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.

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories