Reading Football Club has long had the reputation of being a family friendly club. It seems like every May the club unveils that they have received another Football League Excellence Award, which shouldn't be smirked at. It's a great achievement and it shows as you walk around the ground just how great an atmosphere it is for the youngest generation of loyal Royals.
But is the focus on family and children hindering the matchday experience for every other fan? And what else is the club doing well?
DJ Megaparty is still feeling his way around the club
You can't help but notice DJ Megaparty. His voice booms around the stadium, over the top of tracks from Knife Party, Ellie Goulding and, lest we forget, the Postman Pat theme song.
On the one hand, he's infuriating because he's just not the same as his predecessor, Paul Allen. He was a stalwart with The Royals for years and had a feel for the club. He knew what to say, when to say it, and was perfectly suited to the role. Or so it seemed.
DJ Megaparty has barged into the Madejski Stadium and totally misread the club and task at hand. He forces his musical drivel on us, screams odd phrases down the microphone and even gets the 'back the boys and make some noise' catchphrase wrong from time to time. Facepalm.
To give him his dues, he has toned it down in recent weeks. We should also remember he's new to the football stadium announcer game so is essentially learning on the job.
Given the brief to gee up supporters more than his predecessor, it's obviously a tough job and knowing that whatever you say will have at least 14,000 hearing it must be nerve jangling. If he continues to feel his way around the Madejski in the coming months, we may all have far less reason to whinge about his 'Dave the Disco' persona and instead focus more on supporting the team.
Ticketing prices have been in the news for all the wrong reasons in recent weeks, what with the Liverpool fans' protest over the ticket price increase. Yet the ticket pricing at Reading Football Club has been relatively decent for a number of years now.
The introduction of the 18–24 age band last summer meant that the supposed 'missing generation' of Reading fans now had very little excuse for not buying a season ticket—which I felt obliged to do.
The Fan Initiative Tuesday (TFI Tuesday) is another ticket initiative that encourages fans to come along for a bargain price of just £10 for adults and £5 for children, with season ticket holders able to bring 2 friends for free. It's a great initiative which will hopefully contribute towards a fantastic atmosphere at the Madejski Stadium. Of course, it would be great if The Royals could offer such great prices at every game but as we know, it's not realistic nor likely.
Royal Elm Park will need fan involvement if it is to succeed
It was announced in October last year that the Thai owners intend to redevelop the land around the Madejski Stadium to create a convention centre suitable for many occasions on and off matchdays, which will be called Royal Elm Park. The initial plans look promising and the planning application has been submitted. It all sounds promising but what we really need to see from the club is some fan engagement to see what we want.
Market research goes a long way in any industry, and football club marketing should be no different. Even though the development isn't purely for footballing reasons, it would make sense for the fans to be involved in the planning process if they want it to contribute to the overall matchday experience.
What do we want to see more of? What don't we need? Is there anything that needs considering so that fans can arrive early and stay late? The club need to ask the fans questions and know what they really want. Then we'll hopefully see the development of a complex that suits the needs of the club and the fans.
Make some noise. What noise?
"Back the boys and make some noise," bellows DJ Megaparty … Cue an awkward, half-hearted murmur of "URZ" from the crowd.
We all know Reading fans aren't noisy. At all. In fact you might remember that the stewards kicked out a fan that was trying to gee up supporters in a 3-0 defeat to Nottingham Forest almost a year ago. It's just not in their nature—at least, it doesn't seem to be.
Whether that's because of the lack of enthusiasm around the place because of results on the pitch, the middle-class catchment area of the club, overly strict stewarding, or a combination of these and other mitigating factors, it's hard to tell. But we all know something needs to change.
It's worth bearing in mind that I don't mean everyone should sing, necessarily. And the fans shouldn't need a good performance on the pitch to support the team. Because fans are first and foremost supporters of Reading, so it is in their best interests to back the boys. So clap, shout, scream, sing and back the boys. The Madejski Stadium doesn't need songs to make it a great atmosphere.
The club are aware of the problem and—as we'll see shortly—are working towards creating a livelier atmosphere, but at the moment it seems the focus on children and a 'family friendly' atmosphere is hindering the rowdier aspect of fan support from the stands.
A general disconnect from the current Reading side also means the only chant you'll hear specific to The Royals at the moment is a rendition of "Ohhhh, Ali Al Habsi!" Yawn. Something needs doing.
The club are trying to rectify it
It's fortunate, then, that the club are actively trying to rectify the problem of noise levels and general matchday atmosphere at the Madejski Stadium.
After a number of underwhelming seasons in tandem with some of the most tepid football played at the Madejski, it should be no surprise to anybody that the atmosphere at Reading has suffered as a consequence. Luckily, regardless of whether you question their motives, the owners of the club have noticed this and I'm told are constantly banging the atmosphere drum, the atmosphere's flat, dead, etc. So in response the club have initiated a Supporter Focus Group which is attended by numerous stakeholders within the club and a selection of invited fans from across the Reading area who sit in different areas of the stadium.
They have got a blend of new and old supporters and are seeking how to improve the atmosphere. They're planning on trying out new positions for the drummers. They're asking fans for input. They've even asked DJ Megaparty to adapt and tone it down a bit. Phew!
We shouldn't take it for granted that the owners have vested an interest in the atmosphere of the club. Many a football club owner has been happy to buy a club only to then see it rot under their stewardship. So the fact the owners want to improve the atmosphere is a massive positive and we can only hope the atmosphere around the Madejski Stadium improves in the months (and years) to come.
When it comes to the state of the matchday experience they have a fair way to go. But they're on the right path.
Also we're still after your feedback to Handbag's piece referenced above. Tweet us using #TTEfocusgroup or drop us an email to email@example.com and we'll make sure they get to Dave ahead of the next focus group meeting.