The Impact of the Digital Age on the Marketing of Football

December 9, 2016

El impacto de la era digital en el marketing del fútbol - Johan Cruyff Institute

Richard Denton, professor of Sport Marketing at the Johan Cruyff Institute; Steven Adams, Senior Commercial Acquisitions Manager at The FA; and Richard Lamb, International Business Director at FC Internazionale talk about the impact of the digital age on the marketing of football

The football business has entered fully into the digital era. Clubs are creating more and more personalized content to connect with their fans and generate new revenues, changes that are due to the continuous advances in technology. As the saying goes, “after the game, the game starts”. The internet and social media have opened a new avenue of communication between clubs, fans, sponsors and all those involved in this business. Now you can interact before, during and after the game and the key is the personalized content that the football industry is capable of generating.

On 13 October 2016, Johan Cruyff Institute hosted a webinar on ‘The Impact of the Digital Age on the Marketing of Football‘ in association with GlobalSportsJobs. Richard Denton (RD), Professor of Sport Marketing at the Johan Cruyff Institute; Steven Adams (SA), Senior Commercial Acquisitions Manager at The FA; and Richard Lamb (RL), International Business Director at FC Internazionale were the panelists and the session was moderated by the CEO of GlobalSportsJobs, Will Lloyd.

Over 1,200 people from 91 countries registered to take part in the webinar and were invited to submit questions related to the themes discussed. The experts were able to answer some of them during the session, but one hour was not enough time to cover all the topics that arose.

In addition of the conversation generated on the webinar (here you are the recording), we you can also find below a selection of the remaining questions, together with answers from the best-qualified speaker to respond to each.


The Brains

Richard has been working in the sport marketing and entertainment business since 1989. He has worked for global brands such as Canon, Philips, Omega, ABN AMRO, Heineken and Unilever, across a variety of sport and events including the FIFA World Cup, UEFA Champions League, Formula 1, Volvo Ocean Race, PGA European golf tour, the Ryder Cup, Wimbledon, Roland Garros and the Olympic Games. Richard is currently the Director of Sponsorships and Sales Partners at Vitesse FC and professor of Sport Marketing at the Johan Cruyff Institute in Amsterdam.


Richard is currently the International Business Director at Inter since July 2015. He is responsible for managing the Club’s business & activities in international markets outside of Europe, including marketing, tours, sponsorships, business development & media.
Graduating in Chinese at the University of Sheffield, including as an exchange student at Nanjing University between 1999/2000, Lamb is fluent in Mandarin Chinese and has lived and worked full-time in China since 2002.


Steven is the Senior Commercial Acquisitions Manager at The FA. Responsible for new commercial partnerships across all FA assets including England, The FA Cup, Wembley Stadium, St. George’s Park and the Grassroots game. The team has been responsible for recent high-profile partnerships with Emirates, Lidl and Ladbrokes, looking at new ways to build and deliver innovative commercial partnerships. Prior to the FA Steven worked at Facebook, responsible for working with high profile global clients to advise on digital media strategy and spend.


The Pro-Tips (Q&A)

How do you transform the engagement, the interest for new content, into market and sponsorship value for a club?

RD: By working with the stakeholders to create extra value for the followers and fans. For example, a specific service via an app or exclusive experience only available to season ticket holders.

Do you have any specific insight on how to engage younger audiences in the 10-15 age group?

RD: Working with younger audiences is very sensitive. There needs to be limited commercial association; it’s more about inspiring children to participate and learn skills and tactics. Include ‘heroes’ or players who children admire and aspire to be through online content to increase engagement.

Thirty One Pro-Tips for Digital Marketing in Football

Do you have any data regarding  the revenue generated by federations/clubs through digital media? We have seen information regarding brands (adidas, Heineken) but we have not seen data related to the revenue generated by clubs?

RD: I do not have access to club data but for most they are still in a start-up phase, building their databases, capturing key fan data and applying this to key items such as ticket sales and merchandise. The monetisation of content is difficult as the minute you ask fans to pay they will seek content elsewhere unless it is original, unique and unavailable through other channels. Clubs can get sponsors to fund digital initiatives as a way of additional exposure but brands need to be careful not to ‘scare the fans away’.



