We were recently asked to talk on the Sportego podcast about fan engagement in sports. Trev Keane of Sportego hosted the podcast and we were joined by George Harborne, the Head of Partnerships at West Bromwich Albion. Dillon spoke on behalf of The Link Marketing for the podcast in a thoroughly enjoyable conversation that covered all areas of digital and sports. Topics discussed ranged from the future eSports in football clubs to the Chicago Cubs claiming the World Series recently.
The podcast provides an interesting look at the different landscapes between the League of Ireland and the English Premier League.
You can have a listen to the podcast below or read the transcript.
Trev Keane: This is Trevor from Sportego, welcome to the first in a new series of podcasts where we talk sports activation and fan engagement. I’m very lucky today to be joined by two very, very smart guys. We’ve got George Harborne, Head of Partnerships at Premier League club West Bromwich Albion and Dillon Foley from The Link Marketing and also Digital Media Manager for Cabinteely F.C. Thanks for joining me guys.
George Harborne: Thanks a lot for having us Trev.
Dillon Foley: No problem at all Trevor
T: This is the first in a new initiative where we are going to take a look at fan engagement and the world of sponsorship activation. For me, both of them go hand-in-hand. We’ve got two very different spectrums here, a League of Ireland club and a Premiership club but the concepts are the same. When you look at fan engagement, what does it mean to you and do you think with sponsorship it goes hand in hand, Dillon we might just start with you as the season has just finished and you are probably in review mode.
D: Yeah exactly, as far as we are concerned, what we do in terms of fan engagement, that completely drives our sponsorship side of things. If you look at Cabinteely FC, we came into the League in 2015, we are a brand new club and we came last in the league that year. So from the outset, that mightn’t be the most inviting sponsorship proposal but what we did, our entire sponsorship proposition was based on what we had done on social media, digital marketing; how we had engaged fans throughout the year and we went to sponsors and basically said – this is how we engage, this is the audience we can reach and we want you to be a part of that. We had a hugely successful 2016 in terms of sponsorship, we basically sold out every single sponsorship option we had so we are going to be using that strategy again now for 2017 for sure.
T: And the fan engagement part, we can understand, Cabinteely is an audience crying out for a football club and then to get it, but I suppose you are still starting at ground zero in terms of that relationship with fans and the sponsorship. How does the club go about it, especially when it is results driven and there was struggles in the first year, do you look for sponsors that are innovative that buy into the concept rather than just seeing it is for what it is and just getting involved in football for example.
D: Cabinteely is in a very fortunate situation in that we have a huge junior club, which a lot of people might not realize, its over 60 teams competing at that level so there is a huge community in the area. On the one side of course we do have local businesses that are more than happy to reach out and get involved with a local club but we do also look for brands that can associate to the Cabinteely brand image that has been built up now – a young, vibrant, innovative club. We do look to them for sponsorship and we would approach them to see if they want to get involved and we do have a few that looking towards 2017 that we would hope to get involved with again.
T: George, you are at the opposite end of that spectrum, you are part of the Premier League, probably the biggest sporting brand in the world. In some regards, does it make the job even harder to get the sponsors and the fan engagement going or is it an easier sell?
G: I think the sponsorship side of things really it should lead the fan engagement, in my view they two are, and should be, intrinsically linked. However, because of the platform that the Premier League provides in that it is the most watched football competition in the world, it is not so much sponsorship in the Premier League, in many instances it actually just becomes advertising. So you look at the LED boards in the grounds around the Premier League you will see similar brands and they are not doing that to engage with anybody, or at least not in the way that we are talking about, they are doing it for exposure. So I suppose that is probably the biggest disconnect. It is refreshing to hear the approach that is being adopted in the League of Ireland because it is the approach that really should drive your sponsorship sales and should be about maximizing the club, not only as a community asset to the fans, but also as a business community. It is certainly a shift at West Bromwich Albion that we are going to be taking a closer look at, having been a club that in recent years probably has just focused on the media value of what we have got here rather than focusing on how we can use sponsorships to enrich fans experience of coming to a game and on the flip side of that, enrich sponsorship by creating a closer tie with our fans. So it works both ways, the sponsors ultimately want to do want to engage better with the fans, in most instances as obviously we do get the advertising element. A lot of the brands that do want to get involved, we can utilize their resources to make the fan experience better on a match day, or even more so nowadays, on non-match days. That is just as important as the fan experience around the game itself.
T: Yeah I think that’s very refreshing because when you think of the match day, I suppose there is only so many people you can get into the ground and therefore only sell so much food and beverage and merchandise but as the digital revolution, for want of a better phrase, starts I think you are right. I think if you can reach that wider audience and the other six days of the week when there is no game on. Not necessarily monetize them but add the value that will lead to value for the sponsorships.
