Rejection of big money football sees non-league Dulwich Hamlet FC partner with start-up Picfair

Picfair will become the new shirt sponsor of the club from next season

The Premier League's evolution into a global commercial powerhouse has left many football fans feeling disillusioned with the exuberant amounts of money thrown around in today's game and, in turn, created a yearning for a more virtuous and honest portrayal of the sport.

For many, solace has been found in their local non-league clubs which are able to offer a greater sense of community and resonance with their own values than a Premier League giant cares to entertain.

Nowhere is this more true than in South-East London where Dulwich Hamlet FC have grown exponentially in recent years. The club have garnered a support base and profile far greater than what would be expected of a team competing in the seventh tier of English football thanks to their strong commitment to community activism and altruistic left-wing political values.

"We’re always trying to do things a little bit differently with the community and the fans at the heart of everything," Dulwich Hamlet's head of communications, Tom Cullen, told The Drum.

In keeping with this ethos, Dulwich have agreed a shirt sponsorship deal with Picfair, an online start-up looking to do things differently in its own industry.

The Shoreditch-based image licensing company is attempting to challenge the might of big industry players like Getty by helping both amateur and professional photographers license their images to global publishers while allowing them to keep full control of their royalties.

"There are a lot of strong similarities with Picfair," said Cullen. "We’re always looking to put fans at the heart of what we do and I think that’s what they’re doing with photographers, by looking to offer them a fair deal and better pay for their work."

Just as Picfair works closely with photographers and allows them to set the price for their work, Dulwich continuously liaise with their supporters trust group to make sure the fans views are reflected in how the club operates.

Cullen pointed out that this has led to "a lot of lazy hipster cliches thrown around" and the club being branded as political because of its work in raising funds for local West London Syrian refugees, supporting LGBT charity Stonewall FC and wearing special kits to raise awareness around International Women's Day.

"We're not trying to be political, we just see it as the right thing to do and having a social conscience," maintained Cullen.

Social media has been a huge part of the club's marketing on this front. A tweet sent out during Donald Trump's inauguration joked that the club saw larger crowds at its Champion Hill home ground and was retweeted over 1,500 times before being picked up by several international media outlets.

"Humour can go a long way on social, it can be so valuable if it’s done properly and authentically. I think people love authenticity and you can’t get more authentic than non-league football. There’s a dangerous balance between being too polished and not polished enough."

He also argued that social media is an important tool for non-league football clubs' battle for attention against the major media outlets such as Sky Sports and the BBC. This is why the club have created their own digital TV channel showing highlight of games, thereby ensuring fans have another option over the traditional major media players.

This rejection of the established players is very much part of how Picfair has approached the image licensing model.

The company's founder and chief executive Benji Lanyado quit his job as a journalist and learned to code after seeing an opportunity to create a start-up which gave photographers access to major publishers without scarifying control.

"Dulwich Hamlet apart, many football clubs often see fans merely as revenue-generators. Similarly, photographers selling images via Getty or Shutterstock are lucky if they see 15% of the money those images generate," said Lanyado.

"Like Dulwich Hamlet, we aspire to do things differently. We look to reward creativity as opposed to exploiting it like the market we aim to disrupt always has.”

While Lanyado admits to loving football, sponsoring a team was never part of the initial marketing plans for Picfair until he came across Dulwich.

"The attendance is almost double the next highest attendance in the league and when I saw that my eyes widened because you realise that something special is going on here."

He contacted the club chairman Liam Hickey to explain what he was doing with Picfair in the hope that the two could work together.

"Liam was excited because he saw a lot of our values chiming with the fans. The club cared about the values of their sponsors. Without that fan focused ethos, they wouldn’t have this outside reputation which they do. It’s conscious business but it’s also just strategically smart."

As part of its attempts to be a more fan-focused type of club sponsor, Picfair and the club are allowing fans to vote for next season's kit.

“We were asked by the club early on for input in the kit design and whether we had any specific needs,” Lanyado said. “We came to the conclusion that how we feel about shirt design is less important than how the fans feel. We’ve worked with the club to put two designs together. Now we want to leave it to fans to vote in a poll on Picfair.com/dhfc to decide which one becomes the 2017-18 season home kit."

For the past two years it has focused on building its library and now has over 4.5 million images uploaded by 24,000 photographers in 130 countries, all without marketing. Lanyado says the organic growth is down to its willingness to give photographers more control and having their support which in turn leads to word of mouth recommendations and organic social media sharing.

He attributes the success of the club and Picfair to the natural affinity with their client bases which has been generated through trust and a willingness to challenge the norm through genuine values.

"If you can make them really love you and believe what you’re doing then you have all the advocates out there to grow organically."

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Tony Connelly

I cover media, marketing and sponsorship news within the sports industry. This includes breaking news as well as writing feature pieces with insights from experts in the sports marketing world.

All by Tony