By Jason McKeown
The close season can be a long, tedious and often negative-fuelled period to be a Bradford City fan. Whilst some of us have the enviable ability to switch off, for a lot of us it’s a protracted time waiting for new signings and indications the club is going to be in a good position for the following season.
Chasing for scraps of transfer news, no matter how flimsy the source. Frustration at observing a league rival quickly rattle up a host of new signings, which makes it seem as though City are falling behind. Disappointment at “why didn’t we sign him?” when a well-known lower league player rocks up at a smaller club. Even when a new signing is announced, it only scratches that itch for a couple of days – before patience wears thin over the wait for the next arrival.
This summer, it feels different. Very different. Over the past few weeks, there has been a succession of good news stories that leave you feeling more and more optimistic. It drives a growing level of confidence that Bradford City are in a good place. And that the upcoming 2021/22 season will be much more successful and enjoyable than the last few.
And what’s really interesting – and has become very apparent – is how the club is driving this through a deliberate and carefully orchestrated strategy. Of using communication as an effective marketing tool. And dictating those close season City supporter conversations that are typically filled with panic and irritation.
Just look at the week gone as an example of the approach. On Monday the pre-season schedule was announced, and we heard Jorge Sikora had penned a new deal. On Tuesday there was the news Matty Foulds had signed a new contract. On Wednesday we learned Kian Scales had followed suit. On Thursday the sparkling new dug outs were shown off. On Friday, Abo Eisa was unveiled – and the retention of Balti Pies. Saturday was a quiet day, but then on Sunday we woke up to discover Oscar Threlkeld had signed.
Six out of seven days, a snippet of positive news was released about Bradford City. And it’s been the same in the weeks prior, from Andy Cook’s return to new catering deals to Mark Trueman agreeing to stay.
The impression is that, every day, Bradford City employees are going in and getting stuff done. And whilst that will be true to an extent, the reality is there will be a queue of good news stories carefully stored up, and then drip-fed to us supporters each and every day. All to build up a greater level of supporter confidence, engagement and enthusiasm about the club.
It’s not a trick or false narrative – all these good stories are genuinely happening, and the result of the collective efforts of its employees – but it is being released in a staggered manner to allow the club to manage the conversation and mood around the club much better.
Just listen to Derek Adams last week – “We’ve made a number of signings that no one knows about at this time.” This shows there is news of further player arrivals stored up, waiting to be announced to supporters over the next few days or weeks. The signing of Threlkeld is a good example of that – he won’t have just happened to have popped into Valley Parade on Father’s Day morning to finalise a deal. It would have been sorted out several days ago, and has been waiting to be revealed at the right moment.
It is admirable and clever work from CEO Ryan Sparks. It’s well documented that his background working in sport has very much been around PR and communications. He’s had to manage communications in crisis moments for clubs – not just City, but the likes of the Bradford Bulls – and he also knows the power of positive communication.
It would have been easy for City to have unveiled Eisa, Threlkeld and whoever else is waiting for their turn to be announced in one go. And it would have made for quite a strong story that would have probably got City a lot of media attention and Bantams supporters buzzing – “New Bradford City manager Derek Adams has been really busy, he’s signed five players!” But a few days later, that’s gone. And in the 24-hour news cycle world we live in, there is clearly better value to be had in releasing lots of small bits of good news daily, rather than to go for one big splash and allow a void to follow.
And it puts City in a much better, and favourable position. Building up the trust and belief of supporters, rather than battling against them. Just look at how difficult it was a year ago. The challenges of months of no City because of Covid created a very challenging environment, and the general supporter conversation about Bradford City matters was fuelled by negativity and anger. The bcafc hashtag was a tough read.
That didn’t help when James Vaughan was allowed to join Tranmere Rovers without a replacement lined up – putting City firmly on the backfoot. And the pressure grew on the club. At a time when they were battling just to be able to play football again and facing a tough campaign of games behind closed doors, the negative conversation amongst fans only added to a doom and gloom feeling.
This time around, with the window between seasons much shorter, Sparks has clearly implemented a strategy of careful and methodical communication. Aimed at not just informing us supporters of how much better things are going, but in managing the conversation. It’s why we spend a day arguing on Twitter about whether Carling is a good choice of new beer, and then quickly move onto feeling excited that Andy Cook has re-signed.
Key to this approach succeeding is Sparks making effective use of the club’s ability to communicate directly to supporters. It is noticeable that every single announcement comes from the club first, followed 30 seconds or so later by the Telegraph & Argus and Radio Leeds.
The club wants to tell us the news on its own terms, rather than relying on the local media to do it for them. More often than not, the local media pieces simply regurgitate the exact quotes the club has just published. They’ve been given the news ahead of the time under a strict embargo – and so can only get their stories and tweets prepared, as they wait to follow City breaking their own news.
What this means for the long-term future of the Telegraph & Argus probably isn’t great. It’s no secret that print newspapers have struggled in recent years, and the Covid lockdown hit local newspaper circulation figures further. The T&A has recently launched a subscription approach to online content and many City articles are now locked behind a paywall. To survive, it needs Bradford City content.
Yet the key reason for the decline of print media – the unstoppable rise of the internet – is also what gives clubs like Bradford City greater power. The T&A’s Simon Parker tells a great story of how in October 2000 Geoffrey Richmond rang him early one morning asking him to come down to Valley Parade as he had a bit of a story. It turned out that story was the signing of Stan Collymore.
Parker had huge news to tell the world, and Richmond needed the local print media’s support and kinder tone in reporting on a signing that was controversial because of Collymore’s background. Whilst the national media lined up to mock and attack City for such a reckless signing, City could count on the T&A’s help to get supporters onside.
The difference now is that Bradford City simply does not need the local media to communicate to fans. They have a popular website, and social media handles. They can produce clever new signing videos and run supporter Q&A sessions with Sparks and Adams. It allows them to manage the message better, and it has commercial benefits in terms of online revenue (one of the first facts we learn about Trelkeld’s arrival is the company who are sponsoring him).
The T&A has and continues to report on every step of Bradford City’s fortunes this close season, but it clearly does so with some sort of agreement with the club over when and how it can release news. And because retaining access to the club remains so important, the tone of the coverage is positive and measured. All adding to the boosting of overall supporter mood.
It leaves some interesting long-term challenges for the T&A, which appears increasingly less likely to be able to publish “exclusives”. Their mission is to ensure they remain relevant. Simon Parker is a fine writer and the Bradford City community needs a strong, independent local media reporting daily news.
The effect of the daily Bradford City communications this close season is that the club feels more open and, with it, more likeable. Sparks will have observed recent close seasons and how bad they often were for supporter mood. He will be conscious that leaving any sizeable vacuum of news allows the conversation to be taken over by negativity.
Sparks is helping to build up a narrative that Bradford City are preparing for a much better campaign – cultivating an atmosphere that will encourage commercial partners and season ticket sales – through taking such a diligent approach to communication. And it’s working, because the messages are frequent, consistent in tone and strong – encouraging us to believe there is genuine substance to the work going on to improve the club.
It all means this is turning out to be a nice, enjoyable close season. One where you can’t switch off or complain about nothing happening – because along comes another daily announcement to stimulate the next City conversation. And it’s only going to continue. Each and every day.
I mean, we haven’t even had a kit launch yet.