Improving the Highlanders Fan Experience Part 3: Feel & Own It

Welcome to the 3rd and final article in our series on improving the fan experience on Highlanders matches. If you haven’t been following along, have a look at “Part 1: Sights & Sound” and “Part 2: Smells & Tastes.” Today, I’m talking about how Highlanders can improve the tactile experience at the matches, and how they can help fans truly own it.

Let’s face it, when it comes to a footy match, as a fan you aren’t really considering how things feel to the touch, but you do notice when something is a little off. If you aren’t spending the match chanting and hollering with the Lake Side Buoys, you spend a lot of the match seated. If the bench is wet, you notice. When you finally do get up, you’ve got a sore bottom, maybe even sore back & legs. If it’s raining out, you get cold and soaked any time you make the long trek to get some food & drink. Highlanders front office (FO) can’t change the benches or control the weather, but there are some things they can do to help out.

First, those wet benches can certainly be wiped down. It only takes a couple of ushers (volunteer or paid) a few minutes to wipe off the edges with a towel, and the few puddles that formed on the covered-stands are a thing of the past. This is pretty standard practice at most of the outdoor venues where I’ve attended/worked, and although it doesn’t make people any happier about weather conditions, it does prevent them from being soaked and cold just from taking a seat. A crazy thought here, those same ushers could even hand out game day sheets, perhaps with a couple of Lake Side Buoys song-lyrics and information on the supporters group. This would both provide people with a place to sit, and help increase people’s knowledge of the team & the LSBs.

As for the stiff seating and getting soaked on the path for food & drink, the solution to these issues dovetails nicely into helping fans own their experience. We’re talking about merchandise. Branded seat pads, basic rain gear (even those cheap pocket rain-coats), and sweaters are easy sells when they’re made available to people when they need it. In 2016, there was a merch tent. It was cash only, and if you were any larger than a youth size-medium, there was nothing for you except a couple of really nice scarves & hats for a bargain price. I think all the merch was leftover from previous years, but most of the crowd couldn’t dream of fitting in a youth-medium ever again. Sadly the sizing issue and lack of merchandise overall hurt the team’s profitability.

Having merchandise has numerous benefits:

  • Profits
  • Worn Advertising
  • Atmosphere
  • Enables New Marketing Opportunities

The first is pretty self-explanatory: the team profits from merchandise sales. It’s basic economics, you sell your merchandise for more than you paid for it, and your guests now own a part of the action.

Secondly, that merchandise serves as promotion for the team beyond the walls of the stadium. Someone walks around town sporting a Highlanders jersey, people notice. Fans of soccer that may be unaware of the team, ask people about the team. T-shirts, half-zips, hoodies, jackets, and hats are all advertising material that people are happy to take home from the game and wear as everyday gear. Car decals & flags are two more relatively inexpensive pieces of merchandise that happily doubles as advertisement.

Having merch also contributes to the atmosphere in the stadium, as fans wear their gear with shared pride. Even a couple dozen people in Highlanders gear sprinkled throughout the stadium makes a difference when we’re talking 2016 crowds. People who buy & wear jerseys will tend to gravitate toward each other, and this will inevitably help grow the supporters group, which will further grow the game. After all, if someone owns a jersey, they clearly have some passion for the team.

There are several new marketing vehicles that can open up because of merchandise. Yes, Highlanders coffee mugs or travel cups allow people to bring the game into the office (advertisement), but if Highlanders FO form a partnership with one of the coffee shops around town they can have some dual-branded mugs done up that are used at their cafe. We can also take a page out of Victoria Royals (WHL) & Victoria Harbourcats (WCL) book and setup pop-up shops at appropriate events & malls to not only sell the merch, but sell season tickets. FC Edmonton ran pop-up shops this year for the first time, doubling their season tickets over 2016, and that was before we knew NASL would have another season. There’s no reason why Highlanders can’t learn from these examples. Pop-up shops are a great chance to sell merch, sell tickets, and increase the teams visibility & attendance.

