I would like to enjoy the winter break to shape a statement about the football business – and not only football if we think about it. Business is ruining sport. This is what all true fans would say to you. It happens even more in football with astronomic transfers, FIFA and UEFA affairs or massive international and local partnerships. It’s the language that irritates the most, it seems that we need to turn fans into customers, games into match day experiences and throwing up job titles such as Head of Fan Relationship Management. This newly exposed position is all described in its job description, it targets clearly the fans and the followers, to “engage them, serve them and monetize them”. Well, very quickly, the clubs had to change “monetize” with “provide fans with relevant commercial opportunities”. A move that would never neglect a good coach.
If you’re going to pay people to play sport, you introduce an element of commercialism. And it was the growth of paid professionalism that swept unpaid amateurism aside and opened sport up for mass participation. This apparent clash between a yearning for a more Corinthian approach and distaste for the vulgarity that commerce has inflicted upon sport is central to any effort to make sense of modern sport. It became obvious that a customer relationship company that uses data to “help sporting organizations get closer to their customers” will emerge more and more as we speak – it’s showtime, baby. It’s the kind of description that may already have caused issues to discuss. With sport, once it becomes a business, just like any business you get some that are well run and in it for the long term, and some that are not. Remaining successful has to be about having a sustained customer base that cares about what you do.
Creating that base involves nothing more complicated, he says, than finding out what your customers want and giving it to them. When you look at the long tail of participation sports, the business of sport is fundamental to them creating a sustainable operation. Government funds simply won’t allow survival by subsidy, so they have to no option but to think differently.
The idea of creating a sustainable base runs through all the teams and sport organizations and this is where the drivers of the business and the sporting institution come together, reckons Rogan, a ‘performing’ author around sport business. One of the most striking things he says is that: “Sponsors have been disenfranchised by clubs and sports that don’t have a true, empathetic, warm relationship with their customers.” He goes on: “Any sporting organization right now that doesn’t put customers at the heart of its sponsorship proposition is in real danger. Big brands are finally realizing it’s incongruous to spend most of their time and budget getting closer to customers and then take a sponsorship and say ‘just a logo and some pricey hospitality for us thanks’. Sports fans can see that a mile off.
He recognizes football is a special case, not just because of the popularity of the top clubs, but also because of the way it’s run. The Premier League is there to return money to its member clubs, so doesn’t necessarily have the relationship with the grass roots. And, he says: “The way any business is run is a lot to do with how it’s owned. You’ll get a business that’s under private equity ownership that’s driven hard for short-term profits and a lot of the time you’ll find the care for employees and the push for long-term foundations isn’t necessarily there.
He is eager to point out there are some examples of good practice – even in what may seem the unlikeliest of places. “Notwithstanding the enormous loss Manchester City made in the first year of the current ownership, I’ve got a lot of respect for the way they have gone about thinking about the growth and ongoing development of their club. The first things they did, weren’t about customer revenue, but about customer relationships. So they put a large infrastructure around the stadium that just sold beer in a way that was quick and easy and made it easy for fans to meet before the game. They developed a membership proposition that was just about rewarding loyalty, and the basic level of that was free. They did a lot of smart things that weren’t about revenue growth but about creating the sort of links with supporters that Manchester City hasn’t had for 20 years.”
He thinks many football clubs need to think smarter about ticket prices, for example, returning to the relationship with sponsors to illustrate his point. “You can create a more sustainable revenue line by giving people what they want rather than imposing blanket price rises,” he says. Putting £30 on every ticket will provide more short-term profit than devising a meaningful membership package for kids that creates a more sustainable base long term, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. Creating a unique package that sponsors really want and charging them an extra £100 per seat could please both sponsor and bank manager, and subsidize the kids’ seats. “You have to understand the long-term benefit,” he says.
He reckons sport “needs to be more confident about what it has to offer”, but says “that confidence can’t be built on sand. Some of the organizations we work with have millions of people engaging with them and loving them month in, month out. Generically telling that to a business just sounds like a sales pitch. Providing evidence of that to a business changes the view of what sport can offer.”
For it’s not the business of sport itself that is the problem, but the way the business is often conducted. Whether you call it listening to the fans or building a sustained customer base, it all comes down to giving the fans what they want. You should not tell them what they want. Or you will be caught offside.