From a strong brand to data marketing: the start of a revolution

The big sports clubs have become increasingly aware of how extensive their fan base actually is and what that can mean for them commercially. That you can only take a giant step forwards when you also focus on digitisation and data collection, is not yet generally accepted. Together with Hans Westerbeek we look at the start of a revolution.

Football institutions like FC Barcelona, Manchester City, Juventus and Real Madrid have millions of fans worldwide who identify themselves with the grandeur that the 'brand' stands for. Football giant Real Madrid experienced this like no other and has excelled in the past 15 years – they have been brand building. After financially challenging times some decades ago, a period began where the team won one victory after another, led by vice-president Emilio Butragueño and Cristiano Ronaldo, and Real Madrid grew as a global brand. The next step in marketing and extending the brand into the digital age has to do with data... And data about fans is the holy grail. A revolution is imminent.

The strength of emotional connection between fans and an organisation such as a football club cannot be compared with other business branches. 'Both the deep emotional involvement by the consumers of the sport, and the high tension that the competition elicits are very attractive to people.' And Hans Westerbeek, Professor of International Sport Business and Head of the Sport Business Insights Group, knows this. After a thirty-year career in sport, he understands like no other how both the business of sports works and how to achieve marketing success in sport. He was instrumental in setting up a partnership between his Australian University and the sports business program at Real Madrid Graduate School (RMGS) and as such he also is an Adjunct Professor with the RMGS.

Limited knowledge of data

The big sports clubs of the world—in European football and especially in the various US-based sporting leagues—have become increasingly aware of how extensive their fan base actually is and what that can mean for them commercially. It has been the trigger for many large sports clubs to focus on building and expanding their brand and image. That you only take a giant step forwards when you also focus on digitisation and data collection, is not yet generally accepted. 'Both in the Netherlands and abroad you will see that people who work in sports business have a rather high level of education, so that is not the limiting factor,' Westerbeek says. 'But they are not always convinced that big data could mean something to them. I still frequently hear: "Surely our marketing team knows the consumers better than some algorithms." It is an opinion primarily based on limited knowledge regarding what data can actually deliver for your organisation.'

Especially for sport clubs with millions of fans spread across the whole world, there are countless opportunities to collect data about those fans and opportunities to get to know them better, to learn more about their passion and their behaviour in regard to the team or sport. It is important to find out what moves them, what their needs are and which products and services they would like to purchase. Westerbeek: 'The point is—and in recent years, I see it more and more—that when it comes down to the crunch, all of us humans are very alike. Our emotional reactions and our impressions of what we prefer and desire really do not differ that much. When you map that out for the sport consumer, you will quickly notice patterns that as a marketer you can use. And when you truly start understanding the value in that, you will also realise that if you can get even more information about your customers, you can achieve amazing marketing success.'

The start of a revolution

The knowledge about better understanding your the fanbase, and what this can deliver for an organisation is certainly still in its infancy, especially in sports. In addition to offering their services, digital marketing agencies must also be able to explain what value they can add. Even if it is just because some sports organisations believe that the (digital data) companies that already collect sport related data are hijacking the market. 'And that is not the case,' assures Westerbeek. 'It is simple: If you as a sport organisation have a large fanbase, you will have huge opportunities to expand it even further. And you can do this by mapping the behaviour of passionate fans who have never entered a stadium but are willing to buy club merchandise as a Christmas present. The huge fan base of large football clubs is there, mostly untouched, almost screaming out to be communicated with. Yet, the club often does not know how to contact those fans, because who and where are they?

The start of a revolution

"That is exactly what digital marketing specialists like SportsCloud can clarify. They help organisations search through digital channels, websites, social media feeds and tracking technology for information about what the fans do, and what moves them. If you are smart enough, you can eventually map almost every interaction and build a very specific fan profile. Ultimately it is only a matter of time before someone also leaves their email address. At that point in time you can initiate contact and start engaging with the fan." In some industries it is now commonplace to collect data and build profiles to know better how to deliver on the wants and needs of customers. The sport industry is catching up, and even in multi million dollar companies like sport bookmakers, the possibilities of digitally driven customer profiling remains a new way of looking at the business. Westerbeek: 'They are governing bodies and clubs in sport, where apart from the professional elite sport part of the business, it remains hard to connect to members and amateur players. Given that is the state of play, it can be argued that we are at the beginning of a true revolution.'