G: Yeah definitely, I remember when I was a young lad sitting in the stands of another local club in the Midlands, but it wasn’t Wolves it’s OK, I remember going to the game and the only way you could understand or know what’s going on at your football club was by the match programme or by watching BBC and they had the quick 2 minute supplement at the end or picking up a newspaper. Obviously in the last 10 to 15 years that has flipped on its head, the programme now is very much something that is there out of habit rather than out of necessity because the engagement with clubs is everyday. It is all day, it is refreshing your Twitter feed and the club is there, it’s going on your Facebook page and the club is there so the news and content from the club is available all the time.
So the match day actually, other than it being the match which obviously is huge to a football club, the other elements of the match day which is more engrossing is – What has been happening this week behind the scenes, I’m going to read the match day programme to find out – that element is gone or has been largely been replaced by the digital era which is – I can engage with my football club whenever I want to engage with it and it’s about the clubs then reacting to that. Making sure that if that is the case and we want to increase engagement levels then its up to us to do that. There is no barrier in terms of contact, the people can access this whenever they want so we need to make sure that we are ready to be accessed and have got good content out there for when people do reach out to us.
And just on that word content, I suppose that is another area where sponsorship and fan engagement are completely and intrinsically linked. A lot of sponsors nowadays are on the search for content, it isn’t necessarily just about the advertising element. It is about enriching a fans experience with a football club or with their brand through the football club and content is a great way to achieve that. I think it is just that move away from the old ways into the new.
T: Yeah I think that is very interesting and as I speak to more and more clubs, and you alluded to it there, there is nearly a shift away from being a football club to being an entertainment brand. Dillon, when you think of Cabinteely the area on a Friday night or a Saturday afternoon or a Sunday, and you think who are we targeting here. You are not necessarily chasing fans of the likes of Shelbourne or Limerick because it’s such a die-hard fan environment. Really you are chasing people that would be doing other stuff on a Saturday night, whether that is going for dinner with their friends or going to the cinema and how does your content reflect that for Cabinteely?
D: We have actually kind of shifted on how we do it. Initially we were talking about the match and building up the match, but we have now shifted to building it up as an event and that has been a great move for us we all think because we have seen a better uptake on it. The thing with the League of Ireland, ye it is not as glamorous as a West Brom match or a Premier League match or anything, so we are selling it as a Friday night, come down have a few drinks in the bar, put a bet on, catch up with friends, take in some live football. That has really worked for us we think, there is a very friendly atmosphere now because of that. Very much our content is driven that way. It can be simple things; we had one photo during the year, which, as far as I am concerned, is the best photo we are going to get. It captures everything in the ground, there is mothers sitting on the couch in the bar chatting, out the window you can see kids with their faces painted laughing, people eating food chatting away and the match on. We are trying to cater for as many people in the community as we can and it is a work in progress, there are areas of the match day experience that we can improve and we are looking to that for the 2017 season.
T: It is very interesting that family approach, I was over with AZ Alkmaar last week and they have appointed a fan engagement manager, so naturally my curiosity was peaked and I went and had a conversation with him. He was telling me that it is not like a Cabinteely or even a West Brom where people leave their house and just walk up to the ground and watch a bit of football, he said the majority of their fans have to drive to the ground or they cycle to the ground. So for them they want to create that atmosphere of fan zones before the game where they can engage with the fans and get them to the ground earlier. It was interesting that they have appointed a fan engagement manager to manage all of that, do you think is it just an industry word? For me programs they meant a lot as a kid but I know I digest my information in such a different way. But is a fan engagement manager is this something every club should have or is it just something that should be part of strategy or is it just a new fan dangled word that we are all getting carried away with, we will start with you Dillon and then go to George and the two of you can have a row about it if you want but I would be interested to get your thoughts on it.
D: Just on the match programme before I answer your question, we actually got rid of our programme this year and we made an online programme. We just thought that was the way it was going and there was almost no need for the physical match programme anymore, people weren’t using it, they were on their phones anyway so we made an online programme.
T: And what was the reaction to that? Did you have any fan saying what are you doing?
D: Surprisingly we didn’t, it’s a good point because I thought there would be some people who just like coming down and getting a match programme. For the majority I think they preferred it because it was easier for us to put up content, we could put up the match highlights in that so they just navigate to that page and they get all the player profiles, its all interactive, they can vote, there was quizzes, our YouTube channel was embedded in it so they were getting their videos there. As well, for our advertisers, their ads were linking directly into their website so they were getting more bang for their buck than in a match program where some one then has to take out their phone and navigate to their website, it was just a lot easier and it was also easier to track how many clicks each ad was getting etc. So we thought it was a huge success this year.
