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How Goal.com owner FootballCo’s latest acquisition could catch the eye of advertisers

FootballCo has worked with brands including Guinness

FootballCo, the football publishing business and owner of Goal.com, has acquired 25-year-old Italian site CalcioMercato.com to strengthen its foothold in the home of the Euro 2020 champions. Juan Delgado, chief executive of the football business that was spun out from Dazn in 2020, explains how the deal was a “no brainer” and will be indicative of more to come.

FootballCo’s first acquisition was announced on Monday August 23 for an undisclosed fee. It adds a strong Italian presence to supplement Goal.com (global), Spox (German) and Voetbalzone (Netherlands). FootballCo has been owned by US private equity firm TPG since 2020, and is looking to broaden and deepen engagement with fans in top footballing nations ahead of the World Cup in 2022.

Footballco chief executive Juan Delgado says it’s a “no brainer” to expand into “one of the top football leagues in the world while the digital ad market grows fast”.

FootballCo reaches 400 million monthly visitors. There’s an added 12 million visitors incoming from Calcio Mercato now, a majority of whom will be naturally based in Italy.

Content plans

Publishers with numerous titles can cross-pollinate content, share sources and access and even translate stories for new editions. But the benefits of having real reporters who know a specific market became ever clearer during Euro 2020.

Delgado says: “The Voetbalzone team in the Netherlands reached out to Goal Italy for more details on why Roberto Mancini brought on reserve goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu for the final couple of minutes in their match against Wales. The Italian team’s local knowledge meant the Voetbalzone team got ahead of local competitors and resulted in one of the site’s most popular stories of the tournament.”

As a result of the acquisition, he says FootballCo is sitting on “the world’s largest digital football advertising market” after it has set up a substantial presence among some of Europe’s football superpowers. It’s the “largest and most mature digital football market in the world ... and is bound to have a good return on investment”.

To secure that return, Delgado claims to have one of the largest football sales teams in the world. The tactic is to “corner a market that’s super strong, with an avid fan base and tons of content to export elsewhere”.

He claims CalcioMercato.com has an even more engaged audience than Goal Italy because it has stuck to its guns and not been “driven by social or SEO frenzies – the audience is deeply engaged”.

Working with brands

Developed football markets may be the easiest to immediately monetize, but Delgado’s ambitions go further and will “invest where it makes the most sense from fan engagement, monetization and ability to leverage our global and pan-regional ad capabilities”.

So far FootballCo has worked with brands including Budweiser, Kia, Santander and Guinness, and is looking for more ahead of the World Cup in 2022.

Its main pitch to advertisers is in helping them have a louder voice outside of the match window. Tournament sponsors, for instance, will be keen to run their relevant football ads in content discussing matches they will help deliver (or have already delivered). But beyond that, as football converges with culture, lifestyle and streetwear, expect to see more advertisers from that sector enter. It appears to be one of the exciting growth spots for the sector. “We’re not necessarily covering or nailing all of it yet, but you’ll see changes on Goal fairly soon – as well as some of the other brands we’re looking at from an M&A perspective.”

What’s the attraction?

Informing coming acquisitions is the insight that clients will want to work with as few publishers as possible – which means being able to deliver campaigns to huge numbers of fans, even at a regional level.

“Brands want to deal with a single partner that can speak their language and have a local team to service them, say in Seoul – but have the capability to engage with their marketing directors in Brazil, Italy, UK and Germany, for example.” Again, this is demand that can spike around global football competitions.

An Asian car brand, for example, and sponsor of one said competition, could be looking to target football fans in three European nations it aims to expand in. By leveraging the global reach of Goal and the deeper national ties of the national titles, FootballCo is looking to be in a better position to meet these demands.

“We leverage reach, both locally and globally, to sell media and content solutions – that’s been our bread and butter for years, and with all the targeting capabilities today, if you can deliver insight and scale brands will spend with you.”

Some of this is through “what some folks would normally call ‘branded content’” – it is a word many publishers aren’t keen to use, perhaps due to some of the low quality of output historically in that category.

For Goal, Goal Studios used to produce this content. Now there’s a team of more than 100 people “[who] only live and breathe the football strategy development, ideation, content creation, activation and distribution of ’stories’ – a lot of that video – on behalf of our clients”.

Diversification

But now it has spun out from Dazn, it’s looking to diversify its output and get “supercharged to own the digital football fan ecosystem”. This means commercializing its own apparel (most recently in Fifa 21), bringing events to fans and potentially owning an esports team “at some point”.

When asked to compare his business to another in media, Delgado confesses he’ll sound “very American” but adds: “No one has ever done this in digital sports.”

The closest is probably the NBA’s global footprint through the likes of ESPN Digital, HouseOfHighlights and BleacherReport. “They serve the basketball fan in most of their digital needs, be that watching/reading good content, scores, lifestyle, culture or shopping. Outside of sport, there are some examples such as BuzzFeed or Vox – but we think that by being focused [on football] we have more to build and win.”

But with a World Cup immediately following a digitally disrupted Euros, the race is to have the business fully set up and get advertisers (who are already planning campaigns) spending.

The publisher that masters “video, social (again) and access” will win the day, according to Delgado. He concludes: “It’s hard to be authentic, to drive scale and to have access to the personalities that will drive the agenda.”