FOR SALE: Football Club. Several Careless Owners

Darren Young


Darren has been a part of The Fan  Experience Company since 2017.

He has a background in working on customer service excellence projects in the UK and Europe, and an MBA that included studying in the USA . 

A UEFA Mentor and Fan Experience Company consultant, Darren works with clubs across Europe to improve the match-day experience and increase attendance through engagement with fans.

You know the old(ish) joke about football club owners? That is the first of many questions I’m going to pose in this blog.

It goes like this…what is the easiest and quickest way to become a millionaire? Answer: be a billionaire, and then purchase a football club.

Let’s hope this Swiss guy, who’s reportedly been offered Chelsea for 3bn, has seen it.

Roman Abramovich is, as most of us know by now, looking to sell. He’s ploughed in well over a billion quid, seen his club win 19 major trophies since 2003 and changed manager about a hundred times, usually getting rid of a club legend or someone who just won a bunch of stuff. Sometimes at the same time.

Now, for reasons that I’ll not attempt to go into (he’s got powerful friends, you know?), the Russian oligarch is planning his exit strategy. He has already tried to pass on the ‘stewardship’ of the club to the club’s foundation trustees, but that’s still not clear if they want it or not. Maybe they’ve heard the joke too.

Whatever the reasons, it made me think. Who’d buy a football club?

One answer is, of course, any extremely wealthy person(s), groups or even states in the Middle or Far East. But they have the luxury of having a bit of cash to spare, and also only usually dabbling in teams guaranteed to be in the higher reaches of the Premier League right away or before long. Or Newcastle United.

At The Fan Experience Company, our work is predominantly with clubs outside of this group; clubs that rely almost exclusively on income generated by ticket sales, merchandise, transfers or a hail Mary pass from their owner to stay afloat in times of trouble. Which for some clubs is nearly all of the time.

Now, who’d want to buy one of them?

Although people invariably do, it’s a tougher sell. On both parts. While owning a club – any club – has a certain kudos to it, it also carries a hell of a lot of risk.

For every Leicester or Wolves, there is a Derby County or Bolton.

Promotion to – and even relegation from – the Premier League comes with a fair amount of riches. Not getting into the Premier League, especially if you’ve bet the farm on doing so, means a shed load of debt and uncertain future. The pandemic took many clubs right to the brink, needing loans or hand downs from the top division just to pay the bills.

Even now that fans are back in full numbers, it’s still a stretch for many. The vast proportion of a club’s annual income is spent on players (transfers, wages, agents etc), followed by non-playing staff and then the things they need to stay afloat such as their stadium.

But fans? Not so much.

A lot of club owners would baulk at earmarking budget to spend on the fans. ‘Aren’t they supposed to be the ones giving us money?’ might cross a few of their minds.

But given that ticket revenue is so important, it would make sense, would it not, that those clubs spend every spare moment, and penny, making sure that they have as many people in the stadium as possible at 3pm on a Saturday afternoon (or in West Brom’s case 8pm on any given day of the week except Saturday – not their decision btw).

But do they?

How many clubs have someone who’s role it is to try to fill the stadium? And I don’t mean a Marketing Manager because that is about selling tickets and usually a club has a number in its head that will work (often the same number as the season before and the season before that). I’m talking about someone who’s filling the empty ones. (Note: about 90% of EFL clubs have plenty of spare capacity, and roughly two-thirds of clubs have lower attendances now than they did before the pandemic).

And how many clubs put a lot of effort into making sure that fans want to come? How many invest in the experience and aim to make it as great as they possibly can? How many are focussing now on the next generation of fans, putting things in place that will attract and keep them? I’ll give you a clue – it’s not a lot.

Sorry for so many questions but how many clubs are chasing the dream instead? How many are putting most of their eggs into a ‘win this Saturday’ basket to make everything alright? Another clue – most of them.

Of course, football is guilty of the shortest of short-term thinking, which is quite ironic given how clubs constantly refer to themselves and the sport as a business, yet behave in a way the leading businesses would never do.

Strategic thinking is replaced by Saturday thinking. But that kind of plan is about as clear as the identity of Manchester United’s next manager. ‘Win and the fans will be happy’ is the mantra and that is indeed true, but only until the next time the team don’t win. For perspective, my own club has won around 25% of its home games since 2016/17, so even a wildly optimistic outlook indicates that fans will only ever be happy a third of the time at best. Now, that doesn’t feel anywhere near enough to base any kind of strategy on.

But is there another way? I’d wager there is. But to go in the direction I’m advocating, clubs need to not only understand fans, or listen to them more. They need to value fans. But what does this mean? Well, for a start, it goes way beyond token gestures.

Yes, give fans a seat at the board table. Ask for feedback from them and listen too. That’s still really important at any time. But valuing is about seeing the fans for what they really are, and not just a money pot. Fans invest far more than hard-earned cash in a club; blood, sweat and tears are also given freely over a great many years. But the short-term view is often applied to fans too.

For example, how many clubs know what the lifetime value of a fan is? Clue – it can be a lot, but it doesn’t happen by accident. Consider a fan, whose heart is won at the age of 7 and still going strong (and buying a season ticket) at 70. Imagine he / she also spends a lot each season on food, drink and merchandise. What if he / she eventually brings their own friends and family to games and they eventually also bring theirs?

Yet most season ticket holders don’t hear much from their club, except when it’s time to renew. But it is these same fans who leave their money in the club during a pandemic to help keep it running.

Imagine real fan engagement at all times and giving them a fantastic experience on matchdays, whatever the result.

Nearly done with the questions but two more we often ask any club we want to work with are:

1) do you want more fans at your ground?

2) do you want them to have a great time when they are there?

The answer to both is usually a resounding YES. But if we asked ‘and do you want to spend some money to do so?’ the answer is often too quiet to be heard as they run away as fast as they can.

So while I’m not trying to put people off buying a club, I am making the suggestion that they do so with a different mindset to the one that goes ‘if we win a lot of matches, then we will win promotion, and then somebody will give is lots of money.’

Carrying on the way football club owners have since the dawn of time, and particularly the dawn of the Premier League, won’t cut it for much longer. The model is broken – we all know that – and that’s mainly because no-one is prepared to spend the time fixing it.

I started with a joke, so I’ll also finish with one as it might very well apply to prospective and existing football club owners.

It’s the one where a man asks for directions and is told ‘well, I wouldn’t start from here.’

As author, Sir Ken Robinson, said; ‘reform’ is simply tinkering with a broken model, when what is required is a revolution.

Revolution or not, we certainly need a lot of new thinking at clubs if we’re not going to make a lot more millionaires out of billionaires in the future.

Want to read more by The Fan Experience Company?

See our White Paper about the balance between safety and the match day experience?

The paper ‘It’s Just Like Watching Pret’ can be viewed by clicking here

© The Fan Experience Company 2020