suggesting, whilst in the studio with the band, that the track they were recording should be played a different way. “You stick to your percentages, Brian”, came John Lennon’s withering retort, “we’ll look after the music”. When Clegg tries to talk about the experience of being an Ipswich Town supporter, it’s similarly hard to avoid the sense of irritation that comes with hearing someone stray out of their own field of expertise and stumble into yours.
Perhaps it’s unfair of me to deconstruct a single phrase from the brochure and extrapolate all this stuff. Perhaps I’m making too much fuss – perhaps I’m just out of touch. For all I know, the kids in the crucial 18-25 demographic may lap this stuff up (I somehow doubt that though). But I have a nagging worry that this is symptomatic of the current Ipswich administration’s failure to engage with supporters.
It isn’t the first time that Clegg has come across as high-handed and patronising in his communication with fans. I’m sure he means well – he just doesn’t quite get it. He doesn’t get that many of us hear phrases like “optimise opportunities and minimise risk” at work all week, and go to football for the specific purpose of forgetting about all of that. He doesn’t get that, after seeing a game abandoned due to a frozen pitch, supporters want to hear something more empathetic than having the club’s refund policy barked out over the BBC Suffolk airwaves. (In that instance, a good offer was eventually made on ticket prices for the rearranged game, but by then the PR damage had been done).
Fundamentally, he doesn’t have an instinctive understanding of the relationship between fans and their club. He’s learning about it, steadily, but there’s an extent to which this echoes Louis Armstrong’s famous response to the question “what is jazz?”: “If you gotta ask, you ain’t ever gonna know”. Either you get it, or you don’t.
Apart from being able to quote Bill Hicks on the subject, I am a very, very, very long way from being any kind of marketing expert. But I’d be willing to bet 3 or 4 instalments of my 12-month interest-free season ticket payment plan on the fact that Simon Clegg’s words won’t have been decisive in persuading anyone to sign up for another nine months riding the Portman Road rollercoaster*.
Here’s a tip that you can have for free, Simon. When this all comes around again next season, give your page in the brochure over to a picture of Bobby Robson and the text of the quote at the top of this article. It will speak to fans in ways that, with the best will in the world, you can’t. As Sir Bob himself might have said, just keep it simple. It is, after all, a simple game. You stick to your optimising Simon – we’ll look after the football.
*NB may not actually resemble a rollercoaster. Can sometimes just be more like a fairly slow roundabout. Or a badly-laid out Crazy Golf course.