Close-Up: Football turns to advertising to win over fans

With debt-ridden clubs and disillusioned supporters, can adland stop the football bubble bursting?

Anyone who knows anything about the beautiful game was not hugely shocked when Portsmouth became the first top-flight club to enter administration earlier this year. In fact, it seemed that there was an air of inevitability about it.

Despite the well-documented glitz and glamour of the Premier League, many of its football clubs are struggling to keep their balance sheets in order, and appear to be losing touch with fans.

Indeed, a recent Virgin Money survey showed that 25 per cent of season ticket holders of Premier League clubs are considering not renewing them.

Suddenly, clubs of all sizes need to consider how they position their brand, building relationships with new fans as well as maintaining ties with existing ones.

But the advertising arena remains relatively untapped for most football clubs, with the majority of communications coming through a bland information-led website or a simple e-mail campaign.

However, there are some signs that this is beginning to change. Arsenal recently signalled its intent by appointing Angus Kinnear as its first-ever marketing director, while other clubs, including Manchester City and Fulham, have begun to test the advertising water by hiring agencies to work on some smaller-scale projects.

"Clubs have to work a lot harder now to build a bond with fans than they did in the past," Steven Falk, the founder of Star Sports Marketing and former director of marketing for Manchester United, says. "Most clubs have ratcheted the easy things such as match-day ticket sales and corporate hospitality, but there's a limit to what you can do there."

The next phase, Falk argues, is pushing the club forward as a brand. "Football clubs are businesses just like any other, so they need to act like any other brand would by marketing themselves properly," he says.

Half-time pie

Football clubs face one immediate stumbling block, though, when trying to act like a regular company, in that fans don't treat their clubs in the same way as they do other brands. "If you don't like Tesco, you'll go to Sainsbury's," Falk says, "but if Man Utd offer a bad fan experience, a supporter won't change his allegiance to Liverpool."

Where marketing should then come in is to enhance a fan's relationship with the club, to help drive further revenue and ensure they keep coming back.

Take recent events at Old Trafford as an example of how easily fans can become disillusioned. Fans are expressing their anger at the way Man Utd is being run by wearing yellow-and-green protest scarves (the club's original colours) instead of official club merchandise. Man Utd's kit manufacturer, Nike, or shirt sponsor, AIG, major sources of revenue for the club, are not impressed.

However, to combat this, clubs are in a better position to roll out more effective CRM programmes than ever before.

As little as 15 years ago, a fan could attend matches fairly anonymously by paying for a ticket at the turnstile. With the invention of membership schemes and online ticketing, even smaller clubs now have access to the names of their fans, as well as their age, address, the number of matches they went to last season, where they prefer to sit and, in some cases, whether they preferred chicken balti or steak and kidney in their half-time pie.

"Agencies can work wonders with this data," Gavin Wheeler, the chief executive of WDMP, which handles the advertising for Chelsea, says. "When we took over Chelsea, fans felt that they were being fleeced. They were members of a club but didn't get anything in return. By exploiting the data we had, we could offer Chelsea members unique opportunities so that they felt like part of the club."

Die for the brand

Andy Fowler, the founder of Brothers and Sisters, which has worked with Arsenal on numerous projects, adds: "Football clubs are in a very privileged marketing position in that all of their customers would die for them. The role of marketing is to remember that and leverage that emotion."

Fowler points to a viral campaign featuring the striker Craig Bellamy declaring his love for football and Man City as an example of where clubs are beginning to achieve some success.

"The sheer amount of money that players get paid has disconnected many fans from their clubs," Fowler says. "So they now have a massive responsibility to show that their players are human, and that the people who run the club love it as much as the fans do."

Social media can provide huge benefits here in helping clubs engage with fans but, again, they have been slow to capitalise on the opportunity. In some cases, they have even shown reluctance to enter the space, with Watford among a host of clubs forcing independent sites to shut down.

"Clubs need to realise that they should embrace the independent fan sites as well as their official outlets," Hugh Baillie, the chief executive of Ogilvy Advertising, says. "Too many clubs are afraid of the bad things that can be written on them, but clubs need to accept that there may be bad stuff as well as good if they're ever to get the fans onside."

One club that has entered the social media space is Fulham, which made the decision last year to appoint the digital specialist Table 19 to handle its advertising.

Michael Benedetto, Fulham's brand marketing manager, says: "As a club, we wanted to build a two-way conversation with our fans, and social media is obviously a great way to do that. We appointed an agency as they bring a number of fresh ideas to the table. If you use an in-house team, you end up recycling the same ideas."

Exploiting the foreign invasion

The next step for Fulham, like many Premier League clubs, is to look abroad to really maximise marketing potential. Football is now broadcast into 600 million homes in 211 territories around the world, but does that necessarily mean all those viewers will adopt a club?

"At Chelsea, we did some research on how fans in the US feel about the club," Wheeler says. "We saw that there was huge interest in the Premier League itself, but less allegiance to individual clubs. People would say they support Chelsea and Liverpool."

What foreign fans do hold allegiances to, though, are home-grown players. Witness Didier Drogba's return to the Ivory Coast or the commotion caused by Samuel Eto'o's trip home to Cameroon.

"We saw a huge increase in interest from US and Australian fans when players such as Clint Dempsey (an American) and Mark Schwarzer (an Australian) joined," Benedetto says. "It's then a matter of keeping those fans once the players have moved on."

One club that has capitalised on this is Man Utd. The club hit South Korea hard after signing Park Ji-Sung, visiting the country on a pre-season tour (tickets for the games sold out in hours) and launching a club credit card, which now has more than 1.2 million holders.

"It was the perfect example of a successful CRM programme," Falk says. "While we were probably in a better position than anyone else to take advantage, every club has an asset like that they can use for their benefit."

In a sense, football clubs are situated between a rock and a hard place. Whether it's a football nut in Bangkok looking for a club to support or a diehard local supporter needing new reasons to love his team, fans are more eager than ever to interact with clubs. But such is the cynical state of the game, it's imperative that the clubs get their communications right. It may indeed be time to call in the experts.

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