Warm up's over! Can sports fans enter the game?

Last week, we had the opportunity to attend the International Football Summit 2014 in Cologne (Germany), a gathering of marketing and sponsorship managers from the most important (European) football clubs. Needless to say that we, as football fans, were more than happy to attend. It turned out to be a really interesting day with speeches from representatives from Volkswagen, FIFA, Wolfsburg, Repucom, AC Milan, LFP, AIA Group, Symantec, Sky Media, J League, UniCredit, Libero Sports, etc.
It is always hard to summarize an insightful full-day event in just one blogpost. Still, there were 3 main highlights for us:

Firstly Jérôme Champagne’s speech about the 7 governance challenges in the future of football. The passion, the knowledge, the Obama-like presentation skills gave several people in the audience, or at least the two of us, goose bumps. The rate at which this guy spits out top quotes reminds me of a machine gun. “The attractiveness of football is the uncertainty of the end result, but we’re losing this beautiful characteristic due to the economic polarization in the current football reality” Or what about this one? “If you want to redistribute wealth, you first have to create it”… He kept going, without slides, all we did was nod our heads in agreement for 45 minutes straight. Too bad the public opinion during the breaks seemed to be that he has no chance of becoming FIFA president, running against Blatter’s PR machine … but he definitely has our vote!

Secondly, in the afternoon, there was a short but really interesting intermezzo with Mike Wragg (Global Head of Research, Repucom) about the behavioral segmentation of fans and the impact on merchandising and sponsorship. Based on a market research study amongst 8,000 fans in 8 countries, his team created a segmentation starting off from the behavior of football fans all over the world. They came up with 7 main segments, from the real hardcore fan to someone who does not really have any affinity with football. We mainly remember these 3:

  1. Trend-positive: the fans who surf the wave of success of a specific club or of football in general. These people mainly cheer for a team because they (and their environment) consider it to be cool and they can share their pictures and experiences on Social Media. Remember the Red Devils craziness during the 2014 World Cup?
  2. Game expert: when talking about game experts, Mike Wragg’s team talks about the real hardcore fans, the ones who only care about the game itself and the club they support. These are the people who know the shirt number of each player by heart and can tell you anything about their club’s rich history.
  3. Connection fan: this group of people mainly goes to football games to connect with their friends. Going to a game is considered an experience, something you count down to, something to experience together with your friends. For these people, the beer they have with their friends after the game is considered almost as important as the game itself.

Of course a segmentation as such is not as interesting as the conclusion drawn from it… This is what Mike Wragg’s team found: in contrast to what many sport/football clubs think, the 1st and the 3rd segment have a larger potential than the 2nd one in terms of merchandising (both the club’s and the sponsors’). The trend-positive will buy a shirt so they can take a selfie and post it on Facebook, while the connection fan will buy a club scarf as a nice memory of the night out with their friends. This insight was immediately confirmed by Pasi Lankinen (Head of Business Intelligence, FC Barcelona), who stated that they noticed that the FC Barcelona game experts spend quite some money to go and watch every single game live, which means they have not much budget left for other expenditures.
And finally, during the what he called ‘graveyard shift’, Jaap Kalma (Commercial director, AC Milan) showed the audience how AC Milan tried to better connect with their fans. Where we at InSites Consulting try to facilitate this by creating long-term connections with fans and consumers on a discussion level, AC Milan tries to do so with a physical location. They built ‘Casa Milan’, a multifunctional complex which includes, amongst other things, a museum, an exclusive club store, a ticket store, a restaurant and last but not least their own offices. Kalma claims that club icons eat in the restaurant from time to time, giving fans the opportunity to connect with their all-time heroes. Although we can of course only support initiatives like this to improve the connection with fans, it still felt like one-way push communication to us rather than the creation of a real long-term two-way dialogue and connection with fans.

To conclude, there are a lot of good initiatives and – just like in the business world – the football world starts to see how powerful the 21st-century consumer/fan has become. However, when talking about reversing the power pyramids (from FIFA => FA => clubs to clubs => FA => FIFA) for example, we believe it was a missed opportunity to provide the fans with a spot in this image. When talking about fans, case studies were still rather about observing than about engaging or rather felt like one-way than real two-way communication and collaboration.
Football, even more than other industries, has the potential to really connect and engage with its fans. In a time with more and more competition from other forms of entertainment and experiences, the football world can no longer be organized from an ivory tower … We definitely saw some sparks supporting this conclusion (e.g. Jérôme Champagne), but a real (r)evolution will require a radical change in the way club managers do their job, especially compared to how they were able to do their job during the past decades.

We look forward to finding out whether or not these challenges have been dealt with by the 2015 International Football Summit!

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