Investment, Politics & Governance, Soccer, Europe, Global

An expert’s guide to running a soccer club - part three: One relationship to rule them all

In the third instalment of his expert guide for managing an elite soccer club, former AS Roma and Vancouver Whitecaps CEO Mark Pannes discusses the importance of actionable customer data for building lasting, fruitful relationships with fans.

by Mark Pannes
An expert’s guide to running a soccer club - part three: One relationship to rule them all

The goal of this article series is to offer a roadmap for successfully operating a professional soccer club. As someone who has run multiple clubs, I offer a candid approach to the modern game - and business - of professional soccer.

A soccer club’s fanbase is its lifeblood. In part three, we review expanding that most important partnership by growing both the number of fans and the quality of those relationships.

Straight from the horse’s mouth

A season ticket holder looks forward to her occasional conversations with her ticketing representative. They discuss the club’s evolving offensive strategy, latest match results, young player progress, etc. She’s gratified to have a front office insider’s perspective. Except, that ticket rep hasn’t spoken to anyone in soccer operations in months. He’s parroting what he hears on talk radio. Or what he sees on the club’s social media feeds. Or voicing his own opinion as fact. 

When the club inevitably hits a rough patch in the season or benches a fan favourite, that ticket rep is left unprepared to accurately convey the club’s reasoning behind such decisions. None of the reps can, and the messaging to each portfolio of subscribers - a club’s most valued customers - is random and discordant. 

A soccer club has all kinds of data floating about - some quite valuable, much of it less so. Often critical information is not prioritised or accessed or shared. Recognising which data is truly valuable and consistently unlocking that value is more daily labour than rocket science.

Athletic Bilbao fans queue for tickets outside the San Mames 

Data, data, data…

Spend enough time around the sports industry these days and you’ll hear some people repeat this word so often you’ll expect their head to fall off their shoulders. Surely data is critically important to building customer engagement beyond a transactional relationship. But what does being a ‘data-driven’ organisation mean for a club’s business operations? How can data readily - and cost-effectively - be used to expand customer relationships? Data is simply factual information. That’s it.

Before we break down a club’s proper approach to using data for commercial purposes, we need to address its proper internal utilisation, and how we can turn it into valuable, actionable insight. 

Human capital matters as much as capex

Many front offices today have two distinct groups of employees managing ticketing-based customer relationships: front line sales/service staff, often in a first real job with little effective business experience, and a senior management layer whose approach to customer service crystallised before the emergence of modern customer relationship management (CRM) systems. 

“In recent years,” says Eric Solem, a long-time sports industry consultant who I hired to build a modern ticketing operation for AS Roma, “clubs have made significant investments in CRM systems. Yet their impact is often underwhelming.” High turnover of ticketing staff, and senior managers’ reluctance to regularly use these systems, leaves clubs exploiting only the most basic functionality.

“There has to be a real commitment to constant training and learning on these systems,” explains Solem. “Data input regarding customers in many ways is as valuable as data output. That requires ticketing staffs laser-focused on learning about their customers and recording and sharing that information.”

Some critical information transfers require no technology at all. At the Vancouver Whitecaps, our sporting director committed to speaking with the entire front office weekly in-season. He’d recap the most recent match and discuss the upcoming one. This instantly addressed that knowledge gap for frontline staff, providing deep information stability. The cohesion and sense of purpose it created across the entire organisation can’t be overemphasised. This should be standard practice at clubs and seen as an essential part of the sporting director/general manager’s responsibilities.

When Axel Schuster was just the Vancouver Whitecaps sporting director he discussed onfield issues with front office staff weekly

Cash tells no secrets

Whereas today media revenue dominates, historically ticket sales were a club’s beating heart. For most supporters, interacting with box office staff was often the extent of their personal engagement. Tickets were bought with anonymous cash. These relationships, even if they lasted many years, were both very personal (to the supporter) and very transactional (to the club). 

When I arrived at AS Roma in 2011, the club would announce a July season ticket on-sale date and people queued up on the street to buy them. The club, formed in 1927, had never sent a letter addressed specifically to its subscribers. No telephone number existed to provide customer access, nor dedicated staff to answer calls and assist customers. The entire data set was an Excel spreadsheet with often outdated subscriber names, addresses, and telephone numbers. This was only nine years ago.

The painful truth is that many clubs today are ignoring rich data sets they have available and using their CRM systems only as enhanced Excel spreadsheets, collecting minimally useful information. 

So, which data is essential? 

Clubs have several systems providing raw data about their customers: ticketing, CRM, in-stadium point-of-sale, ecommerce/retail, etc. But they remain stuck within this data-gathering layer. “Aside from each league’s biggest clubs,” explains Michael Bohndiek, chief executive of PTI Digital, a top digital-led commercial consultancy, “most don’t have properly trained staff responsible for business intelligence/data analytics. Zero headcount.”

He adds: “There’s currently an overriding focus on data integration. A big ticket tech system purchase most clubs can’t afford. Having a ‘single view’ client data system is ideal, but much of that data is duplicative. Clubs already have it in their individual systems. Pulling that balkanised data together is doable fairly inexpensively and it’s necessary to get above this ‘data ceiling’ and use it to deliver meaningful commercial results that support the club’s strategic goals. Raw data alone is not actionable.”

Actionable data: that’s the key. To make it actionable a club must have clearly defined commercial objectives and tactical planning that can be applied against it (e.g., ‘X per cent ecommerce jersey sales growth through Y email campaigns’ vs a generic ‘15 per cent annual revenue growth’ objective). 

