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BLOG: How can sports clubs benefit from the burgeoning relationship between their stars and their fans?

You always felt that Alex Ferguson’s oft used adage that “no one player is bigger than the club” was a wrestling attempt to subvert the rising power of his stars beneath the machinery of his powerhouse team. Seven years after his retirement at Manchester United, it is difficult to imagine a manager feeling they have the leverage to say the same thing with such confidence in front of the television cameras.

The world has changed. This is the age of star power in all walks of life including sport. Celebrity influence conquers all and if sports stars are able to harness their image rights and their brand adequately, their employers are required to pay homage to the new religion. Marcus Rashford’s recent achievement in almost single-handedly forcing the UK ministers to change its policy regarding the extension of free school meals for children during the summer holidays shows that even governments have to follow.

Player Value

Is there a way that this changing landscape of power could benefit the clubs? Until the Bosman ruling in 1990, even if a European football player was out of contract with a club, the club could have prevented the player from moving on to another for as long as they felt like it. That ruling started the shift towards player power which was accelerated by the money flooding into football, funded by the PayTV revolution.

In 1990, Italy’s Roberto Baggio was the world’s most expensive soccer player having been bought for the equivalent of €11.6 million by Juventus; compare this to the €222 million paid by PSG for Neymar 27 years later. That neatly gives us a twenty-fold increase and the CIES Observatory tells us you would need to pay well over €250m for Mbappe in 2020. The graph below shows UK-only median figures over a 20 year period, showing a nine-fold increase for Pl transfer free (adjusted for inflation), set against UK house prices’ stellar growth for comparison:

On a side note it is interesting, and rather extraordinary, to note that this stellar growth would actually be dwarfed by the growth in salaries in the same time period.

In European sports it is not just the influx of revenues that have driven player prices up. The competition for talent between clubs and leagues means that it is very difficult to get a grip on escalating transfer fees and transfer prices.

Unlike in US sports where governance is centralised and there is relatively little or no international competition for talent, European sports have no governance framework at an international level to enable an effective salary capping system or collective agreement with players. This also extends to the murky world of player agents and transfer fees which further tips the balance away from the clubs.

The age of social media

This escalating financial muscle started the shift in balance between players and clubs that Ferguson was trying to contain. However, what really cemented this shift beyond a doubt was the arrival of social media platforms in the late 00’s and the subsequent effect it had on increasing celebrity and star power. This dwarfs any other factor at the elite level. Sports stars have long been considered as icons and pin-ups (let’s not forget David Beckham pre-dated the social storm) but social media has provided them with a platform to showcase themselves directly to their fans.

Players have become skilled content creators and have amassed huge followings, which in turn drives their personal brand.

This table shows a sample of the social media following of the top teams and athletes alongside stars of entertainment and social media influencers. Of the top ten, six are from sports including Ronaldo, Neymar, Messi, FC Barcelona and Lebron James:

What impact does this have on the clubs?

Plenty. First of all, managerial tenures are getting shorter as the likelihood increases of losing the players’ confidence, and just to complete the volte-face, players can now hold the club to ransom if they feel like it, as Griezmann and Neymar did last Summer. Although Paul Pogba would probably dispute this, clubs have to do as they are told by their stars.

Secondly, as the Deloitte Football Money League 2020 report shows, ‘Generation Z’ fans (aged 16-24) have more of an allegiance to individual players than a club, and their club support is transient.

Finally, it shows in the finances. Another Deloitte report, the Annual Review of Football Finance 2020 highlights that Premier League clubs’ spending on playing talent created a negative swing of almost £600m in 2018/19 compared to 2017/18, with clubs recording an aggregate loss of £165m.

Almost half of the Premier League’s clubs recorded losses for the first time since 2015/16 when the clubs knew they were in for a bumper rise in broadcast values the following season. That will not be so on this occasion. These losses are despite each club receiving a minimum of £100m in distributions each year.

According to an Esportif report, the story in rugby is not too dissimilar with combined Premiership Rugby club revenues of £208m in 2018/19 and a combined operating loss of £36m, despite a salary cap supposedly having been in place. The league has recently announced a reduction in the cap to help the clubs combat the pandemic’s impact on matchday revenues, which represent 24% of the average club’s total income vs 19% in Premier League football.

As a postscript, whilst star power has not been great for the club profits to date, sometimes celebrity transcends normal metrics. The CR7 brand had a quite extraordinary impact on the Juventus share price when Ronaldo signed for the club in July 2018:

Benefitting from Star Power

So how can clubs harness star power into an asset that benefits their businesses and brands as well as the brands of the individual players? By demonstrating that the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts. As described above, clubs have lost their contractual leverage with players post-Bosman and their financial leverage through competition between leagues and a lack of international governance structures. They need to find an alternative way of re-balancing.

I offer two suggestions for collaborating to grow the value of intellectual property rights for the benefit of all.

Commercialise

Firstly, star power represents an enormous commercial opportunity for clubs if used correctly. The social reach offers clubs a chance to broaden their fanbase and attract new types of supporters that might be more interested in a particular player.

This is both passive and active. The CR7 example above resulted in a fourfold increase in the club’s Instagram followings for the club (passive) but it’s also a question of contractually agreeing the right commercial controls for image rights and commercial obligations to benefit your commercial partners (active). Technology is available to help clubs deliver content to players and improve the content on their channels which is of mutual benefit.

