Keeping footie managers on the ball

Soccer bosses have a lot to learn in the era of money and merchandise. Helen Jones reports
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The Independent Online
Football management used to mean little more than donning a dodgy sheepskin coat and picking the right team for Saturday's home game, but now that football is a multi-million pound business, new skills are required.

While the traditional football manager concentrates on the team and worries about his job security, an army of commercial and business managers is being recruited by clubs to deal with boardroom battles and expensive transfers while watching the share price and controlling merchandise - from replica shirts to club champagne.

Sam Johnstone, a lecturer and senior researcher at Liverpool University's Football Research Unit, says: "Football is a fast-growing and truly global business. It is reputed to be the third largest growth industry in China and the total rolling TV audience for next year's World Cup is estimated at 38 billion."

English Premier League football clubs are among Europe's best at making the most of their brands. Manchester United has an extensive range of merchandise available, ranging from cheque book holders to soap. Chelsea has its own hotel and conference centre plus a megastore complete with Chelsea-branded scooters and even Chelsea garden gnomes. Other clubs, such as Newcastle, Liverpool and Manchester United, are even considering setting up retailing businesses across the UK and in Europe's major cities.

The biggest clubs are also planning to set up their own television channels which fans would pay to watch. Manchester United has already signed a deal with Granada and BSkyB to set up MUTV, which will broadcast magazine- style programmes about the club, youth and reserve games and matches from the past.

Mr Johnstone says that this type of activity would have been unthinkable a decade ago because the game was firmly associated with hooliganism.

During the 1994/1995 season, 27 million spectators attended English league games - 33 per cent more than the season 10 years previously, which saw the fire at Bradford City and the tragedy at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels.

Mr Johnstone says that the image of football has changed profoundly "since the Hillsborough disaster, since Italia '90 and since Euro '96."

He says that these events, together with the publication of Nick Hornby's hymn to Arsenal, Fever Pitch, have turned the game from a traditionally working-class activity to one which now embraces the middle classes and families. "The middle classes have the money to spend on this kind of stuff," he says.

As football becomes increasingly commercial, greater business and management skills are required. In the past, commercial and administrative roles in football clubs were generally filled by word of mouth, but a passion for the game is no longer enough. To meet the demand for suitable staff, Liverpool University's business school has teamed up with its Football Research Unit to run Britain's first MBA in football.

Mr Johnstone says: "Football is now a major financial concern and needs high-calibre administrative, financial and marketing people."

The MBA will provide the usual MBA modules such as strategic management, organisational behaviour and marketing as well as modules on football and society and the organisational structures within the game.

There are currently 30 students on the course, and Johnstone says that when they finish they can expect to find jobs with football clubs or with advertising, sponsorship and media companies associated with the game.

The university has already had enquiries about next year's course from potential students in Europe and the Far East as well as from a number of current players who are keen to move into the commercial side of the game.

Johnstone says he expects other universities to follow Liverpool's lead and set up similar football-oriented MBA's.

While the Liverpool MBA aims to improve the standard of management in the game, recent research suggests that some clubs still have a long way to go to fully exploit their potential.

Strategic marketing consultancy Abram Hawkes has carried out a "mystery shopping" exercise among all the league clubs in England and Scotland to assess their marketing skills and to explore the deal that they are giving fans.

The resulting report says: "It must be concluded that the professional football clubs comprising the English and Scottish Leagues are not competing for the custom and loyalty of their supporters as effectively and efficiently as they could or should."

But what other brands could command such loyalty? As Mr Johnstone says, people ask that their ashes be scattered at Anfield and Old Trafford - not at their local supermarket.

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