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How we brought fans back at Lewes FC

Maggie Murphy, general manager at Lewes FC, has written of the club’s experiences in being the first to host the return of fans in the elite women’s game. Their experience will be vital to clubs looking to see how they can manage the safe return of supporters, as well as to fans themselves in finding out what they can expect…

Despite taking steps into the unknown, the results were largely positive, and the feeling is that most clubs of a similar size should be able to manage the transition to a COVID-safe space, which Maggie says will be critical to clubs’ survival.

The below are some edited highlights; you can read the full blog post on Medium here.

We were delighted — and a little bit terrified — by the request to be the first elite women’s football game back with fans. We were really keen to be one of the first pilots – to get our brilliant community back in The Pan, and secondly, because clubs need the cash, as do the local businesses and suppliers that keep us fed, watered, clean and secure. But it’s one thing drawing up plans and another adding people into the mix.

We didn’t have a template from a club who had gone first; we were thinking and inventing as we went. So here is a short summary of what we did, what we learned and what we might do differently in future, hoping it can be helpful to others opening the doors up to fans in the coming weeks.

What we did

Separate the ground into three zones: The red zone was the no-go area for anyone other than players, officials and a very small number of staff who are also undergoing testing every week. The rest of the ground was separated into two amber zones — nobody aside from a very small number of people (e.g. the people assessing us) were permitted to switch zones. This reduces the spaces that people move around in, limits their potential contact points, and makes it easier to trace a person’s movements.

Temperature checks on arrival: Choose your thermometer wisely. We purchased about three different sets before settling on our tool of choice. Some you can’t read in sunny conditions, some weren’t sensitive enough, some were just right.

Painted bubbles on the ground: This provided an easy — fun — way of separating groups and individuals. Some were large enough for family groups, others small enough for individuals.

Sold tickets to last year’s season ticket holders first: All tickets were sold online so we had direct contact information with each buyer. We didn’t think it appropriate to use it to sell next year’s season tickets, so those for whom last season was curtailed were first to get the opportunity to return to the Dripping Pan. Next up were our brilliant owners, and a handful went on general release. All tickets went within hours.

Stewarded fans to pre-identified seats, restaurant style: Probably the toughest element was allocating tickets for the seated stand. We identified that we had only 30 “bubbles” to sell — 30 possible sets of seats (for up to 6 people) which had their own entry and exit points from the row end, to avoid any brush past. Around two-thirds of the main stand was taken up by the technical area for the two enlarged squads in this pre-season friendly, but will be smaller when the season kicks in.

Put up lots of signs. Lots: OK, they weren’t always the prettiest, but this was a pilot, so our signage is also up for review. Was it in the right place? Did people see it? Was it easy to understand? We’ll move to something more formal, but for now, it was about answering questions before they was asked.

Communicate as well as we could to different groups of people: We drafted about six different briefs — whether for the media or the players or the stewards or fans, posted general info on the website and printed key things to remember around the ground — such as a request not to touch the ball, even if you really want to! We even labelled the two amber zones “Fries Side” and “Pies Side” — partly because our fans know which side of the ground that includes, and partly to tell people what food offering they were signing up to when buying their ticket, now that they couldn’t walk around as before.

What we’ll bear in mind

People don’t go to football matches in household bubbles of six: On our second or third bubble planning session we realised we needed to build lots more small, single bubbles in the standing area, to try to group together our wonderful “ultras” — who largely come to be with each other, not to be with their family!

It’s different for everyone, not just the fans: Stewards and staff and players are used to the old set-up so don’t forget to make sure they know what to expect. It’s not just about the fans.

People are happy to be back: And are happy to be guided to do the right thing. It sounds like a terrible cliché, but our supporters were so happy to be back in The Pan and so lovely to staff and stewards on the whole, even though it was very like the first day on the job for us!

You’re not in charge of peoples’ life choices: All you can do as a club is create a safe environment, and try to ensure that people don’t endanger each other. Your role is not, however, to mother people, so if they choose to flout rules that are difficult to govern (i.e. about who is in their household bubble), then it’s ultimately their choice, not yours. Most fans were incredibly respectful and used their common sense.

Now we have run through things once, all of us (whether staff or steward or fan) are so much better prepared for the next game and we’re excited to see more of you, and more away fan support too.

Huge thanks to the London Bees for being part of this pilot process with us, and to the fans who attended, but especially to our wonderful stewards — most of whom are fans or season ticket holders or volunteers themselves, who were so keen to help the club get back to the new normal. Their invaluable help and support made the pilot possible — so I’m not letting them go back to being ordinary fans just yet…!

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