Football fans could end up with loyalty cards like those issued to supermarket customers if an idea suggested by researchers at Middlesex University is taken up.
Paul Baines of the university's business school sees the cards as a potential means by which clubs can learn about their supporters and reward loyalty. "One of the most important things clubs must do is build up a database of details about their fans. By monitoring fans every time they buy a ticket for a game, clubs can find out who goes to certain games and which kinds of merchandise they purchase. They could offer discounts on club merchandise for fans who attend a certain number of games."
The idea emerged from research commissioned by football magazine Four Four Two, which asked Dr Baines to devise a plan to improve the marketing of Second Division club Fulham. By coincidence, the request came shortly before Harrods owner Mohammed al-Fayed took control of the club.
Dr Baines points to two key variables in determining a club's support: "One is the success of the club on the field. The big jumps in support follow success. But a club can ensure the loyalty of existing supporters by marketing itself in its local community."
Football fans are famously brand loyal, but he warns: "Clubs that go a totally commercial route, taking their fans for every penny and selling overpriced merchandise, will eventually face a backlash." The loyalty card, offering fans something back, epitomises a different approach.
"Persuading people who have some loyalty but do not watch the club to start following the team more closely is a matter of making the club more of a community resource, offering facilities for events such as weddings, conferences and banquets."
While Fulham faces fierce local competition, Dr Baines found cross-loyalties. "There are some Chelsea supporters who have an interest in Fulham. As the teams play at home on alternate weekends, one aim should be to encourage them to watch Fulham too."
Dr Baines said that the new regime at Fulham, which has received a copy of his findings, is aware of the commercial issues. The project has already succeeded in broadening Fulham's fan base. Leeds-born Dr Baines, whose previous interest was in political marketing, admits he has become very interested in how the club is doing.