The Evolution of the Pre-Season Football Friendly

Posted by in Chris Jordan, Commercial, Management, Sales, Sponsorship

Why do clubs tour?

10 years ago the pre-season tours and friendlies that Premier League football clubs embarked upon were the domain of the club’s manager and coaches. It was down to the performance staff to scout out a suitable location where the training, transport and accommodation facilities were of a high standard. This ultimately meant they travelled to Europe which was easier to organise and was less of a strain on the players.

Fast forward to the present day and the pre-season schedule is now being taken more seriously by clubs as they look more strategically at how they engage with new markets and grow their fan base on a global scale. International pre-season tours have become a great vehicle (as part of an overall international development strategy) for clubs to try and maximise their commercial opportunities and build their brand, offering the following benefits:

  • Increased brand exposure and media interest
  • Ability to engage and grow an international fan base by making fans feel part of the club
  • Improved relationships and the opportunity to nurture new commercial partners
  • Increased opportunities for merchandising, licensing and retail sales

While Premier League clubs were originally the main ambassadors of these tours, we are now seeing the bigger Italian, Spanish and German clubs starting to include them as part of their international development strategies.

It’s also no coincidence that the increase of international development strategies within football clubs is directly related to the development of digital and ease in which content can be accessed and consumed 24/7 from anywhere in the world. A pre-season tour creates content to satisfy the demand from an international audience.

Additionally, these tours allow clubs to promote their biggest assets…their players. They are used to further develop the fan base by showcasing them in certain markets to engage with fans. An example of this success is former Manchester United Japanese player Shinji Kagawa, whose shirt was the 9th highest selling Premier League shirt in 2014, despite only playing 18 games.

Where are clubs touring and why?

Before this decision is made, clubs must analyse where the commercial opportunities are to be made. What is the size of the fan base, potential retail spend, possible membership growth? What is the popularity of other local and international clubs? What opportunities exist to attract new sponsors and sell media distribution rights?

Currently these tours have mainly focused on the US and APAC. In 2013, the majority of teams travelled to the APAC region, while 2014 saw the attention move to the US.

With the football market in the US beginning to mature and 2014 being a world cup year, it made sense for clubs to try and capitalise on a region which would see a spike in football interest. This was especially true after the national team made it out of the group stage for the second consecutive time. In addition the new TV rights deal signed by NBC in 2012, making the Premier League widely available to a mainstream audience, has created an active fan base waiting to be tapped into. Even though the MLS continues to expand, it is less developed than the other heavyweights of US sport, the NFL, NBA and MLB, which allows the Premier League product to capitalise on the American public’s demand for elite sporting competition.

But it’s not just clubs looking to benefit, American brands are also looking to ‘piggyback’ off the strength of the Premier League by entering into sponsorship deals to take advantage of the sheer number of ‘global eyeballs’ that view the product. The NBA and NFL although commercial behemoths, are still very US centric sports and for a brand looking to grow internationally there are very few properties better than football and the Premier League.

With many large sponsorship deals now being signed in the US and APAC, it makes sense that clubs are engaging with those brands in their domestic markets. While the US was the focus in 2014, there is every possibility that APAC will again be the focus in 2015.

How are clubs preparing for these tours?

In the beginning these tours were mainly funded, organised and managed by external third party agencies, thus limiting the control and commercial opportunities for football clubs. This has led to clubs starting to take these operations in-house in order to put in place a long term strategy to maximise revenue and to be in line with their overall international development strategy.

Bigger clubs such as Manchester United, Manchester City and Liverpool FC have already introduced specific business units to capitalise on these tours. These units are involved across the entire spectrum from developing the commercial strategy to the operational delivery of the events.

These hybrid roles work with all major stakeholders and must understand how to stage a world class event. They need to oversee everything from the logistics of the tour, to researching the accommodation and the stadium and training facilities, to mapping out fan catchment areas and accessibility for them to attend and engage with the club.

They need to liaise with venue managers, local authorities, health and safety officials while at the same time work with commercial and marketing teams to decide where to tour and why, as well as understanding the performance side and what coaches and players need to get out of the tour. They must also ensure the training and playing environment is of a high standard where the players are able to train hard and prepare for the upcoming season.

Individuals within these unique business units need to be able to quickly understand football club dynamics and build relationships across the wide range of internal stakeholders. These individuals are most likely found within these third party agencies or sports organisations that have touring entities, such as Formula 1, ATP, WTA or the PGA, organisations that regularly oversee events on a global scale as part of their annual events calendar.

The future, where next?

The potential continues to be significant for these tours and the international development of the Premier League. As well as pre-season tours, clubs are now looking into the possibility of post-season tours, while there is still talk of the Premier League playing a 39th game/international round, similar to the NFL and NBA in London. It would be wrong to underestimate how important these off-season windows are to a club.

The foreseeable future for these tours is still in the US and APAC. There will always be opportunities in the Middle East for certain clubs associated with the region through owners and sponsors. However the lack of brands that have the deep pockets required to be a big team sponsor may hold the region back.

Once the Indian Super League starts to gain momentum and exposure, India may become a target location for some clubs. And of course Africa is always at the back of everyone’s mind, due to the shear size of the continent and its football mad population. It will only be a matter of time before clubs explore this area, but the lack of infrastructure, sub-standard quality of facilities and travel risk continue to make it unsuitable for the time being.

As TV rights continue to increase from the larger deals being made for international broadcasts, the viewing figures will increase and so will the demand for the Premier League. There will continue to be a huge opportunity for all clubs and the smaller clubs will need to keep up and review how they approach their international strategy. If teams really want to compete for the next 10-20 years they cannot justify not doing anything and relying on their history and heritage or their domestic fan base, as there is only so much revenue they can generate at home. They will need think globally and take advantage of the new opportunities through digital channels and the content they can distribute.

But what about Championship clubs? The Championship is the wealthiest second tier football division in the world and the seventh richest division in Europe. However at present, limited international TV exposure presents a major obstacle to exploiting global business development opportunities.

That being said leading Championship clubs need to be thinking about their commercial and international development strategies now. They should be looking to implement a 3-5 year plan that takes into account promotion to the Premier League and international development, what that would mean for their commercial team and how they take advantage of it. Not waiting until they are promoted and then scramble around to build a team to get into that position.

About the Author: Chris Jordan – Senior Consultant

Chris’ main focus is executing searches for commercial roles within major rights holders and professional clubs & teams across the UK and Europe. These assignments cover sales, sponsorship, marketing and business development functions from middle management to executive ‘C-Level’ appointments.