As the Dons prepare for a sixth consecutive season in league one, you’d be right to wonder where has it all gone wrong. The MK Dons, born in 2004, had a five year plan to be competitive in the championship. Successive years of narrowly missing out on promotion through the play offs has now been replaced by a mid table finish in league one.
|Empty Seats Equals Wasted Revenue
(Image ©Liam Daly: Flickr)
In terms of infrastructure, the club is on track. The stadium is capable of seating 22000 fans and should move to 32000 by the start of next season. The surrounding retail complex moves from strength to strength and has generated the capital required to move the stadium development forward. The only infrastructure downside is the non completion of the indoor arena. The board and management team look stable and the early commercial naivety seems to have been replaced by a well run club.
And therein lies the problem. The initial full on challenge of creating a club from nothing, of creating branding, merchandise, commercial opportunities was clearly a massive task. The club aggressively targeted schools and youngsters in an effort to get kids to drag parents along. They worked hard to create a core set of fans presenting an average attendance of just above 10000 in the 2009/10 season but then no increase. Indeed that average attendance for fallen to c. 8500 for the last three seasons. It feels like the MK Dons Wider Management Team hit a plateau and rather than learning from and improving on the incredible work to produce 10000 regular supporters from (almost) nothing, the club has allowed itself to plateau.
So where has it gone wrong? To my mind, it’s not actually on the pitch. It’s down to the level of support or more accurately down to the clubs approach to developing that level of support. MK Dons have consistently been around the 5th most supported club in league one – and have consistently finished in the play off spots i.e. around fifth. One of the dreams of Pete Winkleman was to tap into a ‘city’ with a population of 250k and without a professional football club. Now I am aware that there is not a direct correlation between support and success but at this level, where money is tight, it makes a massive difference. And it makes even bigger difference if you have the infrastructure already there to support it. The Dons have the seats, the parking, the access routes already there. Each seat filled is (almost) straight profit for the club.
The MK Dons are odd. We know that. Created from a team which separately created another team meant that there was little support from the start. The concept of a 250k population without a football team to support is slightly flawed. Milton Keynes is a city based on the principle of commuting. From ease of commuting across the city to the strong motorway and train links. The adult football loving element of that population already had football teams to support and was happy to commute to watch them. They were season ticket holders at Tottenham, Arsenal and Villa amongst others. That left two options to the Dons. Wait a generation of two for MK residents to grow up with a club in their midst and follow it or actively target schools and youth football clubs with the intention that kids would drag parents along and would ‘convert’ them into season ticket holders. Initially, the dons addressed the second option with gusto and players were regularly seen in schools and involved in the local community events. It worked.
Since the club developed though – in fact pretty much since the club relocated to Stadium MK, things started to change. A level of arrogance has crept in which now separates the club from its city. It feels to me that the club has gone from actively working to integrate itself into the community to almost moving to a position where MK owes the club a living. The club integrates with youth football and schools through the MK Dons SET scheme and actually does this quite well. Since this was set up though, the gulf between players and schools and youth football teams has actually widened. It is almost as if before SET was running smoothly, the club acknowledged they would have to do some work too. Now it is effective it’s like they feel above all that sort of work.
Two things happened recently to support my view. The first was the ‘lap of appreciation’. This was the same for the past two years. The players went out on the pitch looking like they would like to be anywhere but there. They completed a lap of half the pitch, rarely venturing closer than 30 yards to the fans. Kids lined the walls at the front, autograph books, shirts and pens at the ready only to be disappointed. Both this year and last, only a couple of players signed any autographs and both times were called in quickly by their teammates. I know they didn’t really want to be there. I know it was a disappointing end to the season for them. Wasn’t a great end of the season for the fans either that stayed behind. Wasn’t a great end to the season for the kids who waited to see their heroes lap of appreciation. The second incident was again a repeat of last year. Last year, after promising a player to attend the presentation day for my local youth football club, noone turned up on the day. Big disappointment for the kids. This year, it proved impossible to get MK Dons to send anyone along to attend (from any level).
These might seem small events but MK Dons are competing in a market where there is huge peer pressure to support Chelsea, Arsenal or Manchester United. What the Dons have as a massive advantage is the ability to get players in front of children and create a strong link to the club. Whilst it’s clear from the arrogance displayed at the ‘lap of appreciation’ that the players consider themselves to be of Chelsea mystique, sadly they are not. They are playing at the third tier of English football and need to work to ensure that the club retains support. Until the club recognises that the route to future attendances is in it’s marketable assets, the players, getting more involved and helping to ensure that kids (and then their parents) come along, the team won’t develop, the seats won’t get sold and the players who have got used to the relative luxury of Stadium MK will realise that the third tier will be as far as they can go.