The FA cultivates its grass roots

Can The Football Association win back football fans with design solutions? Brandon Cheevers finds out

The football season kicks off this week, with the design industry ensuring its part in the unfolding drama. Football channel and programme branding by Kemistry and FutureBrand English & Pockett, plus The Barclaycard Premiership sponsorship branding by Springetts, will be seen by millions.

The Football Association will be feeling a little happier this season, thanks to Manchester United’s re-entry to The FA Cup for the first time since the 1999-2000 season. And with England due in Germany for the World Cup qualifier in September, the FA will be hoping that its revamped England fans club will help to attract a different – and non-violent – type of supporter.

The FA has had its problems. Its reputation as an institution run by dinosaurs that are out of touch with real supporters is improving, but English football’s governing body is still faced with difficulties. The FA has received a lot of flak over the Wembley Stadium problem. It has also been criticised for devaluing the Axa FA Cup: last year it asked Manchester United to withdraw from it and play in the World Club Championships instead. In addition, The FA renamed the competition to accommodate sponsor Axa.

But how much impact can design have helping the FA Cup return to its former glories? Will it improve the behaviour of English fans in Germany and The FA’s relations with supporters?

Elmwood was handed the task of relaunching the old England Members Club, which, in its previous incarnation, was not much more than a glorified ticket distribution system and a well-recognised front for hooligans, rather than a supporters club in its truest sense. The new look organisation was unveiled in July.

‘The FA wanted something that was approachable and savvy, that was in touch with the fans. It had to be both street credible and part of a much wider community,’ says Elmwood head of business development Simon Preece. But he concedes that design can’t ensure the club is free of troublemakers. ‘It’s a much bigger issue than that. What we created was a statement of intent and a visual reminder of the goal it has to achieve,’ he says.

James Acton, head of design at Poulter Partners, agrees. ‘There is not a huge amount you can do to rid the club of these sorts of people through a design solution. But by repositioning it with a family image and making it more poncey, [hooligans] are less likely to subscribe to it. Design can generate a behavioural response.’

And what of the magic of the FA Cup? Eigg director Daniel Lister believes it has become ‘more of a sponsor’s cup’.

‘But by rebadging it with a very strong marque [the problems] can be turned around. You need to put the emphasis back on its past traditions and keep the sponsor off the logo, which I think would also work in the sponsor’s favour. At the moment it sounds like a corporate event,’ he says.

The FA’s agreements with its sponsor partners will be reviewed after the World Cup in 2002.

Acton would like to see clubs play in an FA Cup-branded kit. ‘Design can make a difference here. When teams play in the final, the kits are embroidered with FA Cup branding. This is something really emotional for the fans. I’d like to see clubs playing in an FA Cup derivative of the traditional kit for, say, three years and for there to be joint branding on the front of shirts. The FA needs to affiliate itself with a brand with the same values as the cup. No-one knows what Axa is,’ he says.

With football’s – and, in particular, the broadcasters’ – obsession with The Premiership intensifying, Graham McCallum, creative director of Kemistry, thinks that the competition needs to ‘reinforce the idea that it is all-inclusive and not just about The Premiership’.

‘At the heart of all this is [a desire] to develop a strong marque with presence that becomes the FA Cup identity,’ he adds.

The FA’s traditional, though far from official, ‘them and us’ attitude has improved significantly. The old guard has been replaced by a younger team led by chief executive Adam Crozier. His design-friendly stance has contributed to a more supporter-friendly spirit. Initiatives like the Three Lions cartoon characters, ‘visualised’ by Design Bridge, appeal to the younger supporters and work to ensure a more family-oriented environment at England games.

‘The FA was not expecting blue Lions. But The FA badge is blue and we believe in exploiting brand equities,’ says Design Bridge group creative director Rod Petrie.

McCallum cites The FA’s lofty associations as an issue that could be tackled through design. ‘Clubs are emerging as brands in their own right. The same runs through everything in football, including The FA itself. It’s about strengthening the brand. It would be crazy to throw away [The FA] marque, but there is a need for it to appeal to a younger audience,’ he says.

There is still a tendency for The FA to bury its head in the sand, says Acton. ‘You’re dealing with a hearts and minds sport. The FA has got the commercial side right. It needs to be more passionate now. Design can help through exhibitions, branding and its communications. Sponsorship, visibility and a strong emotional bond will help The FA,’ he says.

Design may not ensure England qualifies for the World Cup, Queens Park Rangers wins the FA Cup or that the home of English football remains Wembley, but as Petrie says, ‘As long as all the key players involved know what they are doing and are committed to the design process, and the key brand equities have been maximised and are original’, the greatest game in the world can only benefit.

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