Marketing is a dirty word in football, but it's just another way of giving fans what they want

Ask not what the business of sport does to us, but what it can do for us.

It’s becoming fashionable to say, especially of football, that business is ruining sport. It’s the language that irritates the most, turning fans into customers, games into matchday experiences and throwing up job titles such as Head of Fan Relationship Management. In fact, just last week, it was that very postholder at Manchester City, Claudio Borges, who caused much hoo-ha by saying of the fans that his job was to “engage them, serve them and monetise them”. He quickly had to replace “monetise” with “provide fans with relevant commercial opportunities”. 

Writing about the incident in The Independent, journalist Michael Calvin aired his displeasure with the way things are going, talking of “Big Brother” “robo-marketers” and the battle between “idealists and monetisers”. I have a lot of sympathy with those reactions. But I’m wary of a hairshirtist tendency that says commercialism is the cancer at the heart of sport.

If you’re going to pay people to play sport, you introduce an element of commercialism. And as I said on this blog in June, it was the growth of paid professionalism that swept unpaid amateurism aside and opened sport up for mass participation. In Matt and Martin Rogan’s book Britain and the Olympic Games, the authors write of efforts to “preserve sports club membership for the social elite. Those who competed for wages were excluded… In this sense amateurism was initially nothing more than a convenient way of preserving sport for the elite.”

This apparent clash between a yearning for a more Corinthian approach and a distaste for the vulgarity that commerce has inflicted upon sport is central to any effort to make sense of modern sport, and something I’m trying to explore in these blogs. I edited Matt and Martin’s book, and so I went to speak to Matt, who is now MD of Two Circles, a customer relationship company that uses data to “help sporting organisations get closer to their customers”. It’s the kind of description that may already have caused some hackles to rise, but I know from working alongside Matt that he has a genuine passion for sport and a keen understanding of where the commercial element fits in.

He starts off by pointing out that the most visible sports represent “a small percentage of the sport actually played in this country. Football, for example, only accounts for just over 10% of the 15 million people in this country who play sport every week,’’ he says “With sport, once it becomes a business, just like any business you get some that are well run and in it for the long term, and some that are not,” he says. “Remaining successful has to be about having a sustained customer base that cares about what you do”.

Creating that base involves nothing more complicated, he says, than “finding out what your customers want and giving it to them. When you look at the long tail of participation sports in this country, the business of sport is fundamental to them creating a sustainable operation. Government funds simply won’t allow survival by subsidy, so they have to no option but to think differently”. 

He talks about the success of Harlequins rugby union club, where community outreach (junior teams are coached on Saturday mornings and invited to stay on for the match) and taking on board what supporters think has created one of the fastest-growing supporter bases in the country. Harlequins gather feedback after every match, and fan satisfaction is consistently the highest he has ever seen. At Reading FC, despite relegation from the Premier League last season, the number of season ticket holders has increased, again through genuine community engagement. In cricket, ’Last Man Stands’, an 8-a-side 20-over league in urban areas run on weekday evenings, is bringing new people into the game, in particular ethnic minorities. In a much-publicised step this year a customer survey drove the creation of this year’s County fixture list. 

While sports need to stand on their old two feet financially, that doesn’t always mean the fan pays the bill. Triathlon England – which has seen huge growth in participation, having almost tripled its membership – works with local authorities to get the high cost of entry down by arranging bike loans or splitting entry fees with local sports centres. Cycling’s success has come on the back not just of high-profile success but because a large commercial partner – Sky – “enables the sport to have the funding to develop programmes that are right for different kinds of customers” such as women’s cycling programme ‘Breeze’ and school cycling proficiency schemes. 

The idea of creating a sustainable base runs through all these examples, and this is where the drivers of the business and the sporting institution come together, reckons Rogan. One of the most striking things he says is that: “Sponsors have been disenfranchised by clubs and sports that don’t have a true, empathetic, warm relationship with their customers.” He goes on: “Any sporting organisation right now that doesn’t put customers at the heart of its sponsorship proposition is in real danger. Big brands are finally realising it’s incongruous to spend most of their time and budget getting closer to customers and then take a sponsorship and say ‘just a logo and some pricey hospitality for us thanks’. Sports fans can see that a mile off. Budweiser missed a trick at the FA Cup Final not transporting fans from Wigan back home from Wembley, when the kick off time meant they could not get home by train. 

He recognises football is a special case, not just because of the popularity of the top clubs, but also because of the way it’s run. The Premier League is there to return money to its member clubs, so doesn’t necessarily have the relationship with the grass roots that, say, the England and Wales Cricket Board does. And, he says: “The way any business is run is a lot to do with how it’s owned. You’ll get a business that’s under private equity ownership that’s driven hard for short-term profits and a lot of the time you’ll find the care for employees and the push for long-term foundations isn’t necessarily there. 

He is eager to point out there are some examples of good practice – even in what may seem the unlikeliest of places. “Notwithstanding the enormous loss Manchester City made in the first year of the current ownership, I’ve got a lot of respect for the way they have gone about thinking about the growth and ongoing development of their club. The first things they did weren’t about customer revenue, but about customer relationships. So they put a large infrastructure around the stadium that just sold beer in a way that was quick and easy and made it easy for fans to meet before the game. They developed a membership proposition that was just about rewarding loyalty, and the basic level of that was free. They did a lot of smart things that weren’t about revenue growth but about creating the sort of links with supporters that Manchester City hasn’t had for 20 years.”