T: Brilliant, so then onto the fan engagement manager.
D: It certainly is an interesting approach taken by Alkmaar, I would think it should be more part of the entire strategy. Everything should be done and designed in such a way that it is going to improve fan engagement rather than having one person being in charge of it all. I think it should be visible in everything that the club does. That would be my preference on it. I think the fan engagement manger would have to be working very closely with the social media and marketing side of things, I think they should be the same person or same team. I don’t’ think I would personally go for a fan engagement manager it should just be part of the overall strategy.
T: George, in your experience?
G: I agree on that, I think Dillon has made a really good point. Here to give an example, every club in the Premier League should have a Supporter Liaison Officer, so that is your first touch point with your fans and way of listening to the fans. That isn’t normally for fan engagement purposes but you get a lot of feedback along those lines. For us, we work on a committee basis, so we have weekly meetings where we will sit down together and talk about various bits and pieces but certainly the fan element is key to it. That meeting is around fan engagement, it is about how we can make the fan experience better, what can we do in the fan zone next week, what went well this week. It is a bit of a debrief and review of what we can do better moving forward. We introduced a fan zone last season so we are into our second season working with a fan zone. I joked earlier on about the glamour of the Premier League and coming down to the games but it has been no secret that we haven’t scored the most amount of goals in the Premier League this year and sometimes that is a bone of contention with the fans. At the moment, this call in on the back of a decent win at Leicester City so everyone will be happy but we have had disgruntled supporters sort of become disengaged with the club through the style of play I should say. But again it isn’t always just about that, it is about the wider experience and the fan zone certainly has helped a lot. That came about through an initiative that was launched a couple of years back called The Albion Assembly. The Albion Assembly is a group of people that is completely representative of our season ticket base so it has the same demographic profile of our season ticket so everyone is represented just on a smaller scale. We have discussions usually on a monthly basis where all manner of things will be called into question by the Albion Assembly. We can go from there and implement any changes and the fan zone was one thing that was borne out of those discussions. Dillon is absolutely right, I think fan engagement rather than being one persons responsibility should be a key strategic goal and pillar of any football club and actually your club isn’t anything without your fans and you need to make sure your fans are engaged and want ot come to your games and wanting to engage with your football club and making their fan experiences as pleasant as you can whether you are doing well on the pitch, not doing well or anything else.
T: Sticking with data, I have been looking a lot at fan databases and Season ticket holders are getting older, they are above the median age in the UK. It kind of leads on, how does the club reach the youth, there has been a lot of talk about eSports at the moment, we will stick with you for a second George as it is higher profile, are these the sorts of initiatives that clubs should be looking at or again is it just a case of X,Y and Z are doing this – we need to do this. Or a chairman runs into a room waving his hands saying ‘The young people we need to get the young people, lets get an eSports team.” Or is there pushback, this needs to be a smarter, wider conversation.
G: You make a really good point about buzzwords; we have already dropped out a few. I think fan engagement is an industry buzzword, content is a buzzword it is an accepted term now, and eSports is becoming the latest fad in football now. I say fad but I think it is here to stay, it is part of the future; I think diversifying your offering is something that you have to do. Like you said earlier on, we are not just a football club, what happens on the pitch isn’t the entirety of a football club anymore. We are a commercial business as well, it is an entertainment brand, and this is not just West Bromwich Albion, I think this is they way of life for all sports clubs now and that mentality has to be adopted. Specifically on eSports, in fact I will go back just a second because you mentioned the chairman coming in and saying we need to get in younger fans. I think you are right, we are seeing an older season ticket base now and I think there are a few different reasons for that. The key reason really is the accessibility to content. Do I necessarily want to sit here every Saturday and watch a football match or do I just want to grab the highlights on my phone after the game when they come through on the app on my phone or I can get user generated content that lets me see the goals or I can wait until the evening and watch Match of the Day. So because of the accessibility to the content from the games now, there is more of a challenge to get people into the stadium and certainly younger fans who have never been in the habit of having to come to the stadium to watch the games. The older generation, that’s all they ever had to do when they were younger so they are in the habit of it so they keep coming. Whereas the younger fans are in a position where they can experience the result and the goals, the key elements of a fixture, without ever coming to the stadium. So then we come back to creating a wider experience of trying to draw people into the stadium itself. In terms of eSports, I don’t think it is going to draw people into the stadium but there is certainly an element of the eSports movement to say that clubs should be involved in it in some way shape or form. I wouldn’t profess to being an expert in knowing what that is but I think it is one of those things you would like to be involved in rather than letting it pass you by and in a few years and think – we should have made the most of that, this club has got a head start. I think it will help us to engage our younger fans and importantly it is an opportunity to get more content and if that is the sort of content that a younger fan wants to engage with because they play the game themselves or aspire to be able to play the game for the club they support then that is brilliant for us, they key question for us Is how do you convert that to being a fan in a seat in your stadium or what is the commercial end point of that initial interaction. I don’t know, is there one? Again I don’t know but I think it has to play a wider part than just being something you do for the sake of doing it. If that’s the case the key to the lock of that generation, then it is certainly something to be involved in.
