Too many fans left on the sidelines by clubs

Marketing experts believe football clubs are scoring lots of own goals. Meg Carter explains why

As media interest increases in the run-up to the FA Cup Final and the closing days of the football season, it may come as a surprise to hear that clubs are failing to market themselves. But according to Own Goal?, a report by Abram Hawkes, a marketing consultancy, many lack the skills to capitalise on either their assets or their supporters' custom and loyalty.

Abram Hawkes staged a "mystery shopper" survey to gauge the marketing and communications of clubs when directly dealing with supporters. "With an average season ticket costing anything from pounds 200 to pounds 600 or more, the lifetime value of supporters' loyalty is significant," Paul Hawkes, a director, said.

Yet when clubs were approached by researchers posing as fans, responses revealed "a distinct lack of customer empathy". Queries went unanswered, responses were slow and branding on printed information was often absent.

"Attendance levels may have risen 33 per cent in the past 10 years but commercial pressures on clubs are growing," he says. This places a premium on exploiting club assets, but this should not be at the cost of supporter loyalty. "Not only could they do better but they must to maintain the long-term value of their supporter base," he says.

Mr Hawkes's conclusions confirm a belief among professionals that there is a widespread lack of marketing skills.

Income from television rights and appearance bonuses, sponsorship deals with the biggest brands boosted by media saturation and booming merchandise sales are just some of the bonuses top clubs can enjoy. Manchester United has established a sophisticated merchandise and licensing operation. It also has its own radio station.

Other clubs, including Newcastle, are considering launching local cable television channels. National television rights are negotiated collectively. Although the Premiership deal with Sky nets each club pounds 878,725 at the start of each season, the more successful clubs believe they can get more. Fragmentation is predicted with some already investigating local deals. One club source suggests a possible blueprint: Sky holding live match rights with a cable operator running a 24-hour channel dedicated to other aspects of the club.

Yet there is more to capitalising on a club's assets than media rights. Larger clubs are often arrogant and ignore commercial partners' needs, says Charlie Beauchamp, the account manager at APA, a sponsorship consultant. Smaller clubs invariably fail to invest in resources to boost revenue- generating activities. "And there are still established clubs who would do a lot better if they had facilities available on match day catering for more than a single line of people queuing in a Portakabin," he says. False economies often also extend to talent: "Many clubs just aren't appointing marketing people. Instead, their commercial directors know nothing about sponsorship and sponsors' needs, which go well beyond corporate hospitality." Notable exceptions include Arsenal.

"A lot of clubs employ agents not necessarily expert in the areas they must deal in," adds Warren Phelops, head of sport at Nicholson Graham & Jones, a firm of solicitors in the City. "The result is they can often sell themselves short." Increasingly, success off field breeds success on, he adds. This includes focusing on the structure of deals struck. "Instead of having battle lines drawn between sponsors, football club and TV companies they should acknowledge that in effect they want to achieve the same thing," Mr Phelops says.

Sponsors once content with paying for their logo to appear on kit are now pushing for closer involvement and greater quality control through joint venture and other corporate finance-driven deals. One catalyst is flotation. As a growing number of clubs prepare to raise funds to support growth and league promotion, they are being forced to conduct affairs on a firmer business footing. Brand cultivation is also becoming recognised as a long-term investment.

Of course smaller clubs could get left behind, but not if they react creatively, with "inspired marketing", says Peter Mead, the chairman of Millwall Football Club and chief executive of Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, the advertising agency.

Larger clubs may receive larger payments for exclusive television rights but they risk growing hostility from supporters over pay-television deals and ticket prices. Excessive prices were blamed for empty seats at the FA Cup semi-finals: there were 11,000 when Liverpool beat Aston Villa. Achieving the right balance between exploiting assets and exploiting fans is critical. It will be a slow haul, Mr Mead predicts. "We are at least 10 years away from seeing real professional marketing expertise."

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