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When it comes to activating sponsorships, what would you say the main challenges are when doing so through digital platforms?

RD: Generating visibility to drive engagement and justify the investment. There are so many apps, websites or initiatives using digital that you need the ‘wow factor’ to attract (new) viewers or participants. Fans can be quite fickle and are always seeking fresh content so they hop from one provider to another. Unless you have something really unique or there is a high loyalty factor between the supporters and the team or club you cannot assume the same activation will work as well if it is repeated several times. At an event like EURO 2016 there are enough fans over the tournament period but once the tournament has passed you cannot expect the fans to hang around.

Have you found that digital engagement has changed the quality of the relationship with fans in a negative way, at all?

RD: Just like any sponsorship activation or marketing you need to segment your fans carefully and make sure you are delivering the ‘right content for the right audience’. We tend to assume that all viewers, followers and fans are looking for similar content and that is simply not the case. Some groups will be offended if they are not approached in the right way, tone and with the right frequency.

“We tend to assume that all viewers, followers and fans are looking for similar content and that is simply not the case”, Richard Denton

What can digital do to assist with growing participation at the grassroots level and in engaging the many players who are not connected to clubs, leagues or associations?

RD: Good question. I think you need to look at the situation slightly differently with grassroots and participation. Digital as a technology or service can help amateur clubs, leagues and associations become more efficient in managing the game at a grassroots level. For example, assisting clubs to become more financially stable, better planning of training, coaching courses, volunteers etc. Find partners who have a product or service that is scalable and can be used to help the ‘administrators’ of the game deliver a more attractive and enjoyable environment for kids to play, train, learn. Digital is simply a medium to make this happen. Simply starting a YouTube channel for a club and not having exciting content to share is not going to have any effect at all. We need to be smart how we use the power of digital.

From 2016, virtual reality will start to appear in some households. Do you think this will be a new digital way to live football? Will people thus be able to consume individualised and customised content?

RD: Yes, I can imagine it but think we are a few years away from mass customisation. The technology is still expensive to buy and produce the content.

Particularly in reference to Africa, which strategies do brands adopt to bridge gaps, both cultural and linguistic, and ensure their platform provides engaging, two-way communication?

RD: Africa is a very different proposition to Europe or the US. Firstly, the level of technology is not there yet, we assume everyone has 4G in Europe and most of Africa has 2G. So we need to think not only about languages but also about format and how to provide content that is interesting for African followers and fans. Sometimes something like the UEFA Champions League Trophy Tour is a powerful way to increase contact and engagement where fans can touch and lift the trophy, take photos and share them with their friends. So, don’t forget the ‘physical’ aspects as well facilitating two-way communication.

With social media analytics, what should we be analysing on a regular basis, over and above number of followers, retweets, etc.?

RD: Examine the success of different formats, for example photos versus videos, short pieces versus longer interviews, free content versus subscriber-only items, sign-up rates for newsletters versus competitions. Social media is instant, you can see quite quickly what type of material or content is gaining traction by comparing the differences. Social media is good at delivering the same thing. Work out which audiences appreciate which content and avoid the one-size-fits-all syndrome.

How does ‘ambush marketing’ play a role in big events like the Olympics?

RD: A lot. The official logo holds less value than 10 or 20 years ago. Ambush brands know exactly when the events are, the key moments, the markets, etc., and can target the same audience more easily through social media without being an official sponsor.

When clubs and organisations get into greater two-way engagement and invite fans to generate content, then this content needs to be monitored/curated. Won’t this have to be done manually & does it mean that a proportional number of marketing people are employed?

RD: Yes, this is a ‘human challenge’ but equally when you screen and moderate all content the fans will not engage. This is a risk-reward situation where clubs need to decide how far they are willing to allow fans to provide unfiltered content, which can be very time-consuming to manage.

How will millennials react to traditional brands and sports properties investing in their own and new esports community? Will it affect brand authenticity?

RD: Yes, they will be very cautious and no doubt some will reject or leave that environment if there is too much commercialisation. But, if they see the value of brand involvement, this could have a positive effect as well.

