Football in England has an interesting dynamic at play.
On one hand, it’s tribal. Picture the scene: season ticket holders meeting up for pre-match pints; a family gameday gathering; old regulars meeting their mates in the stands, ready to debate the same old topics. On the other hand, it’s a global behemoth, commanding billions in sponsorship and broadcasting rights, with audiences around the world in the tens of millions.
Most would say it’s a global game with a tribal heart. As lovely as that sounds, here’s the issue – the English game is at an inflection point where the tribal element is preventing strong fan engagement. It may be global, but going to the footy is still quite old fashioned. This old fashioned-ness is holding football brands back from growing.
The general experience from match-day research and occasional trips to games can be summed up as follows: pub, pasty, game, home. The closest thing to ‘experiential’ that I have ever encountered at a football match was at the 2003 FA Cup Final, where I was approached by a lady representing a crisp brand (rhymes with Moyes) who was offering, wait for it, free bags of crisps. You can’t deny its simplicity.
The Americans do it better
The English game wasn’t culturally built for brand engagement.
Look at our American counterparts in the NFL and it’s a different ball game. Tailgate parties adorn the parking bays and outer rings of football stadiums all around the States. They’re fan-initiated (not brand-activated), but that hasn’t stopped brands from capitalizing by engaging in and around the stadium, adding to the entertainment of the whole event.
In the last Super Bowl, the Budweiser ‘BudXHotel’ in South Beach Miami operated for three days before the game. At the ‘Super Bowl Experience,’ P&G ran a fairground-style ‘Fumble Frenzy’ where contestants could scramble using props (like the hungry hippos game) to win prizes such as Old Spice or Head & Shoulders. Compare that kind of engagement to the recent stir caused in social channels when a Fulham fan cracked out a victoria sponge cake and some tea during half-time, and we see the gulf between the two fan experiences.
A new playbook
We don’t have to copy the Americans, but taking a note out of their playbook would help. There’s a middle ground to fan engagement that respects the fans and the community it operates in. Victoria Sponge Fan probably doesn’t want to be accosted by an overzealous rep from the ‘Fulham Fan Experience’ and join other punters in a scramble for a Big Mac voucher. But there’s room to enhance brand activations given the growth in fanbases, generational support, sponsorship demand and technological innovation. At the center of these touch points is experiential, and that’s why it’s the key to unlocking brand growth.
There are grounds for optimism. Arsenal FC and Spain’s La Liga have partnered with tech platforms allowing fans from around the world to engage with matches. It’s only one small step for tech to combine memberships with season ticket holders’ branded in-app content that can run alongside branded areas in stadiums. In a recent Drum article, Pat Heffernan from Jack Morton illustrated a case study where Coors Light incorporated ‘cool rails’ that chill your beer while it rests.
There’s a convergence here with technology, brand experience and the event itself. Eight grounds in the Premier League and Championship are currently named after brands. The Premier League was the ‘Barclays Premier League’ for 15 years. In the 2019 season UK football fans were estimated to have spent £23.9m on Premier League shirts adorned with brand logos. Brand integration in the game is everywhere. It just needs to be more prominent on the day in and around the stadium.
What’s in it for brands?
American brands running NFL activations don’t do it out of the goodness of their hearts. There’s a ton of commercial gain to be found. Firstly, it costs a fraction of TV ads. Secondly, if the experience is great, it has a high chance of earning thousands of dollars in earned media. Experiential is a cost-effective way to enter a cluttered marketplace.
English football is not the easiest space for brands to operate in. But with brand integrations already happening, fans may be more receptive than one may think. The same can also be said for other sports in the UK. Premiership Rugby and the stratospherically growing Women’s Super League offer fresh territory for brands to explore and grow.
Recently at KGA, we ran an activation for the T20 Cricket World Cup, bringing to life an engrossing interactive ‘ultimate cricket viewing experience’ for cricket fans to watch and enjoy matches. When I next see that Fulham fan with his tea and cake, I hope to see a friendly brand providing a slice and cuppa outside the stadium, perhaps with a fun activation and a neatly-embedded digital element. The final whistle hasn’t blown and it’s still all to play for.
Charlie Price, marketing and new business director at KGA.