#BusinessOfSport with.... Chelsea FC's former Head of Marketing
Football : Lunch with Ben Wells
Venue : Pizza Express
Format : Lunch, quick.
Ben Wells was Head of Marketing at Premiership Champions Chelsea for 6 years, before a stint in the same role at Reading FC. What are the real aims of a top premiership football club? Are the fans genuinely important? What can clubs do to give fans a better experience?
Now a Director at Well Said, we sat down with Ben to find out a bit more about the direction in which the marketing of Football is heading.
TSB : How do you balance the agenda of the football club as a business, with the expectations of the fan? Are they happy with cup runs and YouTube clips or do they want or deserve more?
BW: It depends how you segment your fans. There are still a whole bunch of people that have their match day rituals and turn up, go to the game and go home. There isn't much more interaction or transaction that that. Then there is the next generation who are far more fluid, younger fans consume football as part of a lifestyle jigsaw rather than as my generation did where football was the be all and end all. Football for them is now interspersed with music, tech, gaming and everything else, and so the expectations are different...
TSB : So do you think the 'fan' or 'supporter' is different from how he or she was 20 years ago?
BW : Absolutely. The reason for kids supporting clubs now is different. I followed my Dad and my Uncle who were both post Munich Man U fans. Now its more to do with celebrity and perhaps what player plays for what club. Kids also now follow more than one club and often support players as much as they do clubs.
The sport however still thinks in a very linear, old fashioned and outdated way about fans, in terms of defining what fans are. Football is terrified of using the word 'customer' and there are whole groups of customers out there who might not be fans, but not the other way around.
TSB : Marketing gurus and traditionalists would suggest that businesses should be market orientated, that the focus of their strategies should be based on the customer. Do you think football clubs manage that in any way?
BW: No. They are sales organisations. They sit down at the beginning of the season and work out what they want to sell, whether it's number of seats, hospitality boxes, branded merchandise and sponsorship to a certain extent. It's a pretty analogue commercial model. When you think of the worlds largest companies they are the other way, and are market orientated, digitally led, fluid businesses. They recognise the exponential benefit of data which football clubs for the most part don't have a clue about.
TSB : Is data and the idea of a holistic strategy that is digitally driven where you think clubs are missing out at the moment?
It probably is. An example was a Premiership club I was doing some work with who had a database of 800,000 people but I don't think they knew why 750,000 of them were actually there! They were more focused about selling the same inventory to the 50,000 who they do know... tickets, shirts etc. What about the other 3/4 of a million people?
TSB : What is the Ronaldo obsessed guy in Sierra Leone going to do with an email from Real Madrid suggesting he buy a new shirt for $100!?
BW : Exactly. Especially in this age of micro-payments and social media engagement there are offerings for that fan, but he/she probably doesn't want a membership at $50 per year and may well unsubscribe from the database as he might feel the club don't actually care about him/her.
TSB : So do you generally think the average football fan, as in the one who goes to games regularly, gets value for money?
BW : Ticket prices have gone up exponentially in the last 25 years. Fans complain every year but Premier League clubs operate at a near 100% capacity so they would suggest everything is fine. I disagree strongly as that might not last forever. The next generation might not spend their money in the same way, if the kids don't want to go, the parents won't go etc.
TSB : Just flipping that the other way around, do the clubs earn enough from the unbelievably loyal and consistent customer base that they've got?
BW : No. They look at their models and see where their sales projections sit. Every other business would kill for what they have, which is a blind customer loyalty no matter what. Rather than try and understand the customer and build a customer lifetime model, really get to know them.... they try and sell them a shirt.
I did some work a couple of years ago for a VC business that was looking to lend a major European club 600m Euros to build their stadium out. I was brought in to look at potential payback models for the commercial rights over 10 years. The club has an enormous social media following but only 5m people in their database. Rather than this huge cost of capital in filling more seats, how about building out the social platforms and trying to commercialise them instead?
TSB : What do you think in general about the huge capital outlays clubs are making on new stadiums?
BW :I think for a club like Tottenham it makes a lot of sense. Also they are diversifying by having the NFL as an anchor tenant alongside the traditional offering. Chelsea will be looking to add another 19,000 seats to their current capacity with their new stadium and when I was there for the big games Man U, Barca and so on we could have sold the stadium out 4 times over. So it is necessary for clubs as they see fit, data dependent, as well as being a statement of intent.
TSB : Can the so called smaller clubs compete with the big boys by using a more holistic approach to marketing?
BW : Most clubs look to Manchester Utd and what they are doing and see whether they can copy them. A club with such a rich history can get away with doing what they are doing but when you get down to someone like Bournemouth there has to be a point of difference. Brands around the world want to be involved in football, and stories can help be that point of difference. Bournemouth have a great story and are a likeable club to be involved with no doubt.
TSB : But these brands very rarely give anything back to the fan, a real TSB point of annoyance.
BW : Exactly, although I'm biased, Chelsea was a good example. We did a £15m a year deal with Samsung. The last of the worlds top 100 companies to come off a Premier League shirt, there hasn't been one since despite being the worlds supposed biggest marketing platform. Fair play to Chelsea for now signing up a Japanese B2B tyre company as a sponsor, but it doesn't add any customer value in terms of a real partnership, its just a cheque.
We activated 60 new markets for Chelsea via Samsung, and Chelsea had zero marketing budget as they saw it as a cost rather than an investment. So we used our partners to help market our own brand. Are they going to get that from a tyre business?
TSB : Are there specific challenges between working in marketing at a Premiership club and any other type of business.
BW : The challenge is that no one within the business is unaffected by what happens on a Saturday. Long term plans can suddenly go out the window because of one bad result or one incident. It makes planning hard and just the general mood of the place can swing from one week to the next which is very challenging.
TSB : What have you been up to since leaving Chelsea (and then Reading)?
BW : I have my own business now, I wanted to do some more progressive work. I had a great time at Chelsea but I enjoy working with a lot of different business. My two biggest clients are the F.A and Bath Rugby, but I also like to work with a lot of startup sport-tech business and digital marketing businesses. It's a crowded but exciting space.
Check out Well Said's White Paper 'A Sporting Commercial model for a digital age'