Football paupers seek a level playing field

Aston Villa’s foray into the world of reality TV demonstrates the lengths such teams are going to as they attempt to compete with the likes of Manchester United and Arsenal, says Robert Lester

It is not just on the pitch that Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United have surged ahead of their rivals. The rest of the football world – Liverpool and Newcastle apart – can only look on and envy their financial clout.

It is no surprise that the five teams that sat at the top of the Premier League last season were the only UK teams to make it into the top ten of Deloitte’s Football Rich List for the 2002/2003 season. For teams struggling to survive further down the Premiership or playing in the Coca-Cola leagues, dreams of making it into the upper echelons – both on and off the pitch – are likely to remain just that.

As the gulf between the rich and poor clubs continues to grow, the task of creating new revenue streams is becoming increasingly difficult for the smaller clubs.

Aston Villa hopes its innovative new brand-building scheme will help it increase its supporter base and bring in extra cash. The club is in talks about launching an international reality television programme to strengthen its links with its domestic ethnic-minority fan base and international supporters (MW last week).

The show will track the progress of young footballers from around the world, selected from academies set up by the club. Talks are under way with TV networks in territories such as the US, India and the West Indies about the programme and a deal in the UK is thought to be imminent.

Manchester United marketing director Peter Draper says the club has turned down at least six offers to make reality TV programmes because it was felt they would impinge excessively on the team.

But Draper admits the club is in a privileged position when it comes to generating new income through selling branded financial services products, replica shirts and fashion items, including a new range of clothing (MW last week).

“It makes it easier if you’ve got a big audience to work with,” he says. “We’ve got good opportunities because of our fan base. For other teams it is more difficult.”

It is an audience that the club is also building through tours of China and the US. According to Deloitte, 27 per cent of the club’s income – E66.4m (&£46.1m) – comes from its commercial enterprises. The remainder derives from ticket sales (40 per cent) and broadcasting rights (33 per cent).

Cameron Day, new projects director at sponsorship consultancy The Works, believes more mid-table sides need to follow Man United’s lead by building an international profile. He says: “People have got to think outside the box and that’s the nice thing about Aston Villa’s idea.”

But he says the Premier League and the Football League also have a responsibility to help build the global profile of England’s smaller clubs. He points to America’s National Basketball Association (NBA), which has opened a shop in China and is considering scheduling matches in the Far East.

However, not everyone is convinced about Aston Villa’s plans. Karen Earl Sponsorship director of consulting Tim Crow argues that it is success on the pitch that breeds success off it. He says: “I take my hat off to anybody who tries something new but in terms of building brands, winning football matches is the best thing you can do.”

Ben Wells, account manager at sponsorship consultancy Redmandarin, believes clubs should concentrate on their fans in this country, pointing out that more than 80 per cent of Manchester United’s revenue comes from the domestic market.

Wells thinks foreign fans can be fickle and claims that many deserted Manchester United for Real Madrid when David Beckham moved to Spain. “In this country, it doesn’t work in the same way as consumers change mobile phone companies. People are born into football families,” says Wells.

Manchester City head of sponsorship and partnership Steve Sayer acknowledges that his club’s key focus is on its domestic fan base, but adds that it would be unwise to ignore potential revenue from other parts of the world.

But touring the Far East is not an option for the likes of Rotherham United, who are bottom of the Coca-Cola Championship. Communications officer Gerry Somerton says it is a continuous struggle to build income levels: “There are a lot of people in Rotherham who support the two Sheffield clubs. We’ve got to battle for supporters, even in our own town.”

Andy Oldknow, who has held a number of marketing posts in football, including commercial director at Fulham and head of marketing at Everton, agrees that smaller clubs should use Manchester United as a role model by teaming up with local businesses as well as offering a core range of products serving fans’ needs.

“The budgets will be lower, but the principles are the same,” says Oldknow, who is now head of sponsorship at Celador International.

Day echoes these sentiments, recommending that smaller clubs concentrate on boosting attendances by recruiting fans from local schools. As he says: “Every little helps the brand grow.”

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