“From this strong starting point,” says Bohndiek, “clubs can apply insight derived from data, giving proper context about the customer and the transaction, and leverage their staff knowledge and experience, delivering trend analysis, pattern identification, and learning.” 

He points to an example from his time working at West Ham United. Family ticket (adult and child ticket packs) utilisation was dreadful on weeknight matches. Commute time home on school nights was a major turn-off for parents wanting to get their kids to bed at a reasonable hour. But they couldn’t repurpose the child-priced ticket to invite other adults, friends or business acquaintances, so both adult and child tickets went unused. 

A proper data analytics program mapped out both the issue and solution. Offering an up-sell option reclassifying the child ticket to an adult one yielded an 80 per cent increase in attendance on weeknights for this ticket package, with related increases in concessions and merchandise sales.

Membership has its privileges

The overriding goal in soccer club-supporter relationships should be expanding as many as possible into some level of tiered membership. A freemium membership model, providing some no-cost access levels with deeper ones at various price points, is a great way to continually expand these relationships. 

In reality, broadcast (radio, TV, streaming) has replaced attending matches for the vast majority of first division club supporters. Digital assets, social media and news media offer seven days-a-week, year-round engagement. While all of these are important, none offers in-person experiences. 

In a club’s local market, drawing supporters to home matches has to remain central in binding fan to club. This requires a heightened focus on getting ticketing right in terms of pricing, packages, and flexibility. 

Season subscriptions as client mobility-focused memberships

“For many fans in a club’s home market, season subscriptions are a friction point for supporters attending matches rather than an enabler,” says Barry Kahn, founder and chief executive of Qcue, the original ticket pricing specialists and leading software and advisory firm in the sports sector. “Too many matches, too much cost, no flexibility to the package. It’s easy to understand why attendance is down across pro sports.”

Most widely used ticketing systems are built on shoddy legacy technology with work-around fixes bolted on over time. The result? “It’s easy to sell a ticket,” notes Kahn, “[but] complicated and time consuming to exchange or transfer a ticket. Clubs’ best customers deserve better.”

A Leicester City fan resorts to desperate measures to secure a matchday ticket

Let’s fully acknowledge many supporters still want season ticket subscriptions. Many more will embrace tiered levels of membership with the club, up to and including a season subscription. The same client mobility we advocated for in part two of this series regarding B2B commercial operations is a critical growth strategy for individual supporter relationships.

For example, a UK£1,000 season membership could purchase two season tickets. But that fan may want to use those seats for only five matches. Let them. They may want to use a portion of that cash membership to buy two top club seats for one match. Let them. They may want to purchase a luxury box to celebrate a birthday. Let them. “Why does our industry inherently limit our customers from engaging more deeply and differently than a traditional season subscription?” asks Kahn. 

Ideally, this exchange and up-sell system will be handled via consumer-facing/self-service tech platforms; there are promising options in development. In the interim it can be addressed via staffing resources, with clear ground rules regarding lead time for exchanges, options based on available inventory, limits on annual rollover of non-utilised funds, etc.

On secondary ticketing: what other industry voluntarily gives up pricing power?

The broad inflexibility reviewed above in primary ticketing (club sale directly to supporters) begat the secondary ticketing market. We own this ugly result. Fans don’t want to be ticket brokers; clubs shouldn't want that either. The fact is that when fans sell tickets they can’t use, they generally drive down pricing to limit their potential losses. 

In an exchange-friendly membership model, the club brings the secondary ticketing market in-house. It maintains pricing integrity while expanding its best customer relationships, and adding many more who are open to buying memberships at a price point below a full season subscription. It’s similar to partial-season plans already widely in use, but with access to the full range of ticketing inventory. This is a product that Kahn and his team at Qcue are working on given the current gap in the market.


The hat trick: memberisation, deep engagement, fully trackable data

Social media offers a club’s supporters a tremendous platform with which to engage with other fans, the club, and the sport itself. But the club has little ability to gather consistent, actionable data. When those same supporters are on a club’s native platforms (e.g., website and app), the ability to gather information significantly increases, but the data is focused on the content they consume and prefer. What’s missing is deeper insight into the motivations which underpin fans relationships with their club and how those motivations impact consumer behaviour. 

Ultimately, the benchmark for garnering actionable data is the “log-in” state, in which a supporter has created a membership account and enters the club’s private platform. This is full, 100 per cent trackable engagement. It’s where a club can extract meaningful insight and apply its knowledge base.

In the best case, the log-in state is mirrored by staff robustly and regularly asking a range of questions, populating the CRM system with client data every time the parties interact - discussing, say, the club’s evolving offensive strategy. This time, though, the sales rep begins with: “I was speaking with our sporting director on Monday'', as he draws his client deeper into their insiders-only relationship, “and he told me….” 

Now that’s an effective use of data.

About the author: Mark Pannes is the managing partner of Inner Market Media, a sports sector advisory firm. In addition to chairing the Center for Sports Communications & Media board, he is a teaching fellow at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is based. Having previously served as chief marketing officer of the New York Knicks and founding director of HSBC Private Bank's Global Sports Group in London, Mark has run elite professional soccer clubs on both sides of the Atlantic, where he has served as chief executive of Italian side AS Roma and the Vancouver Whitecaps Major League Soccer (MLS) franchise.  

This is part three of a four-part weekly series. Find part one here and part two here. Next up, on 23rd December, Mark addresses the challenge of stakeholder engagement.