Let me ask you a question. Do you buy a programme when you go to Home Park these days? Did you used to buy one but don’t any longer? Why is that?

I got to thinking about this after deciding to pick one up, for the first time in a few weeks, before Saturday’s Pompey clash. I’m generally a fan of programmes, collecting them as a kid and then writing columns for several clubs and editing a Cornish non-league outfit’s programme. Yet I’ve got out of the habit of buying one for every match and I’m not alone.

Programmes are becoming an endangered species. A friend who has produced programmes at all levels of the game for many years tells me that clubs used to sell one for every two people coming through the turnstiles. Today the ratio is apparently more like one in five (I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s actually less) and is continuing to decline. In a landmark poll last June, the EFL voted to scrap the requirement for clubs to produce a printed programme for every match.

Several factors are putting the squeeze on traditional programmes. The biggest is the sheer volume of information available elsewhere. The Internet provides news, opinion, data and information of every kind via the Smartphone in our hands. The days when fans relied on the local paper and match day programme to find out what was going on in their club are long gone. In a world where everything is online as soon as it happens, the club programme, which needs to go to press two or three days before match day, can be out of date as soon as it’s printed.

People are now also less attached to the physical objects that the older generation used to covet. These days there is less reason to buy a physical newspaper and consumers increasingly choose to stream music and films rather than buy CDs and DVDs. Perhaps that’s also why children don’t collect football programmes like they used to, removing one more source of demand.

That’s all outside the control of football clubs, of course. But some of the issues affecting programme sales are self-inflicted. For one thing, the publications have become too bloated, delivering more content but less value to the reader. The origins of the modern programme lie back in the 1880s in the humble team sheet. They continued that way for decades, before morphing into the 16 pagers of the 1960s, the high-colour 36 pagers if the 1990s and finally the larger format 84 page magazines on sale at most Premier League grounds today. Somewhere along the line, clubs decided that programmes should look like the advertising brochures foisted on customers looking to buy a car or a sofa.

But football should be an escape from that day-to-day reality. Fans want a genuine connection to their club, to feel like they are being spoken to directly. Shove another glossy brochure at them and you’re treating them like the commoditised consumers they are in all other areas of their lives.

A lot of programme content has become anodyne and inoffensive. Clubs are obsessed with controlling the flow of information and the image of the organisation.

It’s inevitable that an official publication will be sanitised at best, and at worst, seen as the mere mouthpiece of the powers-that-be. The growing blandness of official programmes is thrown into sharp relief by the proliferation of alternative voices in the form of independent websites, podcasts, fan forums, Face Book groups, Twitter accounts and You Tube channels. While some of these occasionally descend into the toxic swamp that social media can become, the unmediated opinions they allow have a powerful appeal. Sadly, many clubs seem not to have grasped the fact that the presence of alternative voices means that their own offerings need to evolve.

Which leads me on to the darkest side of match day programmes: history and statistics. Many clubs rely on unpaid contributors to fill their 80 plus page offerings. And many of those writers have an unhealthy obsession with obscure aspects of the club’s past or with largely meaningless statistics. This leads to an over-abundance of the two types of content that clog up many match day programmes and, I would wager, is read by almost nobody.

The first is typically an in-depth analysis of some obscure aspect of club history. Now don’t get me wrong, I love history. But honestly, does any fan’s heart skip a beat at the prospect of reading two pages of dense text about the reserve team’s 1947 Eastern Central League Trophy campaign (knocked out in the semi-final, since you ask)?

The second is what could be called ‘death by statistics’. Typically this revolves around utterly meaningless numbers that tell us nothing about the future. Did you know that the club has won 53.94% of matches played against teams beginning with the letter ‘B’ on Saturdays in March in even numbered years? No. Do you care? No! And even if you did, who’s going to plough through all that in the half hour before kick-off?

Do programmes have a future? I think the answer is a qualified ‘yes’ but the path to survival won’t be an easy one. There are two major challenges.

First, declining sales make it increasingly difficult for clubs to justify the investment of time, money and resources in a printed programme. Unit costs increase with smaller print runs and clubs start to make losses when sales fall below a certain level. The £3 charged for programmes by clubs at our level might seem a lot, but once all the costs are taken into account (sourcing content, editing, printing, shipping and paying programme sellers) there’s little of no profit per copy sold.

Secondly, there is an inherent contradiction that will prove difficult to resolve. To justify the continued existence of the programme, the club has to withhold some of the best content from their online outlets. In an era when commerce is increasingly about maximising website traffic, Facebook/Twitter/Instagram etc. followers, and when content is the key to attracting that traffic, this seems counter-intuitive.

So what’s my recipe for a successful club programme as we approach the third decade of the 21st century?

First, reduce the size and therefore the unit cost. Nobody needs an 80-page brochure for every home match. Then, think about how supporters are going to consume the product and that will tell you what content will be valued. Sitting in their seats for the half hour before kick off, they will be interested to read the manager’s pre-match thoughts, they will want to know which opposition players to watch and why, they would value some tactical analysis – how does the visiting team set up and how could they be countered – and they might be interested to catch up on general news about the club. Throw in a player interview (though make sure to get a proper interviewer – being talented at kicking a football doesn’t necessarily make players the most interesting human beings) and maybe a double page spread of stats on the season so far. And that’s really all you need.

Price it £1.50 and it becomes an easier purchase decision. Alternatively, take a punt and give every spectator a free copy on the turnstile. Sounds crazy? Maybe, but the flip side is that you’d make the programme a much more attractive proposition for advertisers. If the audience for their ads was 12,000 rather than maybe 2,000 as it is at the moment, they’d be prepared to pay more for a half or full page in the programme. That would certainly make the economics of producing the programme much more attractive to the club.

One thing is for sure. If clubs continue to produce the same programmes with the same content at the same price point, the declining sales trend will continue until the product becomes extinct. Trying something different might be risky, but at least it would give the poor old programme a fighting chance of making it through the next 130 years.

Author: Colin Bradbury