Initiatives designed to attract younger supporters are often viewed with suspicion by traditionalists who fear pride, passion and all the other things which make football so special are being driven from the game.
But, as Sheffield United are proving, it is possible to strike a balance. The atmosphere inside Bramall Lane is still raw, loud and, for opponents at least, downright intimidating. Yet, as Dave McCarthy reveals, family season ticket sales are nearly 100 per cent up.
“There’s room for everyone inside our ground. The guy who likes a pint beforehand or the kids coming to their first match. Don’t forget, the six-year-old in the family stand might, later in life, be the person at the back of The Kop singing their heart out.”
Although United’s results on the pitch have dominated the headlines this season, progress is being made off the pitch too. While Chris Wilder’s side chases a top two finish in League One - it returns to action against AFC Wimbledon on Saturday - the work of a dedicated team behind the scenes saw United win the EFL’s ‘Most Improved Family Experience’ award at a ceremony in May.
While this recognition did not generate the same euphoria as a promotion or lead to calls for an open top bus parade, the work of McCarthy and his colleagues is remains vitally important. After all, as managers, players and directors are fond of reminding, fans are the lifeblood of any successful club.
“If you want people to come through the turnstiles, you’ve got to entertain them but also treat them well,” McCarthy, United’s operations director, says. “We realised we need to improve on what we offered in that regard and so, over a period of time, worked extremely hard to communicate with families and attract them to Bramall Lane.
“Youngsters are the next generation of fans. We want to integrate them into the Sheffield United family and so, to do that, we made sure the facilities are fit for purpose, provided value for money and tried to make sure people enjoy coming to our modern stadium.”
While some of the measures taken have been predictable, others have been pioneering. Competitive ticket pricing for junior supporters is a practice adopted by most of the country’s 92 clubs. But, as McCarthy explains, United have given other time-honoured concepts a special twist.
“Every club has to have a supporter liaison officer now but we’ve gone a step further to try and really connect. John Garrett has performed this role here for a number of years now superbly but, on a matchday, he has other roles to fulfil too. So, to try and provide even more engagement, we recruited four voluntary SLO’s from the wider fan base. They’ve been with us for around 18 months now and are a visible presence at games.”
“They wear noticeable uniforms, carry visible identification and, at the start of this season, we introduced a dedicated SLO hub in our family stand,” McCarthy adds.
“They work across the whole ground though and it’s really improved the lines of communication between supporters and the club. There is also one waiting to meet and greet travelling fans on official coaches when they arrive.
“In the past, even though we also made it clear that fans’ forums were designed to discuss fans’ issues, the questions inevitably came back to first team matters.
“We understand that but we also wanted to find out some of the operational issues that concern our supporters. Now, all the information gets collected and passed on so we can respond accordingly and act upon it. We want to pay more than just lip service to the idea of supporter liaison officers.”
Away from Bramall Lane, United are employing a variety of different tactics to increase their presence in the community.
“I think everybody agrees that it’s important to enhance and strengthen the bond between supporters and players,” McCarthy says. “The players have really taken that on board too. They’ve been getting out and about, trying to bring some cheer to sick children and their families. They’ve been made ambassadors for local children’s charities and make frequent visits to them, not only at Christmas. The manager’s family comes to the games and so we must be doing something right,” McCarthy continues. “Lots of the players have got young kids and so there’s a crèche for them. Like the supporters, it’s important for them to know their children are being looked after properly when they come here.”
McCarthy, though, is keen to point out that what he describes as United’s “hardcore” following is not being overlooked. The former Sheffield FC manager, a lifelong United supporter himself, acknowledges some fans are concerned about football becoming sanitised. But he insists that ensuring fans of all ages can watch matches safely and in comfort does not have a detrimental effect on the atmosphere.
“We want to make it better for everybody,” he says. “Every single person who comes to support Sheffield United is important to us. Nobody wants to be in a dirty stadium so, for example, we’ve introduced a team of cleaners who work during matches to keep the concourses free of litter.
“ We’ve done lots for families and we’re trying to do even more but we’re looking at trying to improve the experience for fans who want to have a beer, sing and make lots of noise too.
“We’ve got plans for that. Because when we’ve got everybody on board, when everybody is happy, old and new, there’s no better place than Bramall Lane.”