T: I suppose Dillon; obviously resources are not the same as at West Brom or other even bigger clubs. Is this a challenge for you, would you prefer your fans weren’t seeing the goals online, eSports is that something that would absolutely blow minds if you walked into the club directory room and said we need to do something along the lines of eSports. Do you think as an innovative club, is there scope to more embrace these modern technologies and modern influences?
D: We actually have slightly dipped our toes into the eSports market. This time last season, we did this purely for brand awareness, we ran a competition to celebrate the new Football Manager, as it was the first time we were in the game, we said that the first person to win the Premier Division with Cabinteely would get a free season ticket in real life. Football Manager caught wind of it, they teamed up with us and they said the person who wins the competition will be added into the game as a player. It had a huge response, it led to Cabinteely being the most played with Irish team on the opening weekend of the game despite coming 20th out of all League of Ireland clubs we managed to be played with more than the likes of Dundalk and Cork. So that was a huge achievement for us and that got the clubs name out there, it got people playing with the club, getting to know the players but also getting to know the League of Ireland. We had entries from all over the world, Brazil, China, absolutely any country you can name, just a huge response. As you said resources in a League of Ireland club aren’t the same, for example we don’t feature in FIFA 17, it is only the Premier Division teams so we are kind of limited in how much we can get involved in that field but certainly I think if we could, we would, that would be our take on it.
T: Brilliant, that’s been a great conversation lads and it was nice to finish off with eSports. Very quickly, we will just finish off with what caught your imagination over the weekend, for me it was the Northern Irish Football League and their man sponsor Danske Bank and they have been around to grounds giving out free gifts to fans. I think that’s pretty nice, the Northern Irish football league has been trying very hard to definitely reach out to their fans and give them good experiences so they were the winner for me over the weekend. Anything caught your eye?
D: Yeah, the Chicago Cubs, obviously they finally won the World Series so I was having a look to see what they would do after that. They put out a video titled All The Way and if you get a chance definitely look it up. It was absolutely brilliant, it was 1 minute video, a lot of short clips. The easy option there is to show all the great moments from the actual winning series but I’d say 95% of it was just all about the fans. Real emotive clips like firemen crowded around a TV celebrating, families, granddads celebrating. It was just an absolutely brilliant watch and I just thought they hit the nail on the head. It was a great way to repay the fans for the long wait they had so that when they finally won, the video they put out was all about the fans and the baseball was almost not as important. I thought it was brilliant.
T: Excellent, excellent, and George?
G: Two for me. I think the first one, slightly on a more somber note, was from around the grounds of the Premier League and Football league and even the lower divisions, and was the various memorial pieces that happened prior to the matches for Remembrance Day over here. What that shows for me is the importance of clubs as being at one with the community and everyone supporting a much more noble cause than three points on a Saturday. I think some of the initiatives that happened were wonderful to see and really puts things into perspective on a wider scale.
Secondly, I’m going to plug you guys Trev, Im going to plug Sportego. I saw the various bits and pieces with Bournemouth and Deliveroo. Having worked at WBA with you guys last season, obviously the new offering between Deliveroo and Bournemouth there is a lot more to it than what we worked on at West Bromwich Albion last year but certainly that matchup with Deliveroo and their offering along with the football always works. Online food takeaway always works with a football audience and then to put it into the app the way you guys have, we talked earlier on about taking peoples focus away from just the match day, and it does engage fans throughout the week as well so it was good to see that going out and best of luck to you Deliveroo and Bournemouth with that Trevor.
T: Thanks very much, just to let everyone know that I did not pay for that, thanks for that! I just want to wrap it up by saying thanks very much, it has been very interesting. We have been very fortunate to start this first podcast with two very, very smart and clued in gentlemen, George and Dillon, thank you so much for coming and I look forward to seeing who comes on next.