Do you envisage an expansion and evolution of the digital landscape, with the advent of new technologies eventually having a negative impact upon traditional media?

RD: That is difficult to say but globally, expenditure on digital is already about 40 to 45% of all media billings. I think there will be a balance but ‘traditional media’ will also respond with new ideas of their own.

What do you think about programmatic ad-tech?

RD: Yes, it is there and working. It feels a little too artificial for me. Sport is spontaneous and how fans react to content cannot be predicted or controlled. Receiving a banner ad about a football product just because I visited a club website is not always the best way to encourage more engagement. It depends a lot on the products, services, local culture, value proposition, etc.

­What are the major risks that marketing departments need to be aware of in the digital space?­

RD: Wow, that is a broad question. If you look from a brand perspective, it has to be reputation and trust. If companies abuse the power of digital then customers will walk away quickly. For clubs and federations, there needs to be a degree of security and protection so that fans can trust organisations with their data, protect their privacy. Digital is not a silver bullet, you still need other elements in the marketing mix to make it effective; for example, ‘money-can’t-buy’ experiences, original content, value for money products/services, etc.

Thirty One Pro-Tips for Digital Marketing in Football

A question about interaction with audience members here in SEA. You mentioned a new website for Inter, etc., but what digital strategies does your club implement to draw an Asian audience that predominately follows the EPL?

RL: Understand what platforms are popular in southeast Asia, such as Facebook, Line, WeChat, Viber. Then ensure we are communicating in the right languages: Bahasa in Indonesia, Thai, etc.; then ensure that we create content that resonates with local fans. Regarding the EPL, as a Serie A club we focus on our unique strengths, such as 3 Champions League trophies, Italian culture, iconic San Siro, Milan – all the elements that make Inter special.

“It’s important for any top, modern club to ensure that they have access to players’ image rights when negotiating their contract”, Richard Lamb

Players are the most precious assets for a rich and engaging content proposition development but sometimes they’re not so easy to involve due to rights issues, egos, and so on. How are you trying to overcome these issues?

RL: It’s important for any top, modern club to ensure that they have access to players’ image rights when negotiating their contract. So, careful forward planning when signing new players helps to overcome this issue.

What digital rights are sponsors demanding when negotiating partnership contracts with Inter or other clubs?

RL: Each partner is different. But most want to use our social media platforms in order to engage directly with our fans. Also, many are keen to use our CRM database to communicate directly with the fans.

Do you think that most clubs have just been reluctant to acknowledge that digital is the future but are rather trying to still sell VIP boxes and installations?

RD: No, I think they see the potential but do not want to lose revenue from other parts of the business by focusing purely on digital. Ideally, they will connect the ‘online and offline’ to generate more value and a better experience for all stakeholders, wealthy and less wealthy, core fans and casual fans, etc. It just takes time.

RL: I can’t comment on other clubs, but at Inter we are embracing digital and understand the importance of reaching out to our global fanbase.

What kind of benefits, if any, do you expect by digitalising football in England in terms of getting kids to play football? How will you measure the success?

SA:  It’s all about increasing participation and making it easy for people to access football regardless of their ability. This should be fairly straightforward to track via online sign-ups. It will also provide the FA with far more data.

“We must give people something they can’t get elsewhere. This ownership is incredibly valuable to us”, Steven Adams

I understand the importance of increasing engagement with fans, but how do clubs tackle the problem of trolls and abusive social media messaging?

RL: Moderators & administrators are absolutely key, deleting any trolls and abusive comments. It is important, however, to not completely whitewash the environment of fans who simply wish to express frustration at team’s performance, for example.

Thirty One Pro-Tips for Digital Marketing in Football

How do you motivate the fans to follow a club or team around the world? From your experience, what is the most important thing for fans?

SA: It’s about giving people something they can’t get elsewhere, for example unique access to the England team and content from behind the scenes. This ownership is incredibly valuable to us.

Are there difficulties in prioritising some objectives over others? For example, increasing youth participation won’t have the commercial benefits selling tickets would have.

SA: Yes, definitely. It can be tricky. Our aims aren’t all commercial however, driving participation is just as important to us so we’ll treat it with equal importance.


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