Should the Highlanders have all of the above merch available in 2017? Maybe not, but there should be at least a few options. At the bare minimum, adult-sized replica jerseys and t-shirts should be available. Will the 500+ fans in attendance buy everything? Of course not. Will they each buy at least one thing? That’s a fair bet. Once you give them the opportunity, they’re going to want to own a piece of the game, especially if the Highlanders are winning and two rival supporters groups are battling across the stands.

Of course, it’s easier for your guests to purchase merchandise, food, and drink if they can use debit or credit. Portable card readers aren’t new, and they aren’t nearly as expensive as they used to be. They even work over cellular internet now. The first company that comes to my mind is Square, but there are probably a half-dozen available that would work well. Heck, Highlanders FO could even try getting a sponsorship out of one of these companies. It doesn’t hurt to try. This way instead of a guest feeling a couple of bills disappear for a tasty burger, they can use their plastic to get their food, drink, a jersey, a hat, a scarf, a car decal, and maybe even one of those foam fingers declaring Highlanders are #1. A soft foam finger on your hand feels a heck lot better than a few cold coins for change.

Match days are meant to be events. A good event takes all 5 senses into account, whether its the match day’s sights, sounds, tastes, smells, of how it feels, a failure in any of these areas can drastically damage the experience. A great event not only takes that all into account, it also provides you with a way to take a little bit home with you. Proper merchandise more than pays for itself, both in profits and in the advertising and marketing opportunities it creates. Those profits can then be funneled into what matters most: training the talent on the field so we can all enjoy more Highlanders matches for years to come.

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Shawn Gray

Shawn Gray

Shawn Gray is an experienced author who has previously published articles on transit, cycling & politics. With a Bachelor of Arts (English) degree, a Bachelor of Education degree, an Event Management graduate certificate, and two years of Business Administration, his education has helped him connect with a variety of people, through numerous industries. In 2014, he was a Team Lead in the Club Section of TD Place, where the Ottawa Fury host matches. Now located in Victoria, British Columbia, Gray enjoys the local PDL matches, and tries to watch his favourite clubs online with his infant son whenever possible.

4 thoughts on “Improving the Highlanders Fan Experience Part 3: Feel & Own It

  • February 6, 2017 at 10:24 am

    2016 was the first season for the new management group. They focused on the team on the field. In 2017, we can evaluate the off-field product more fairly. I hope that they do have better merchandise and a credit/debit system for paying for it. Square is easy (I’ve used it). Merchandise does require an up-front cost, but even if it just breaks even it’s worth doing. Merchandise type and variety goes a long way in establishing the legitimacy of the club as a “professionally run” organisation.

    • Shawn Gray
      February 6, 2017 at 1:09 pm

      Wasn’t it the 2nd season of the new management group? I thought they also managed the year they dropped to PCSL?

      Focusing on the team was definitely the priority for the first year back in the PDL. Hopefully they’ll get the team together a lot earlier this year so they don’t start out as rough as they did last year. There’s always a learning process, and nothing will every be perfect. I’m not even sure what perfect would look like.

      Starting with even a few pieces of merchandise this year will make a world of difference, and it’ll give them the opportunity to pursue some other marketing avenues, including pop-up shops to sell season tickets & merchandise, next off-season. I think that’ll make a big difference for the club, especially with the holiday shopping frenzy. Putting the team into people’s minds outside of the match itself will be key to helping it grow. This is doubly important if a move to BCRT3 or CanPL is in the future. I really look forward to seeing what they come out with this year.

      • February 6, 2017 at 1:25 pm

        Right, the PCSL season – though in fairness, that was a different beast. Pretty much agreed across the board on the rest. I think that if merchandise is approached as ‘break even’ rather than a money maker then it will be done well; it’s when people don’t make a bundle when they thought they would that people stop making it a priority.

        • Shawn Gray
          February 6, 2017 at 1:36 pm

          Very true. Aim for break even or a very small profit initially. Merchandise can very easily work like a snowball. At first there’s little or no profit, but it grows larger over time as the advertising side-effect starts to kick in.

          Very true, the PCSL year was just a “lets try to make it through” sort of year. Recovering from the “Highlanders have folded” headline definitely has been a challenge. I had to correct some folks on /r/PDL concerning the status of the club only a month or two ago. I’m sure we’ll see some great growth in 2017, and I can’t wait for it to start.

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