Club culture

During the professional sports business program—offered by Victoria University together with Real Madrid Graduate School, a collaboration between the club and the European University of Madrid—, Westerbeek introduces the audience to the global world of sport and business. It gave him a unique opportunity to look behind the scenes of one of the largest sports institutions in the world and to exchange ideas with senior Real Madrid executives. What Real Madrid has built is impressive in every way: the imposing (to be renovated) Estadio Santiago Bernabéu, the bulging trophy cabinet, but also the Real Madrid Graduate School and Real Madrid City, the campus where all youth teams train and where the road leads to the training fields and apartments of the first team. ‘Real Madrid is a classical case of brand building, and they are truly good at it. As a matter of fact, in every industry, the companies at the top are those that have built a super-strong brand over the past twenty years. They have managed to 'grab' the market better than many others. That brand represents great value. And with a strong brand in sport business, such as Real Madrid, the brand itself is more valuable than for example in the banking or energy industry. After all, as a large sport club, you can emotionally motivate people to spend money, something other organisations would not be able to do that easily. It now can be observed that some clubs are starting to realise the value of better data in regard to their fans, in the top of the Champions League, but also, for example, in the NBA: We are selling millions of shirts across the globe, but who are those people buying them exactly?

The pinnacle of professional sport

Historical awareness and the cultivation of the typical club culture: these are important elements in building a strong brand in sport. Westerbeek uses the Green Bay Packers as an example; the NFL-team based in what he describes as 'a little sleepy town' in Wisconsin in the north of the United States, but with an image that appeals worldwide. The bright yellow helmet and the green shirt, the open stadium and the natural grass in the winter cold, and the spirit of late success coach Vince Lombardi, the namesake of the Super Bowl trophy, all make the Packers a unique phenomenon. 'And they know better than anybody how to cultivate it. This also applies to Real Madrid.'

The pinnacle of professional sport

Westerbeek experienced first-hand how overwhelming Real Madrid's stronghold can be. It ‘grabbed me by the throat’ when he entered the gates of the Bernabéu. 'Yeah, totally. In the end, I am also a sports and football fan. In my job I can separate the business of sport from my passion for it, but when you first get there, see the trophies, get the chance to chat with Emilio Butragueño, look behind the scenes to hear about the challenges that coach Zinedine Zidane is facing with a high profile player, and what their vision is on the distribution of TV rights, that is a powerful experience. Everything around you screams: This is the pinnacle of professional sport. It is very special that you can just take a look behind the scenes. I was allowed to attend some major matches, one of them was wehn Real Madrid faced their cross town rivals Atlético Madrid, in the semi-finals of the Champions League. I was there a few hours in advance and saw how the player bus slowly approached the stadium. It was as if the Dutch national team had just become world champions. And this happens at every home game. That is when you realise how special this club is.'

Visionary leader

The name has been dropped. Emilio Butragueño, 'El Buitre' or 'The Vulture'. Son of the club, legendary forward and the current vice-president of the 33-time national champion. The 56-year-old Spaniard represents everything Real Madrid stands for. He is an exponent of the Real Madrid 'brand'. Just as when he was a star player, he now acts in his current position: everything is done in service to the club. And that is what you feel and see when you meet him, flawlessly dressed and with an eye for detail. 'When he meets you, he immediately gives you the feeling that you are the most important foreign guest that week,' knows Westerbeek. 'He has taken on the task of making the club bigger and makes every effort to do so. He has a feel for the brand and is naturally smart. And he remains a football player. When he walks through the stadium, he mischievously shows you where he used to have his locker in the change room.' Westerbeek then makes the comparison with Edwin van der Sar. 'Also, a real football player. After his career, he was brought into Ajax's organisation while nobody really knew what he could do as a manager. Of course, he had a big name and brought a whole network with him, but it took some time to realise that he had a special talent. He studied marketing and business, and with his team changed the business model of the club and now he is really becoming a visionary leader.' That is what Butragueño should be called as well: a visionary leader. 'He knows better than anyone how larger than life the club is and where the future of Real Madrid is tracking.

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