The beautiful football index

On Tuesday 19th June, Ed and I attended the 2018 Brand Finance Football Forum at the Brand Exchange. It’s the event at which the ‘Football 50′ report is formally launched – the Football 50 being the annual snapshot of the state of leading clubs’ finances.

As a lifelong football obsessive, talking about clubs as brands used to irritate me – and to some extent still does. But the world moves on, and it’s clear that not only are many of Europe’s major football clubs brands, they are huge brands. Indeed it might be that in future I write a longer blog, requiring more thought, research and effort, analysing the similarities between Real Madrid and Amazon, for example. Bet you can’t wait.

Anyway, bookended by interesting talks from Brand Exchange Director Bryn Anderson (responsible for the football study) and Matthew Birchall’s fascinating study of stadium design, Nuria Tarre gave an excellent and genuinely eye-opening insight into the marketing at City Football Group. That’s City Football Group, who, if you weren’t aware, comprise Manchester City FC, New York City FC, Melbourne City FC and a couple of other affiliated clubs who don’t have City in their name. Yet.

It was immediately apparent to me that CFG are operating at a different level to other football clubs/ brands/ groups, mainly because they have created formal, transparent links between clubs without ruining those clubs and driving them out of business (yes, Arsenal, I’m talking about you). And, by taking an underperforming club who were lagging behind some of their rivals, they have had a relatively free hand to instil radical change on the back of their oil-money fuelled success.

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Here’s a picture of Harry Kane. No excuse required.

The group has clear objectives and is at the forefront of social media-led marketing and e-gaming initiatives, all carefully controlled and on message (compare and contrast with Roy Keane slagging off teammates on Manchester United’s own TV channel: awks!). Within Nuria’s slick presentation and accompanied by several pictures of Kyle Walker arsing around (I suspect there were cheaper right backs available last summer who are not quite so keen to laugh at themselves and generate valuable online content), the nugget that stood out for me was this: Manchester City use a “beautiful football index” to judge, after every game, whether they are playing in the style required by their Emirati overlords. Really.

On many levels, this makes sense. If you are truly creating a brand, you will have some brand values; if you have design on being a world-class brand, you’ll live by those values and stick to them – see my past post about Virgin removing the Daily Mail from its trains to see my thoughts on that.

But from a footballing/ sporting perspective, this is a real eye-opener. Next time you hear Fat Sam chuntering about fans wanting to “win games” more than anything, or Tony Pulis asking rhetorically what people mean by “attractive football”, refer them to the Beautiful Football Index. One day it might literally be in their job description to play attractive football. Their inability to supply this is, after all, why West Ham, West Brom and Everton supporters couldn’t wait to get rid of them.

Maybe the time is ripe for an enterprising club chairman to give Sam a 10-year contract and tell him to construct a “challenger brand” club, whose objectives are to stick it in the mixer at least 20 times a game and keep the grass in the corners longer, a la John Beck. After all, not all brands can be identical. This brand might attract the tiki-taka haters: Wimbledon were there years ago.

Is it time for Arsenal to revert to their true type and return to the ultra-defensive, cynical template perfected by Bertie Mee, Don Howe and George Graham? Or, more realistically, for Chelsea to sink into midtable mediocrity in front of a stadium at least a third-full of ignorant racists? They’re halfway there already. Some fascinating branding opportunities await.

Not all football clubs will be, or should be, brands. But some will have to be if they are to keep pace with their rivals. Their income, and therefore to a large extent their success on the pitch, will be dependant on attracting fans and revenue from places such as China and India, before those nations’ own leagues become so established that they don’t have to look to England or Spain for football. That might not be true for Enfield Town FC or even Swansea City, but it will be for those at the top of the Premier League.

Why? Because the other unstated but self-evident truth that emerged from Nuria’s talk is that a European league is inevitable within the next five to ten years – something  Sir Alex Ferguson also believes. CFG’s business model cannot possibly sustain the prolonged disappearance of its flagship club from the Champions League. The damage to the brand would be too great. Assuming they’re not permitted to continue spending with impunity or gaming the Financial Fair Play rules (and if they keep winning the Premier League by 19 points, the other clubs will make sure they’re reeled in), they, and the other biggest European clubs, will need some sort of guarantee that they will always be playing each other.

I suspect the Champions League as we know it will soon become a two division midweek European league comprising six clubs from England, four from Italy, Spain and Germany and the odd Ajax or Porto to keep the smaller nations sweet. The top two/four/eight will go into a knockout stage and the Champions League Final will still exist.

In the meantime, I will be at the new White Hart Lane, watching England’s best footballers play the entertaining, enthralling and exciting football that is at the heart of the Tottenham Hotspur brand; my enjoyment only tempered by their other distinctive trait: that of managing to cock things up when it seems impossible.

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Glory, glory…er…cranes

 

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