By James Bland, director BDRC Continental
It’s no great secret that the increase in football player wages driven by the creation of the Premier League in 1992 means that a modern football club needs to be open for business seven days a week in order to survive.
The addition of conference facilities and even a hotel has been part of Northampton Town’s ambition for over a decade now, and their continued absence has frustrated and annoyed supporters like me beyond frustration to the point of resigned indifference.
For the last two of those years, the second largest stand at the stadium, earmarked for these facilities, has been a half-built, empty shell – a monument to shattered dreams, missing council loan money and unpaid building contractors. The recent flirtation with liquidation and subsequent rescue at the hands of new ownership has led fans to believe that not only is there a future for the club, it might well be brighter, too.
Although excited by this development as a supporter, I am also an impartial observer and I know, like anyone in this industry, that simply installing some conference facilities is no silver bullet.
If the club falls into the trap of believing simply that if they build it, people will come, a rather rude awakening awaits. Northamptonshire is already well served not only by specialist operators like Sundial, De Vere and PH Hotels, but also by global brands like Hilton, Marriott and Holiday Inn. Besides that, just under a mile away from Northampton Town Football Club is Northampton Saints Rugby Club, a regular feature in Rugby Union’s equivalent of the European Champions League with a longstanding local reputation for sporting success and community engagement, boasting facilities able to seat up to 750.
Northampton, then, is a well-established market, so any offering at NTFC’s Sixfields will need to be more than an average product seeking to rely on the perceived appeal of a stadium experience to sell itself.
In fact, even if the product is excellent, leading with that message above all else would narrow its appeal; particularly given that the team is question is not a Manchester United or Arsenal, but – and I say this with love –a club attracting about 5,000 supporters each week, with limited recognition beyond a nickname that can be used in amusing ways. Cobblers? No, it’s true.
To succeed, it’ll need to look beyond the temptation of narrowly defining its competitive set as other stadia, and instead focus on providing a product, service and package that rivals the very best operators across all types of venue. It’ll also need to look further afield than Northamptonshire and make the most of the fact it’s very easily accessible from the M1 and a train station that’s under an hour away from Euston or Birmingham New Street.
Fans of Northampton Town will, by and large, buy any old thing that they care to stick the club badge on (and if you don’t believe me, just look at the collection of mugs my wife recently ‘suggested’ I relocate from our kitchen to the BDRC offices).
I would hazard a guess, however, that an overwhelming majority of conference buyers looking to Northampton will not fall into that category, and if the club doesn’t do its research and get not only its product, but also its offer, right on the money, it might just end up replacing a relatively inexpensive white elephant (the contractors were paid very little for the unfinished work done so far) with a somewhat more expensive one.