Rethinking place atmospheres: Manchester City Football Club project

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By Gareth Roberts, Chloe Steadman, Dominic Medway and Steve Millington (Institute of Place Management)

Football stadia as places

When we consider place management in all its incarnations and guises, and the many different types of places that this practice and associated actions can be applied to, the football stadium (and its immediate surrounding environs) is not likely to be amongst the first examples that spring to mind. However, the football stadium is clearly a place, and a place that hosts tens of thousands of visitors on a weekly basis. Therefore, ensuring that it best meets the needs of these people, and provides an environment conducive to a positive experience, is just as important as for towns, cities, or indeed any other place.

The problem with atmosphere

In the context of football stadia, a major concern that has been developing over recent decades is that the atmosphere at matches, particularly at top-flight clubs, has flattened. A quick web search reveals similar problems across the biggest clubs in Europe: Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Bayern Munich. The reasons for this are myriad: rising ticket prices attracting a different kind of fan (whilst dissuading others), the introduction of all seater stadiums, and a pervading sense that modern football has developed into something that is far removed from its roots as ‘the working man’s game’.

One of the clubs suffering from a perceived lack of atmosphere at their home games is Manchester City. The club relocated in 2003 to the newly built Etihad Stadium (formerly the City of Manchester Stadium), having been based at their previous home of Maine Road since 1923. After a takeover in 2008 by Sheikh Mansour- one of the wealthiest individuals in the World- the club has gone from strength to strength, becoming one of the top clubs in world football in just a decade. However, the atmosphere at games has failed to keep pace with the seismic shift in fortunes on the pitch.

In 2017, Manchester City Football Club (MCFC) commissioned Manchester Metropolitan University and the Institute of Place Management to investigate the reasons for this lack of atmosphere, and what can be done to improve the situation.

The research

To understand this issue, we undertook a netnographic analysis of various online forums, social media platforms, and other web sources – analysing approximately 10,000 posts concerning the atmosphere at the Etihad Stadium. To supplement this data, we conducted focus groups with three distinct sub-sets of fans: Males that have visited both Maine Road and the Etihad, females with experiences at both Maine Road and the Etihad, and a mixed-sex group that have visited the Etihad stadium only.

Key findings

From these data collection activities, we identified several emergent themes- a selection of which are illustrated below:

The findings were presented to MCFC in the form of a ‘day in the life’ of a typical match going fan, with indicative quotes collected during the research included at each stage:

From this, we produced a range of recommendations that could alleviate some of these issues. Inspired by the methodology used in the IPM’s HSUK2020 project, we based our recommendations on those atmospheric influences which the club has the most control over, whilst also having a high perceived impact on atmosphere at the Etihad.

These recommendations are confidential; however, being a research unit based at a university, we of course utilised the findings to inform our own academic research!

 The academic bit

In the academic marketing literature, atmosphere has traditionally been considered as: First, something which is relatively static and spatially bounded within a retail or service environment. Second, that there is a singular atmosphere found in these places. And third, that atmosphere is something which managers can manipulate at will to impact consumers’ emotional and behavioural responses- think lighting, music, and scent manipulations in retail to encourage in-store purchasing.

However, an analysis of MCFC fans’ match day experiences provided an alternative notion of place atmospheres, whereby we identified that:

  1. Atmosphere is both temporally-extended (it changes over time), and spatially-extended (the atmosphere felt outside a physical environment can be taken inside, and vice versa).

For instance, we can take for granted that the atmosphere during the 90 minutes of a game of football can fluctuate dramatically, not least as a result of events taking place on the pitch. However, the atmosphere experienced in the stadium can also develop well before kick-off time, whether hours, days, or longer. Hence, the atmosphere experienced inside the stadium in not wholly attributable to events taking place in that environment, but to some degree it is a product of experiences elsewhere that manifest themselves during the game. For instance, fans voiced frustrations about the difficulties in obtaining tickets, overcrowded public transport, and turnstile queues before entering the Etihad Stadium. Their bad moods were then regularly taken inside the stadium, diluting the atmosphere during the match.

  1. There are usually multiple atmospheres found within places, with these different pockets of atmosphere sometimes coming into contact, and potentially diluting one another.

Fans, for example, observed how some areas of the stadium had a livelier atmosphere than others (e.g. the family stand was regularly identified as having a quieter atmosphere). Fans observed that, when located next to these quieter areas, or those deemed to contain ‘tourists’ or ‘corporates’, it diluted the atmosphere that they were able to create in their seat.

  1. Atmosphere is not fully under managerial control, as multiple people (e.g. customers, service employees etc.), events (which are often unpredictable), environmental stimuli (e.g. music, lighting etc.), and objects (e.g. flags, turnstiles etc.), amongst other factors found in places, combine to co-create it.

We found that fans often resisted managerial interventions around atmosphere which they perceived as being heavy-handed and inauthentic (e.g. pumping music into the stadium). They instead preferred more light-touch interventions which enabled them to create a sense of atmosphere more organically (i.e. 1894 fan group efforts with flags and songs).

This more holistic and nuanced understanding of atmosphere, in turn, enabled us to propose well-informed interventions that go beyond those normally associated with boosting atmosphere at sporting events.

We are now in the process of considering what these findings might mean for understanding places more widely, in addition to turning this practical project into an academic piece of work, which we hope to submit to a marketing journal later this year!