Plastic Fantastic? How Football Clubs Are Balancing Their Marketing Strategies

In an era when many UK industries face challenging times, our domestic football league sits pretty on top of world football.  The Premier League is the world’s most watched domestic league, the world’s wealthiest, and now home to 6 of the top 10 world’s richest football clubs.

The commercial success of these clubs lies in the balance of speaking to two audiences – lifelong, predominately local passionate fans, and a much wider global audience, without inherited club loyalties or bias.

And a combination of targeted and mass marketing.

Football clubs have long benefited from a passionate and loyal consumer following, more so than any other industry.  But they also realise that to truly grow their brands, they need to reach new consumers, on a mass scale.

As the saying goes “a brand is not just made by the people who buy it, but also by the people who know about it”.  And like any other brand that seeks global iconic status, football clubs need to grow their reach, awareness, popularity, and consideration.

Global TV audiences and associated revenues have been the key to this growth historically, coupled with tactical post and pre-season tours across Asia, Australia, and USA.  Signing (or producing) world megastars like Cristiano Ronaldo or Harry Kane is pretty handy for global fame too.

But, with TV rights broadly set and with new Financial Fair Play regulations in place, football clubs now can’t overspend like they did before, so income and profit are more important than ever.  This has put the focus on match-day income, as the long-term revenue-driving focus, especially for clubs who have invested hundreds of millions in new state-of-the-art stadiums, designed to maximise spend per visit.

And this is where the real marketing tension lies, with two very different sets of supporters in mind.

On one side, clubs have to commit to their lifelong season-ticket-purchasing fans, who generate the atmosphere, who live and breathe the club throughout their whole lives, and who ultimately make it what it is.  Clubs need to be careful what they charge for a season ticket, to maintain this grassroots support. But, these lifelong fans don’t tend to be the big matchday spenders.

On the other side, there is football tourism.  ‘Plastic fans’, as they have perhaps unfairly been labelled.  They come from afar, on tailor-made trips to see a premier league game.  Tickets probably seem cheap for the one-off experience.  It’s the availability of tickets that is the challenge (as so many are held by season ticket holders).  These passionate experience seekers might arrive at 9am ahead of a 3pm kick off, spending hours in the club megastore, taking a stadium tour, eating, drinking, and ultimately, spending a shed load of money.  Commercially, they are every club’s dream.

Having recently built a huge new money-making stadium, Tottenham Hotspur know a thing or two about match-day revenue potential, and reportedly now make close to £6m per game.

Despite the criticism around ‘day-trippers’, ‘casual fans’, ‘half and half scarfs’ and ‘glory hunters’, these so-called ‘plastic fans’ and the maximising of per stadium visit revenue is crucial for Tottenham’s future business plans, and crucial for most football clubs across the league.

In a recent article on the demise of mass marketing, in favour of data-led targeted marketing, John Hegarty stated: ‘the plentiful supply of customer data compels marketers to focus on selling to customers, ignoring all the other people whose casual knowledge of a brand adds to its credibility and prestige.’

Football clubs have become some of the biggest and most prestigious brands in the world, through both targeted and mass marketing.  Commercially successful clubs have an envious combination of consumers, with ultra-loyal local fan bases sharing stands with new ‘plastic fans’, who have deep pockets and an appetite for a piece of the action.

It’s not an easy balance to strike, but with restrictive financial regulations now in place, it’s a vital one for ambitious football clubs to get right. And the clubs that do, will likely be the clubs that see future success on the pitch.