The Lord Lieutenant of North Yorkshire, Mr Barry Dodd CBE, made a special visit to Boro’s award-winning Generation Red Family Zone earlier this month.
He met the team behind the ground-breaking scheme that has transformed the matchday experience for dozens of families within the East Stand at the Riverside Stadium and also talk with key partners, sponsors and some families.
Already sold out for Boro’s return to the Premier League in August, the GRFZ was launched in 2013 and was an immediate success, helping Middlesbrough FC win the Football League’s Family Club of the Year award the following year.
The East Stand concourse is a family-friendly area featuring activity areas, interactive computer games, giveaways and exciting pre-match entertainment. Partners include Everyone Active, Cornerstone Business Solutions, WH Smith, Frankie & Benny’s, Hollywood Bowl, Cineworld, Game and McDonald’s.
A delegation of families and the three organisers from Boro Real Fans Believe in Dreams charity spoke about how they work hand in hand with the Boro and Generation Red Family Zone. Dave Brown, Manager of WH Smith, Teesside Park branch told the Lord Lieutenant about how he helps delver structured learning, boosting the literacy of young Boro fans.
Player visits are a regular feature and the GRFZ has become a smash hit with children and mums, dads and grandparents.
The Lord Lieutenant was greeted by Chief Operating Officer Mark Ellis and Head of Supporter Services Yvonne Ferguson before viewing features such as the Creative Corner, the Cornerstone Interactive Zone, the MFC Official Little Red Store, the Boro Yellow Brick Road and the Candy Cart.
He also met Helena Bowman, Head of Foundation, and MFCP charity partners.
He said as royal representative he would be taking a very positive message back to the Queen. He would be writing a note telling of all the great work being done at the GRFZ. The Lord Lieutenant went on to say that it would be such a big and very timely boost to be back in the Premier League.
After the visit I spoke with Dave Brown from WH Smith about his involvement in Generation Red Family Zone and to tell us more about the fun, entertainment and education that goes on in this colourful and creative corner of the Riverside every match day.
DB: It is part of the WH SMITH initiative to have a corporate responsibility in all our local stores with any educational ties we can get. At Teesside Park we decided to go to the football ground. Young lads that don’t usually read, they won’t go to libraries, or go to bookshops as much as young girls. The reading age in Middlesbrough is really quite low, we are deprived area. I think the statistics for Middlesbrough is that 1 in 4 kids don’t own their own book under the age of 8, which is ridiculous so we have got to go to where the kids are.
If you come to Middlesbrough Football Club we sponsor an educational half time, up in the Sub’s Bench. There are book loanings, so you can use your season card to loan books out, to get the young lads back into reading. The books are specially designed and chosen by a local school teacher and the activities we do all fall in line with the national curriculum. So it is not just finger painting and messing about, there is a real reason behind what we do.
DB: Yes each activity is structured. Not only to the age of the child but also seasonal or what is going on. So, if it was Valentines, we might be making cards but there would be a reason behind it. We also do things around away teams when they come. So, people can look on the map and see how many miles they have travelled, what is the area like, what are the people like. A bit of history about the town that is coming. So they get to know about the team that is visiting as well.
DB: Well, the idea from the club is trying to extend the life of your ticket. So if you pay for your ticket on a match day you basically think well that is from kick off until the final whistle blows. But actually you can get more out of your ticket. If you come in at 12.30 the family zone is open. So you extend the value of your ticket, you get more from it.
So, we sit at the tables and do some activities with the kids. It might be competitions. We have a lot of other partners such as Game, Frankie and Bennies. It really is educational based but it is an activity to keep them happy.
Q: Fun as well.
DB: Oh yes. Some of the other things we do. We do a big day around World Book Day, which all kids in primary schools get a voucher for a free book. What the club does is sponsor its own World Book Day through WHSMITH where any child that comes to WHSMITH in the area gets a free book on that day. No one else in the country does that. No other football club, Premier League or not have invested like Middlesbrough has in World Book Day which means that every child gets a book, which is a phenomenal thing when you think about it. So, that is why we say seasonal, there will be lots of Christmas activities of course etc.
So, once we have done that, we usually do a really fun activity like wishing the players well, it will be educational based or book based. After that, you are not allowed up to the Subs Bench until half time. There is a meeting point downstairs and a member of staff from the Family Zone takes the parent and the kids upstairs.
It was originally set up 3 years back when the football was pretty poor and to get a child to sit through 90 minutes of dross. You were lucky if you got them through the first half, especially in winter if it was raining. There was plenty to do in the concourse but if you have got a small child it meant that the families could bring the kids with them, not just the dads. We had a lovely couple that met at the match but when they had kids stopped coming. It was a reason for them to actually start coming again which is a great story.
We take them upstairs and we do book loaning, a bit of crafting. It gives them 15 minutes away from the cold, with free tea and coffee if it is cold. And there are changing facilities for babies. Soft play for the kids. It is genuinely being copied all around the country. We have people from Birmingham, Preston, Sheffield coming to look at what we do and treat it as a blueprint.
It has gone down really well with my company, WHSMITH and they have sponsored it from the top level. Our managing director or retail, Kevin Hall, has been every year to come and check on it and he sponsors us, so you couldn’t get any higher accolade than that and it has become an integral part of our corporate responsibility when we submit it to the City at the end of September. You find WHSMITHS Teesside Park and Middlesbrough Football Club on that submit and the City love it and think it is a good use for our resources in the end adds to my share price which keeps me in a job (laughs).
DB: Other footballers have been in to this for a while, Frank Lampard has something like 13 books. All good reads. I know he does actually write himself. Mark Schwarzer, wrote in Australia and there is Theo Walcott, he has a list of them too. It is nothing new but it is new to the kids because they haven’t seen this before and might not realise that football fits in well educationally. Everyone Active do this because of the health benefits as well. We do things around diet, we do fruit upstairs. There are loads of activities. If you think of how you can benefit then we will have touched upon it at some point. Middlesbrough is open to any suggestions.
The brand of the area now is Middlesbrough Football Club there is nothing else to stick my brand to.
DB: Now it is Premier League. Three years ago we thought we were mad to get involved. And they have been loyal to us; other clubs might drop us because we have got into the Premier League. We know we are here next season because they like what we do and it is not about making money. Which is the best thing.
Q: This is the future fan base for Boro and the future using WHSMITH and buying books here.
DB: Oh yes the feedback for us is fantastic. If we are in the shop, people come in and say hello and ask us what we are doing at the match next week and can you recommend a book. That book you leant us last week was fantastic. You can’t get any better than that, especially for young lads. The girls are great but the young lads would never have picked a book up. They would have picked a Match Attax sticker book up.
Q: Which is what you are doing now as we speak, showing the fun element.
DB: Yes. Some of the work the Foundation does we can work hand in hand with. They work with Football Manager working out percentages around winning promotions etc. You have to be savvy to use that game properly. We can use the things they have learned and then use it in the Concourse for younger kids. It is about finding horses for courses. It is a win/win for us as a company to be associated with this. Originally they thought we were mad but now we are associated with success which is fabulous.
Thank You To Dave Brown, manager WH Smith, Teesside Park