He thinks many football clubs need to think smarter about ticket prices, for example, returning to the relationship with sponsors to illustrate his point. “You can create a more sustainable revenue line by giving people what they want rather than imposing blanket price rises,” he says. Putting £30 on every ticket will provide more short-term profit than devising a meaningful membership package for kids that creates a more sustainable base long term, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. Creating a unique package that sponsors really want and charging them an extra £100 per seat could please both sponsor and bank manager, and subsidise the kids’ seats. “You have to understand the long-term benefit,” he says. 

He reckons sport “needs to be more confident about what it has to offer”, but says “that confidence can’t be built on sand. Some of the organisations we work with have millions of people engaging with them and loving them month in, month out. Generically telling that to a business just sounds like a sales pitch. Providing evidence of that to a business changes the view of what sport can offer.”

You could dismiss Rogan’s comments as yet more “robo-marketing”. But you would be wrong. For it’s not the business of sport itself that is the problem, but the way the business is often conducted. Whether you call it listening to the fans or building a sustained customer base, it all comes down to giving the fans what they want. The trouble with too many in football is that they are telling the fans what they want – that’s when they bother to communicate properly with them at all. If we want to change the direction the game is taking, we may need to ask not what the business of sport does to us, but what it can do for us. 

Photograph: Getty Images

Martin Cloake is a writer and editor based in London. You can follow him on Twitter at @MartinCloake.

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Debunking Boris Johnson's claim that energy bills will be lower if we leave the EU

Why the Brexiteers' energy policy is less power to the people and more electric shock.

Boris Johnson and Michael Gove have promised that they will end VAT on domestic energy bills if the country votes to leave in the EU referendum. This would save Britain £2bn, or "over £60" per household, they claimed in The Sun this morning.

They are right that this is not something that could be done without leaving the Union. But is such a promise responsible? Might Brexit in fact cost us much more in increased energy bills than an end to VAT could ever hope to save? Quite probably.

Let’s do the maths...

In 2014, the latest year for which figures are available, the UK imported 46 per cent of our total energy supply. Over 20 other countries helped us keep our lights on, from Russian coal to Norwegian gas. And according to Energy Secretary Amber Rudd, this trend is only set to continue (regardless of the potential for domestic fracking), thanks to our declining reserves of North Sea gas and oil.


Click to enlarge.

The reliance on imports makes the UK highly vulnerable to fluctuations in the value of the pound: the lower its value, the more we have to pay for anything we import. This is a situation that could spell disaster in the case of a Brexit, with the Treasury estimating that a vote to leave could cause the pound to fall by 12 per cent.

So what does this mean for our energy bills? According to December’s figures from the Office of National Statistics, the average UK household spends £25.80 a week on gas, electricity and other fuels, which adds up to £35.7bn a year across the UK. And if roughly 45 per cent (£16.4bn) of that amount is based on imports, then a devaluation of the pound could cause their cost to rise 12 per cent – to £18.4bn.

This would represent a 5.6 per cent increase in our total spending on domestic energy, bringing the annual cost up to £37.7bn, and resulting in a £75 a year rise per average household. That’s £11 more than the Brexiteers have promised removing VAT would reduce bills by. 

This is a rough estimate – and adjustments would have to be made to account for the varying exchange rates of the countries we trade with, as well as the proportion of the energy imports that are allocated to domestic use – but it makes a start at holding Johnson and Gove’s latest figures to account.

Here are five other ways in which leaving the EU could risk soaring energy prices:

We would have less control over EU energy policy

A new report from Chatham House argues that the deeply integrated nature of the UK’s energy system means that we couldn’t simply switch-off the  relationship with the EU. “It would be neither possible nor desirable to ‘unplug’ the UK from Europe’s energy networks,” they argue. “A degree of continued adherence to EU market, environmental and governance rules would be inevitable.”

Exclusion from Europe’s Internal Energy Market could have a long-term negative impact

Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Amber Rudd said that a Brexit was likely to produce an “electric shock” for UK energy customers – with costs spiralling upwards “by at least half a billion pounds a year”. This claim was based on Vivid Economic’s report for the National Grid, which warned that if Britain was excluded from the IEM, the potential impact “could be up to £500m per year by the early 2020s”.

Brexit could make our energy supply less secure

Rudd has also stressed  the risks to energy security that a vote to Leave could entail. In a speech made last Thursday, she pointed her finger particularly in the direction of Vladamir Putin and his ability to bloc gas supplies to the UK: “As a bloc of 500 million people we have the power to force Putin’s hand. We can coordinate our response to a crisis.”

It could also choke investment into British energy infrastructure

£45bn was invested in Britain’s energy system from elsewhere in the EU in 2014. But the German industrial conglomerate Siemens, who makes hundreds of the turbines used the UK’s offshore windfarms, has warned that Brexit “could make the UK a less attractive place to do business”.

Petrol costs would also rise

The AA has warned that leaving the EU could cause petrol prices to rise by as much 19p a litre. That’s an extra £10 every time you fill up the family car. More cautious estimates, such as that from the RAC, still see pump prices rising by £2 per tank.

The EU is an invaluable ally in the fight against Climate Change

At a speech at a solar farm in Lincolnshire last Friday, Jeremy Corbyn argued that the need for co-orinated energy policy is now greater than ever “Climate change is one of the greatest fights of our generation and, at a time when the Government has scrapped funding for green projects, it is vital that we remain in the EU so we can keep accessing valuable funding streams to protect our environment.”

Corbyn’s statement builds upon those made by Green Party MEP, Keith Taylor, whose consultations with research groups have stressed the importance of maintaining the EU’s energy efficiency directive: “Outside the EU, the government’s zeal for deregulation will put a kibosh on the progress made on energy efficiency in Britain.”

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.