Hibs will this weekend step up their efforts to grow their fanbase, with Leeann Dempster adamant that concerted a bid to engage with the community can help revive falling attendances at Easter Road.
The chief executive believes that a whole “generation of youngsters” are not in the habit of going to watch live football and she intends to make sure no more potential supporters in the club’s catchment area are allowed to slip through the net, while also coaxing back lapsed supporters whom she still believes have a passion for the game.
Hibs have made 7,500 free tickets available for this weekend’s Championship match at home to Cowdenbeath, with 7,000 of those on offer to season-ticket holders who wish to bring a friend along as the club commemorate the legendary Pat Stanton’s 70th birthday, while another 500 have been allocated across 23 local schools.
“In Scottish football, I don’t think we’ve got a bad product,” said Dempster, who moved from Motherwell to Hibs at the end of last season. “Part of the problem is that we’ve got a whole generation of youngsters who don’t know what live football is.
“They think live football is sitting watching it on the telly. I don’t think our country has lost its love affair with football by any means, I just think that we need to re-engage with it a bit more, particularly younger people.
“We were really successful with that at Motherwell in terms of getting the numbers up with free tickets and things like that. Our view at the time was that we were trying to get young people in for the future and we’re going to do exactly the same thing here. The club have done loads in the past with the Hibs Kids and stuff like that, but we’re going to step it up immediately.
“We are genuinely trying to engage with the schools to get them in and give the kids good experiences. We want to become a bigger part of the community again. At Motherwell, a lot of the crowd was made up of youngsters who would have got very cheap tickets through schools or family packages.
“We need to get more people back to the ground. The obvious way to do that, of course, is to win games, but even then, no matter how well we’re doing, we’re always going to have availability for games unless it’s a game against Hearts or Rangers.
“We want to be successful on the pitch and we’re working hard towards that, but there are other things that underpin the club that we’re working unbelievably hard on that.”
Dempster believes long-term commitment to engaging the local community with initiatives such as free-tickets are essential if Scottish football is to flourish again amid a grim financial predicament. “The financial landscape since I came into the game in 2008 has been very difficult and it’s never really changed for the better,” she explained, “But I think Scottish football still bucks the trend.
“We still produce good players, have great matches and, per head, we participate and watch football at a higher level than most European countries. People still enjoy their football and the rivalries are still there.
“There are other pressures – the digital world has moved on ten-fold in the last few years. It’s not just the cinema and other days out you’re competing with now. Scottish football has got to find a way of growing again financially. Any owner or chairman will tell you the same, it’s really, really tough just now. Everybody’s feeling a major squeeze.”
The situation at Hibs has been exacerbated by last season’s relegation from the Premiership. Rancour still exists among regiments of supporters and Dempster spent three nights last week meeting with around 500 of them to discuss the best way forward for the club. The mood wasn’t helped by the fact the consultations were staged in the immediate aftermath of the shock defeat away to Alloa. Things got particularly hostile last Tuesday night when a small group infiltrated the meeting and were less than civil before being asked to leave by other supporters.
“It did get heated,” admitted Dempster. “Tuesday night was more difficult than the rest although all of the nights were difficult. People were coming to the meetings because they had points of views they wanted to put over. I have no problem with that, but it does get difficult when you’re doing it three nights in a row. It plays on your mind a lot. When you get the kind of approach we had on Tuesday, it’s not a nice experience.
“The one positive out of that was that the majority of the supporters asked them to leave because they had come here for all the wrong reasons. Because of the Alloa result it got a bit stormy at the start of every meeting. We got pushed quite hard on that, but once we got people past that and focused on the bigger picture about the structure and future of the club and their role in shaping it, it started to get more interesting.
“This is a genuine attempt by us to get an understanding of what the supporters want. We have a plan but we want to make sure that the supporters are on board and want to come with us.”
Getting supporters on board has been made trickier by a slow start to the current season, which has added to the sense of anger among supporters at the continual presence of unpopular chairman Rod Petrie. “Overwhelmingly, I think supporters just want a team on the park that wins every week,” said Dempster. “I think intricacies like who’s on the board and things like that only become an issue when things are not going well.
“It’s been a major three months and there’s been some big things achieved in that time. After the low of relegation just a few months ago, we’re now starting to think about the future. I get a lot of messages from supporters who say they recognise that we’re on the start of something new here, but as soon as we go to Alloa and lose, it means that when we go into a supporter consultation about supporter representation, we have to start off talking about why we’ve not won the game and we’ve not been as active in the transfer market as they would have liked.
“I’m a new person, we’ve got a new head coach, new players and a new structure and people will understandably have wanted things to change overnight but it doesn’t always happen as quickly as you want it to happen. We’re also trying to deal with some of the big problems facing the whole of Scottish football. We’ve done a lot of work here in terms of infrastructure. Everybody hisses when it gets mentioned here, but our stadium and training ground shouldn’t be disregarded. It’s a massive achievement for the club to have those things in place. Let’s try and use it to our advantage now.”