The surreal world of football administration

In my dim and distant past I had unparalleled access to the Football League clubs, trying to help them as an “outsider” to maximise their commercial revenue streams.  I was lucky enough to dine at the top table on a number of occasions, attending regular Commercial meetings organised by the Football League and attended by the great and the good of the administrators of the game.  I was wined and dined in executive boxes at major finals by clubs wanting to see if they could persuade me to open my purse strings.

It is very very rare for people in the commercial positions to remain in their posts for more than a season.  They, like the football managers, are moved on regularly for failing to hit their objectives, re-emerging a few weeks later at another club despite the fact they had essentially been sacked for non-performance.  And they get these new jobs, on the promise of a black book of leads and the club chairman fall for it, hook, line and sinker.  Nothing new there – football clubs will always employ from within rather than bringing in someone with fresh ideas or, dare I say it, business acumen.  So welcome to the unreal world of the commercial manager!

How about this one for starters?  A commercial manager of a lower league team arranges a pre-season tour of Spain for the club through a “friend”.  The tour is a three game trip to Southern Spain to play some non-league teams there.  Now this was before the likes of Google and search engines became really popular and so he was able to hoodwink the club’s higher management on the idea.  He got the club to agree to charter a plane, and then sold the additional 100 or so seats to fans with an opportunity to “travel with the team” at a cost of hundreds of pounds.  The first game was on a pitch that was very lower non-league indeed.  The second one was on a roped off pitch, and at the third one the fans had to put the nets up themselves on a dirt track in the middle of a village.  He left the club, perhaps a few thousand richer, a few weeks later and unsurprisingly emerged a week or so later 50 miles down the road at a new club.  Every club at the lower levels has its own story of bizarre deals (such as strange shirt sponsorship deals such as the ones we commented on earlier in the season here)

Companies were falling over themselves to come and pitch ideas to the forum of commercial managers, seduced by being involved with football in general.  And the clubs themselves felt that they were ideal businesses to grab a slice of the action.  Some years ago the Football League voted to allow advertising/sponsorship on shorts, socks and other part of the shirt.  This “inventory” as they called it was valuable real estate to the clubs who even built in potential sponsorship revenues into their balance sheets.  And of course when it failed to materialise they blamed their financial predicament on “the collapse of ITV Digital”.  If you were to add up all of the woes in football attributed to the collapse of a small non-terrestial TV channel then you would think that the deal was worth £100’s of billions.  It is good to see that ITV Digital’s demise has now been replaced by the “Credit Crunch” as a reason for their over commitment.  Few teams actually took advantage of the change in rules relating to shirt advertising.  Leeds brought back their iconic sock tags for a while, complete with advertising but they lasted but a blinking of an eye as nobody could actually see the company advertising on them.

A good example is the situation at Gillingham.  Ambitious chairman takes over club, invests lots of money into club and overseas an expensive rebuilding exercise.  The facilities including a restaurant, conference centre and a number of business clubs.  He was genuinely bitten by the football bug and saw some immediate return for his money when Gillingham made it to the Championship, the 2nd tier of football in England.  Buoyed by talk of a Premier League 2 the chairman redeveloped three sides of the ground, squeezing in the stands amongst the terrace houses of the town.  But the crowds never materialised and unwilling to invest further in the team the club slipped back down the leagues.  One end of the stadium still remained undeveloped yet the reason given for this was the “collapse of ITV Digital”…Gillingham would have seen no more than a few hundred thousand pounds over a course of the following years – the last time I looked redeveloping stands costs millions.  But that’s the mentality of football.

Another interesting story revolved around a team currently playing in the lower leagues.  At the time they had come through a traumatic few years where their very existence was in question.  Their prayers were answered one Sunday in December when after making it through the FA Cup 2nd round they drew Manchester United, at home in the FA Cup.  The game was set up for live TV due to a number of reasons and the club’s marketing activity stepped up a gear.  All of the existing sponsors and advertisers, some of which had supported the club through their hard times received a shock when they were told they would have to “apply” for their advertising boards for this game.  The club went out and commissioned an outside agency to film their next league game and then broke down the coverage second by second as to what particular boards were visible on the screen.  They then added up the minutes each company were featured and then compared this to how much that respective time slot would fetch on a Sunday afternoon on commercial TV and that was the “offer” they were expecting for each existing advertiser.  So, lets say Joe the Local Plumber had been sponsoring the club for 20 years, and had a nice board behind the goal.  Their “exposure” was calculated at 3 minutes 14 seconds during the game so the club approached them and said they would have to pay the equivalent price for a 3 minute 14 second commercial break slot.  Not surprisingly when few took up their offer they brought the prices down.  But there was still a twist – on the day of the game many of the boards behind the goal were obscured by photographers and TV cameras.

I sat in meetings whilst the “smartest brains in the game” discussed ideas of getting people in the grounds earlier so that they would spend more money.  “Happy Hours” was one suggestion, with beer at a reduced price – “how do we tell people that happy hour is over?” asked one skeptic…”We ring a bell outside the stadium”….”And then we create a crush as people try and get in”…..never mind….I saw numerous companies come along and pitch their ideas and the collective thoughts in the room were simply “what is our cut”.  If a club could badge something then they would but nothing there has changed – just see West Ham’s attempts to brand the world in our post from May this year.

The online side of the commercial world of football clubs has been sewn up by The Perform Group who were formed in 2007 after a merger between Premium TV and Inform Group.  These were the guys behind the recent Ukraine versus England PPV event.  Premium TV themselves came out of the ashes of ITV Digital and NTL were a major partner in the old days.  Essentially they run the websites for the league clubs (at one point they had 69 out of the 72 clubs signed up as well as a number of Premier League teams), doing central commercial deals and then sharing the pot across all of the clubs.  The clubs themselves had control, to a certain point of the content but had to abide by a strict code of conduct on what and when they could post articles.  The deal was good for many of the clubs but it did mean that virtually all websites looked the same (and still do today).  There are still a few exceptions – such as Accrington Stanley’s but they are few and far between.

So what can we take away from this?  Football is run by the men with the money and not by the people with brains? So what’s new there you may say – well technology actually.  Few clubs have really embraced the power of technology and how it could revolutionise their commercial activity…and here I end my lesson for today.  Same time next week for the story of the advertising board?

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