Build Value

Secondly, clubs should be building the value of their own digital assets by leveraging their own unique IP in the way that the players have done so successfully via social media, and create brands and platforms that prove worthy of the players’ involvement beyond the pitch. At the moment this is a dream rather than a reality for most clubs, but a goal that can be achieved with the right investment. Technology is available to help clubs get to know their existing audiences and grow them by creating content and products that appeal to typically social media savvy generations as well as all those that were born before them.

The venue or stadium is a unique opportunity to deliver great experiences to fans and this is ultimately where players need to perform in order to drive their brands. This is the home of the club as well as the player and that is something to leverage with fans, who will be disenfranchised if you don’t make their experiences memorable and worth sharing with their friends and networks.

Collaborating with players to collectively grow brands is a no-brainer. If Harvard University can develop a lifestyle brand then so can a sports league or team.

Anyone that has spent lockdown relishing Netflix’s “Last Dance” will have seen first hand the power that the stars of the 80’s and 90’s had in propelling the NBA and its clubs beyond the sport itself and into an urban culture phenomenon. Clearly the rise of Michael Jordan from a player to a worldwide icon was made possible via mass media, but the learnings from this period has made the NBA acutely aware of how the personalities within its league can be leveraged via new digital media channels.

Compared to the NFL for example, the NBA benefits from small team sizes that allows for greater player fan interaction, but this is further enhanced by the fact that the NBA does its part to ensure that individual player personalities are never hidden from fans. A report by MVPindex showed the impact of this approach commercially. The NBA and team accounts collectively generated more than $1.1B of value for brand partners in 2019, compared to $343M in brand value attributed to the NFL social ecosystem.

Conclusion

This is not a case of deciding to adopt a new approach or sticking to previous methods. This is an essential development that teams and leagues need to embrace to move forward. There is no reversing star power and its impact on clubs but there is an opportunity to re-balance by harnessing it for the greater good. This requires a change in thinking from clubs alongside investment in technology and content creation that delivers a platform that is deserving of players lending their own brands for the collective benefit of all parties.

BLOG: New technologies have not been applied to tackle the racism epidemic in sport, but have the potential to make big impact

how can technology be used to drive positive change? By using technology to develop relationships with fanbases, sports organisations can hold themselves to higher standards of inclusivity and try to effect positive behavioural change amongst their devoted supporters. Technology could also help surface and deter the problems by making the process of reporting incidents far easier and perhaps more significantly, enable the ability to pinpoint and deal with the problem more efficiently and effectively. 

BLOG: Will the Pandemic accelerate the growth in larger sports clubs and leagues at the expense of the smaller ones?

I have read with interest various interpretations of how the Covid Pandemic will impact the sports industry. The general consensus is that it will accelerate the already rapid changes taking place as a result of consumption (how we follow, watch and attend sports events) driven by the smartphone and the rise of web 2.0 which will, in turn, accelerate the gaps between the richest and poorest sports federations, leagues and clubs, affirming a new world order. 

There is no question that changes in consumption have been driving a greater gap between rich and poor in the last few years and this has shown in the numbers. 

The biggest events increasingly command a greater share of fan attention, resulting in the bigger sports growing at the expense of smaller sports where audiences are falling.

There are lots of reasons for this including social followings increasing the importance of celebrity, meaning the biggest stars with the biggest followings drive interest in the team they play for and this drives the overall following and viewing of the league and sport overall. Witness the impact of Cristiano Ronaldo’s signing on the Juventus share price. However, whilst the Pandemic has certainly accelerated some consumer trends, I actually think that it will shake things up rather than simply follow the same path.

First of all bigger doesn’t necessarily mean less vulnerable. Larger event organisers, venues and clubs have larger balance sheets, but also far greater operational expenses which leave them exposed when there is no income coming in from live matches. It is well documented that Premier League clubs lose money when times are good. As a result of the Pandemic, the Premier League is having to offer rebates to its broadcast partners and 20% of the average club income is from matchday, which may not return for several months. 

Secondly, bigger businesses are often less nimble or adaptable to change and this could be a problem. As McKinsey research shows, organisations with an agile operating model are far more likely to show improvements in both execution pace and productivity. The break in the sports calendar has offered them a chance to focus on adapting products and business models to the new norm and the price for not doing so may be very high. 

Many sports in Europe are not centrally organised, which creates a fractured decision-making structure that can be an additional barrier to adapting to the current situation.

By contrast, smaller leagues and federations may be forced to work together to invest and adapt and this could be a big factor in growth, particularly in digital audiences and resulting revenue mixes. More McKinsey research shows that as much as five years of consumer and business digital adoption has happened in the last eight weeks. 

However, this accelerated change does not necessarily mean that change has followed the same path that it would have without the Pandemic. Covid has changed the way we think about hygiene, the way we interact and the way we work and this will have a lasting impact. 

The accepted norm in sport that the big will get bigger and the smaller will struggle to survive is hugely over-simplifying matters.

Many smaller sports have been dealing with the reality of not being one of the chosen ones scheduled on linear broadcasters for some time and have adapted their business models accordingly.  The Americas Cup and the World Surf League have pioneered this approach over a number of years and it has actually led to more broadcast deals as a result of the success of its digital-first strategies, exponentially growing global audiences in the process. 

We may well see a change in the world order as a result of the Pandemic but not necessarily as we might have expected. Strong leadership that is prepared to adopt change thinking combined with investment in the right areas will be the key differentiator, regardless of whether your organisation is large or small.