“What they do great in North America is the fan engagement side of things, they put on a great show week in, week out,” said Brighton & Hove Albion FC chief executive Paul Barber at the Sport Industry Breakfast Club.
The former CEO of Major League Soccer’s (MLS) Vancouver Whitecaps told members of the Sport Industry Breakfast Club - and host Lynsey Hipgrave - that several lessons could be learned from the successful running of clubs in the USA, and that teams in the UK can be hesitant to try new ideas.
“They’re not afraid to do things differently and they appreciate that the fans make the game. Without them, they wouldn’t exist. For a while I think we forgot that in English football, and we’ve learnt a lot of lessons from what they do over there.”
While utilising many lessons learned during his time in the MLS, Barber added that he was more than happy to share work with others closer to home, particularly when it comes to the club’s new training ground.
“We’ve had about 40 or 50 clubs from around the world visit the new training ground including Juventus, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, and most of the Premier League. Every club is different, so I don’t have a problem showing off the little innovations we have incorporated. Yes it means they can take it away and try it for themselves, but that’s what progress is, because we’ve taken ideas and learnings from other clubs too. They may take our latest idea, but by the time they’ve incorporated it into their facility we’re already onto the next one anyway!
“As someone who has spent 20 years in football, I'm keen to learn from other sports as well. We’ve been to McLaren’s base looking at precision engineering, and also high performance in everything they do, from the way the receptionist greets you through to how the car is put out on the track. Every element is analysed and considered.
“We’ve also been to Wimbledon to see how they set up their fan experience and flow, we’ve been to Manchester City to see how they integrate their Women’s team into the club, we’ve been to Manchester United to see how they sell merchandise to fans around the world, and we’ve been to Tottenham Hotspur – who have also spent time with us – looking at their new stadium. There’s only 92 professional clubs in the country, and about 30 with a stadium directly comparable, so we have to share knowledge or we won’t get anywhere.”
Barber reflected on his business background, learning his trade and forming a base for his time in professional football: “You’re taught how to budget, how to manage people, how to treat people properly. They’re not niche skills, if you can take that into the sport industry and continue to professionalise it that’s no bad thing. In business they’re willing to invest in their people, so there’s plenty of leadership training and management training, which the sport industry is only now catching on to. It’s certainly a lesson sport can learn from other sectors.”
After moving into the American Express Community Stadium in 2011, work has continued to rebuild the club’s fanbase: “In 2010 we had an average crowd of about 7,000. In the years the club were in the wilderness, waiting for a permanent home ground, we lost a generation of fans. There’s therefore been a lot of work done to start bringing young fans back. We started a programme to capture the hearts and minds of youngsters in the city. One thing we do is that on any child’s seventh birthday who is registered with us, they get a free shirt. That’s become a big tradition of ours and people in the area sign up especially for that. Obviously it helps that things have improved on the pitch, and kids are proud to wear their Brighton shirts now.
“If you allow football clubs to become separate from their fanbase you will create the kind of issues that we have seen occasionally in recent years, simply where fans have lost their way with the club. I’ve seen signs up saying ‘fans against modern football,’ I don’t buy that. It’s the club’s responsibility to make sure that fans embrace modern football, and if you can do that by embracing some of the great bits from the past, then you’ve got a good football club.”
The Seagulls also commit time and money to the away fan experience, with 2,700 Newcastle United fans expected to attend Tuesday’s away fixture – 700 more than the allocation that Brighton were required to offer – with fans welcomed with local ales and invited to join home fans for a post-match drink in the concourse.
Since missing out on automatic promotion last year on goal-difference, the financial incentives for a place in the Premier League next year continue to grow. Asked by Hipgrave what it would mean financially to succeed this season, Barber replied: “Overnight, it’s give or take £100m, literally. Someone mentioned the other day that £35m of it comes on the 1st July. If that’s the case I can’t wait if it does happen! The difference is huge and the disparity between the two leagues is enourmous and that’s just down to the Premier League marketing a fantastic global proposition. We’d love to be a part of it.”
The Sport Industry Breakfast Club is the industry’s number one networking event series with four content-led networking breakfasts over the course of the year. Each event welcomes up to 200 guests from across the industry for an interview with a panel of leading figures from the world of sport and business.
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