Top soccer clubs could have a ball if their brands hit the target

George Pitcher is chief executive of issue management consultancy Luther Pendragon

I had no particular team loyalty, but was sitting at the Chelsea end of Wembley Stadium last Saturday, next to a journalist from Middlesbrough. Some 43 seconds into the Cup Final, our end of the stadium was on its feet and going berserk as Roberto Di Matteo hammered home Chelsea’s first.

I thought it polite and a little loyal to remain seated with my journalist friend, who was staring catatonically into space. “Never mind, he is Italian,” I said meaninglessly, struggling to suggest that Fabrizio Ravanelli could be relied upon to do the same thing for Middlesbrough. In the event, he limped off 20 minutes later and my friend was quite pleased – she thinks he’s a jerk.

Jerks or heroes, both teams were relying heavily on Latin talent. Apart from Di Matteo and Ravanelli, Chelsea’s Gianfranco Zola and Middlesbrough’s Brazilians Emerson and Juninho were the top stars from which most was expected last Saturday.

By comparison, British-born players were almost pedestrian – the first goal came as something of a surprise to our native players, who are not used to the impertinence of trying to put the ball in the net so early in a game.

The whole spectacle made me wonder whether this is another great modern industry, like computers and motor-bikes, in which Britain once led the world in skill and potential, which we have given away to foreign competitors through lassitude and complacency.

British football during the past year or so has enjoyed the sort of stock market enthusiasm and contempt that was applied to advertising agencies in the Eighties. Over the season just drawing to a close, the quoted football sector is showing an average rise in share prices of some 15 per cent – not as good as the market as a whole, but not nearly as bad as some of the market’s Jeremiahs would have us believe last year.

And it’s a serious investment sector, not a peripheral indulgence for City lads. Symptomatic of the seriousness, is the fact that the mercurial Eric Cantona realised – or was told – that he had to announce his retirement from professional football last Sunday, so that dealers in Manchester United shares kicked off from the same whistle on Monday morning. As League champions, United shares have outperformed others, up some 40 per cent over the season and Cantona’s departure only shaved 13p off the 634p share price on Monday morning.

But there can be no doubt that this is an industry dependent on such personalities. If Cantona’s theatre company was listed on the Paris bourse, I would buy shares hard now that he is said to be giving it undivided attention.

Allow me an analogy interlude. The dependence of football on its stars makes it not unlike those marketing services conglomerates of the Eighties that came to market on hugely expectant prospective multiples of earnings and which faced the stock market’s reckoning when such individuals walked out with a load of the business.

Individual clubs with publicly quoted shares are vulnerable to the quality of legs on the pitch, and for every Manchester United there is a Sunderland (relegated and shares at a 40 per cent discount to their opening price last Christmas).

So what can football do? To an extent, it can exploit the same kind of media money for television pay-per-view as Salomons is promising for motor racing. Some put the potential for cash injection into soccer from pay-per-view at 2.5bn by 2005. And it’s true that American-style all-seater stadia, replacing the post-war rot, has taken British football into the leisure industry markets and out of the working class investment ghetto.

But, appropriately enough, the truest lesson for British football comes this week from Italy, with the news that the Agnelli family, which controls the Fiat group, is considering building a sports and entertainment conglomerate centred on Juventus, Italy’s most successful football club – owned by the Agnellis.

The aim would be to create a premium brand of the Gucci/Armani variety for Juventus across the leisure and entertainments industries, through a group that could conceivably be floated on the London stock exchange.

One wonders why the idea of football clubs as brands has not been exploited before, beyond a few childrens’ strips and coffee mugs. The potential for Juventus branding across Italian entertainment must be enormous.

This branding concept is way ahead of anything that is happening in the British league, but there is absolutely no reason why the brands owned at Old Trafford, White Hart Lane or Stamford Bridge should not be similarly exploited in a broader marketing exercise. There is also huge brand loyalty – I have yet to hear of Arsenal fans switching to Spurs because they’re cheaper.

Perhaps Cantona plans something of this nature with his burgeoning business interests. French or Italian, it wouldn’t be the first, nor the last time, that a stylish foreigner cut through British defences to score before we knew what was going on.


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