Seven League‘s CEO and founder, Richard Ayers, is taking part in this week’s SXsports panel, “Going Global: Taking British Sports Brands Abroad,” along with Alexandra Willis, Head of Digital & Content for AELTC Wimbledon; Ben Gallop, Head of Interactive & Formula 1 at BBC Sport; and Chris Harris, Managing Editor for the Arsenal Football Club.
Ayers didn’t plan on getting into the digital strategy business, having begun his career as a journalist for the BBC. When the internet splashed into the world in the 90s, he began his digital career by building BBC’s website, which led to a freelance busines offering web creation, audience engagement and monetization strategies.
It was a call from Ian Cafferky, the strategy director for Manchester City football club, which led to Ayers’ entry into digital sport stragegy, and specifically football. Ayers recalls the conversation with Cafferky, who told him, “‘We are spending gobsmack amounts of money on this digital stuff, and I have no idea what we’re getting for it. And the board are getting a little bit anxious.'”
Growing up in North London, he considers himself a default Arsenal fan, although his passion lies more in working with clubs like Manchester City and turning a two-week consulting gig into a two-year stint. During that time he worked with Cafferky and the CEO of the club, Gary Cook, on their vision to evolve Manchester City from a sports organization into a global media and entertainment brand.
“I realized that working in sport was good and fun, and the people are pretty straight forward,” which is half the battle when working with clients on digital strategies. They got it. “You say, ‘We need to do this plan to achieve this goal,’ and they say, ‘Okay, let’s crack on with it.’ Whereas in the arts sector, you give them a plan to do this to get that, and they’d say, ‘That’s really interesting. We should have a working party and think about it for six months.'”
It’s very evident that Premier League clubs’ digital teams do not work at the glacial pace of most verticals, from arts and education, to government and even (gasp) some technology companies. They can’t afford to. It’s more than being where your audience is conversing and Retweeting by the second, it’s being agile and savvy enough to stay ahead of the game (no pun intended).
Ayers sees that four years later, many football clubs “…still need a lot of help. Our mission is, rather hippie-ish, to make the world a better place by helping sport be really good at this stuff by connecting audiences, and sport, and sponsors. To understand them and make the whole experience better.”
One of the key elements to providing meaningfull and viable digital strategies and activation plans for clients is not just knowing which platforms align with a given a marketing, sales and engagement goal, but staying on top of the continual changes within each platform and how that impacts tactics and strategy.
Ayers breaks down the framework into three parts. One, the strategy before the tactics needs to take place Otherwise you’re forging ahead without a map. Next, it’s about staying on top of the technologies and platforms to continally learn, adapt, and fine tune that strategy. And last, keeping an insightful perspective where assumptions are not part of that strategy. Expecting what people think and how they behave in the top office of an organization does not translate into how fans think and behave. Making those assumptions can impact the success or failure of a given digital strategy.
One example is the assumption is that when a match is in play, fans are completely focused on it and are not engaging in any other activity. This is an antiquated mindset.
At last year’s SXsport, “The In-Stadium Fan Experience in MLS” panel featured Robb Heineman, Owner & CEO of Sporting Kansas City, who embraced the increasing connected stadium investments being made not only in MLS, but in various sports, including American Football. Most notably, those developments emerged within the 49ers Levi’s Stadium and the new T-Mobile stadium in Las Vegas. For Heineman, providing that connectivity not only met their fan’s desires to Tweet and interact during the match, but on the backend, their organization could learn more about their fans through the thousands of data points collected.
On the other hand, Merritt Paulson, Owner of the Portland Timbers, chose not to go that round, believing that fans’ focus should be solely on the match.
According to Ayers, this variance can happen not only between different sports, but in different countries. Germany is known for their modernized, connected stadiums, but the Borussia Dortmand club will throttle the Wi-Fi provided in the stadium while the game is in play. And then during half time, it goes back to an operation level where fans can connect to the outside world via their mobile devices.
Ayers also recalls a conversation he had with Richard Hills, the director of the Ryder Cup, about how the Wentworth Club had fully connected their course with Wi-Fi. “He said, ‘As far as I’m concerned, the experience here has to be as good as if you were in your own living room.’ And I was really taken aback, that the director of the Ryder Cup should be so evangelical about how connectivity ought to be out on the golf course, and totally in opposition to what most football executives would be.”
The main focus for sporting organizations is on selling tickets. It’s no different from a corporation selling products or a hotel chain selling rooms. But that tunnel vision is no longer sustainable. Knowing what goes on in the minds of customers, or in this case, the fan, and creating interesting, entertaining experiences can lead to viable growth where a club can evolve to more than just a sporting team, but that level of a media entertainment organization.
— Arsenal FC (@Arsenal) March 10, 2016
In the case of the SXsport “Going Global,” panel, Americans are not able to physically attend matches. So how does that impact a British football club’s digital strategy? “They always need new markets. They always need more fans,” stated Ayers. Taking the fan down that marketing funnel of curious to casual to core is essential to meeting those expansion goals. “Sure, they may not be able to attend the game, physically, but they can attend the game digitally.”
Through a football club membership, a fan can access content in various forms, from audio podcasts, live match audio commentary, and match recap videos, to virtual tours of the stadium and Tweet chats, where fans can directly ask questions of the players. Ayers also points toward the potential for VR and giving the fan the experience of actually being in the stadium, although that’s currently in its early stages. When all those tactics are pulled together, there are a myriad of merchandising and other revenue channels that exist beyond the ticket sale.
Seven League brought tiered memberships to Manchester City, with the Blue level giving the fan not only that feeling of belonging, but they got certain merchandise perks along with the exclusive digital content.
“That’s filling in your funnel. You can then pull people through, get their allegiance and grow your international brand, and that makes a difference when you look at your sponsorship deals. You then know the details about those fans internationally. That ownership of the audience, of the data, the fan engagement experience being something you can control, particularly through engagement experiences based around a whole load of things, that’s where the real value is for these clubs in the long term.”
Ayers acknowledges that the way sponsors connect with fans today through broadcasters, whether here in the states, or in the UK, Europe and Asia, is also not sustainable.
Traditional television broadcasting has been getting turned on its ear as more and more people engage with television content on other devices versus their television, or where their flatscreen serves merely as a monitor for content. “This is one the reasons why clubs need to develop their fan engagement strategies. Lots of organizations, not just in football, are looking into how they expand into Asia and North America, but also Africa.
I’ve started to notice some of the US sports organizations also thinking about how they expand in the other direction. So there’s a whole international challenge that’s going to be very interesting over the next couple of years.”
The SXsports panel, “Going Global: Taking British Sports Brands Abroad,” takes place Friday, March 11 at 12:30pm. Another panel that looks at digital’s role in sports is taking place Saturday, March 12 is “@TwitterSports: The Power of Now, featuring Danny Keens, Head of Sports Partnerships North America at Twitter, and Sam Laird, Sports Reporter for Mashable.