Professional sports clubs - and football clubs in particular - are in a unique position. They sell a product that is loved globally and which generates genuine, heartfelt, tribal loyalty. Their performance is picked over and debated ad infinitum. It’s both grumbled about and celebrated. But the support never disappears.
And despite their often perilous financial models, clubs rarely disappear either. Since professional football began only a handful of clubs have gone into administration and not returned. Even when in serious trouble, they usually have a way of rising from the ashes. Something about them fills a need among people and communities.
And yet here’s a contradiction. While capable of raising staggering funds for on-pitch investment in players and management, high risk punts that often result in a financial loss, football clubs routinely plead off field poverty.
What an epic own goal.
Consider. There are three key sources of revenue for a club. First: match day receipts. Second: sponsorships. And third: ‘other’ commercial activities. The first is relatively fixed, and the only way to significantly increase it is to create more seats for bums. The second source, sponsorship, receives due attention as the returns are vast. But it’s the third, and vaguest source that attracts the least budget. ‘Commercial activities’ include a multitude of things, from merchandise to stadium tours to TV subscriptions to memberships.
Now look at some numbers. Any one of last season's top four clubs can claim upwards of 200 million followers worldwide. Not fans necessarily, but people who have announced themselves in some way as having a liking for that club. 200 million! That’s entering the realms of big data and marginal return. Just selling something worth £5 to 5% of them would generate £50 million. That’s surely a prize worth chasing?
Of course it is. But what are clubs doing right now to achieve that? Let’s split the task into two parts. The first is to find and engage the 200 million followers. The second is to create something worth £5 to sell them. Right now that sits in the box marked ‘stuff’ - mugs, credit cards, replica strips, subscriptions to watch online TV channels. And so on. All things that fans will certainly do, and do repeatedly, as Puma’s £150m sponsorship of Arsenal’s kit is banking on. But this doesn’t leverage something that clubs - and only clubs - can offer their followers. And that’s a real and global sense of belonging.
All of which drags us back to the unique position of football clubs. They hold immense quantity and quality of content, including history, facts, insights, expertise, player data, all of which can be shaped and offered to followers to play with, share, comment on, vote on, watch, learn from. All it takes is a club with some vision to create a playground, and the fivers will flood in.