Media FC | How Football Clubs Are Turning Into Entertainment Brands
In the summer of 2003, the only real way to check on my team's summer transfer activity was to wait for the weekly local paper that rocked up at my door, read the rumours on a very basic message board online (this was in the early days of dial-up) or call the club news hotline.
After racking up a hefty phone bill, it came as no surprise that this channel was now banned by my angry parents. Little old Barnet didn't feature much on Ceefax (bar the results) but I remember this being an important source of information for the more established Premier League and Championship sides.
This was 2003, and following my National League side was a task in itself but we didn't know any different. Fast-forward to 2020 and the wealth of content and information available can almost become overwhelming.
Football clubs have adapted well to the needs of modern fans (or consumers some might say) and created new touch points for fans to feel part of it all.
Club TV And Beyond
The impressive Camp Nou | Photo credit: @escapismo
At the turn of the millennium, we saw the arrival of club TV channels, which was the precursor to the social media revolution. The majority of big clubs embarked down this route, with the likes of Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester United all leading the way with their media projects. Interestingly enough it was Middlesbrough FC, who were the pioneers, starting their television channel way back in 1997.
Many of course didn't last, with Borough's closing in 2004 for example, but the direction of travel was there for all to see and with social media now the dominant player in the digital space for clubs, this has taken precedent.
Some have evolved their offerings, such as FC Barcelona who have created an online media subscription service Barca TV +. It hosts all the content created by the club’s production arm Barca Studios, which includes player interviews, match highlights and live streams from the B team and women’s team home fixtures.
Behind the scenes, the club are not only providing more value and entertainment to their global fanbase, but they're collecting vast amounts of data on their passionate fanbase which can then be used to their commercial advantage. Graell, FC Barcelona's CMO said so himself earlier this year, “Having an e-commerce business, or streaming service isn’t unique for a football club. What’s unique is having the data to be able to use those platforms to cross-sell and upsell to the people on them.”
By growing your audience, sorry fan base, and captivating them with high quality content, smart clubs now are able to tap into the financial opportunities that arise. The formula is actually pretty simple, and one that will increase merchandise sales and warrant higher commercial deals that benefits clubs.
From the much loved Maine Road to the Etihad Stadium | Photo Credit: @escapismo
'We're not a football club, we're actually a sports entertainment media company'. These were the words of Garry Cook, Man City's ex-Chief Executive, who oversaw City's transition from a local institution to a worldwide brand, which was part of the club's bold move to become one of the biggest clubs in the world.
The club doubled down on its online content, to fuel drama, excitement and create an almost never-ending story that would incapsulate its growing audiences. Cook took inspiration from the US, where the commercialisation of sport was light years ahead of what they had to offer in English football. For the club to grow they had to innovate and think differently, and more importantly outside the confides of the Greater Manchester’s boundaries.
Their partnership with Amazon in 2018 was an example of this, creating a behind the scenes eight part series on their record breaking Premier League title win of 2017-18. Nuria Torre, CMO of the City Football Group (who own Man City), couldn't have said it better when discussing the series and their ambitions, 'we need to keep exploring the evolution of the digital landscape and find the best way to serve the purpose of the brands that want to partner with us'.
Leveraging Player Followings
Ronaldo in the distance at the Allianz Stadium against Fiorentina
Social media, which takes in many forms, is now a vital part of the football supporter experience, bring fans closer to the action than ever before. They've even made the traditional matchday programme out of date and redundant due to the vast amount of up to date content online (although digital versions are made available by some clubs).
This ever-evolving relationship has also changed what it means to be a football club, transitioning from a local community asset to a media entertainment brand. Whilst smaller clubs might be a long way from going global, its fair to say biggest sides in the Premier League and across Europe are heading in this direction, and at a rapid pace.
A fantastic example of this is Juventus's purchase of Cristiano Ronaldo in 2018. The club had only recently changed the club badge to widen their appeal to new foreign markets and the arrival of Ronaldo was a key part of the clubs acceleration into the digital space.
The Bianconeri severely lagged behind their European counterparts in the digital space pre-Ronaldo, with a modest 9.5 million followers on Instagram and a further 5 million on Twitter. Fast-forward to 2020 and Juventus now boast over 96 million followers across all their channels including Facebook, making them the fourth most supported club online, behind only Man United, Real Madrid and Barcelona.
The club cunningly tapped into Ronaldo's already established following and brought a substantial number of them with him, raising the profile of the club and opening up new commercial opportunities as a result. The club then re-negotiated with its sponsors Jeep and Adidas, which saw revenues jump from a combined 39 million euros to 101 million from the two iconic brands in the space of just two years.
Juve's new player acquisition and content-heavy strategy has created a positive loop of success, with a wealth of new fans at their disposal to monetize, carefully curated content fed daily into fans pockets and highly appealing follower numbers online that will attract more big name brands into their space.
It's hard to complain when clubs are effectively spoon-feeding you content free of charge (in most cases). We're now more connected to our clubs than ever before, but has the relationship become somewhat sterile and sanitised?
There's the mundane 'We go again' posts from players and clubs, the cringe worth banter and the uncomfortable feeling that we're all just sitting ducks waiting to be sold the latest special edition shirt or to get involved in the latest competition by lovable club sponsors and partners.
I think its fair to ask the question, has it gone too far? Do we need that much in-depth content and does it all feel rather artificial now? The connection to the fans can feel numb, as clubs try to cater for everyone and everything, diluting the traditional local fanbase for the bigger prize on the world stage. Fans are also to blame, increasingly becoming more passive, and obsessed with media consumption means that even during games (whether that be watching at home on the sofa or at the ground), we're half watching the action and actually checking the Twitter feed discussing the exact same thing for instant reaction.
Football clubs are changing the way they interact with fans and how they see themselves at their core, for better or worse. Time to sit back and press the play button.
Written by Richard Tester