SPECIAL REPORT | SOCCER
Mersey tide Liverpool were the leading force in English soccer in the years before the Premier League and, despite underachieving in recent times, remain among the world’s best-supported teams. Transatlantic commercial duo Billy Hogan and Olly Dale explain how the club is reaching out to a global fanbase which is hungry for success but loyal to the cause. By Eoin Connolly. Photographs by Graham Fudger.
his is Anfield, a few hours before Liverpool’s Premier League encounter with Newcastle United in early November. Billy Hogan (left), the club’s chief commercial officer, and sales director Olly Dale (right) have just finished an interview with SportsPro in an executive box looming over one corner of the ground. The two are chatting about a freakish comeback win in that week’s Capital One Cup as the conversation turns to the nebulous concept of momentum in sport; the feeling of an intangible force working in one team’s direction. It is not the first time the term has come up on the day. “We haven’t had as much success as we’d have liked on the pitch the last several years,” admits Hogan during the interview, “and our fanbase has remained incredibly loyal and incredibly strong throughout that process. I think we’re now, as we talked about, feeling a great momentum within the club as the business side is really getting up and going and as the football side is starting to see improvement on the pitch under Brendan [Rodgers]. There’s this great sense that we’re heading in the right direction.” It is now just over two years since John Henry and Tom Werner completed their takeover of Liverpool from the locally despised Tom Hicks and George Gillett. The experience since, Hogan says, has served to confirm what Henry and Werner’s Fenway Sports Group (FSG) had already suspected: “the size and scale of the club, the support and the strength of the fanbase, the opportunity that exists
64 | SportsProMedia.com
from a commercial side that hadn’t yet been tapped into.” Yet they have been two years of trial by fire as well, not least on the field, and there is a sense that it is only now that FSG is fully bringing the club under its own auspices. On the playing side, this has meant hiring and then firing Kenny Dalglish, probably the most popular living figure associated with the club. The Scot’s messianic presence went from energising to enervating during an emotionally draining 15-month second stint as manager and he was replaced over the summer by the highly regarded if untested Brendan Rodgers, arguably FSG’s first long-term appointment in the role. Commercially, things have progressed with altogether less heartbreak. Dale stresses the contribution to the commercial project of Ian Ayre, the Liverpool managing director who was commercial director under Hicks and Gillett. Liverpudlian Ayre was instrumental in securing Liverpool’s front-of-shirt sponsorship deal with Standard Chartered – a partnership which not only earns the club a reported UK£20 million a year but was also activated in a way that foreshadowed the current international strategy. American Hogan worked on the acquisition team that evaluated Liverpool as a prospective Fenway purchase but only arrived at the club full-time in May. His relationship with English colleague Dale dates back three and a half years to the latter’s time at Premier League club Fulham. Dale reached Anfield via FSG’s in-house agency Fenway Sports Management, where Hogan also worked. The rest of the team coming together
under Hogan is a blend of Liverpool experience and expertise from Fenway and beyond. “That’s been the most important thing, frankly, in my time here, is to get that team in place,” says Hogan. “And now that we’re in place, go from here.” Both Hogan and Dale believe that membership of such a prestigious and extensive portfolio of properties as FSG, which includes Major League Baseball’s Boston Red Sox, Nascar’s Roush Fenway Racing and a partnership with LeBron James, brings a unique set of benefits. “It gives us a great sense of scale in terms of our connections,” says Dale. “That, for me, is an important point to make. We’re able to have a close relationship with a huge amount of organisations who are working in the sports industry. So that’s big and as we’ve said previously, this industry is moving very quickly, it’s very dynamic, and the ability for us to be able to tap into different areas of expertise across the group is hugely beneficial for us.” Dale, unlike Hogan, is permanently based on Merseyside, and while he jokes of 11pm phone calls from Boston – preferable, he says, to the “7pm ‘putting the kids to bed’ call” – the arrangement brings further rewards. “I think what’s helpful from a Liverpool perspective also is that the sports marketing industry in the UK is reasonably young by comparison,” he explains, “and we’ve been able to learn a tremendous amount from the more developed, established sports marketing industry, which is a much bigger industry in the States.” The learning process runs both ways, of course, and for FSG there has been much to discover about the nature of English soccer and Liverpool Football Club. There have been some embarrassments, most recently the brief, bizarre stint of director of communications Jen Chang, who left the club shortly after becoming embroiled in a bullying scandal with a Liverpool season ticket holder who ran a parody Twitter account which had posted transfer ‘scoops’. Still, much of it has been positive, even during times of adversity or painful reflection. Hogan speaks with quiet admiration of the extraordinary campaign for justice waged by the families of the 96 Liverpool supporters killed in the
Hillsborough stadium disaster of 1989. “Obviously what they’ve gone through and those families went through was unimaginable,” he says. “But I think it really is about – and I guess what makes Liverpool unique in that regard – the strength of the fanbase and the feeling almost of a family within the fanbase.” Among much else, the ongoing Hillsborough campaign has reinforced something that really does make the Liverpool support look different; an ineffable sense of seeming very big and very small at the same time. “This isn’t a club that has developed a fanbase on the back of short-term successes over the last five years,” says Dale. “This is a club that has a long-term, very large fanbase. So that’s the first point. And I think, like we said, there’s a special sense of community about this football club, which I think is probably unique in football.” Though the bulk of the club’s massive haul of silverware was plundered in what might be called soccer’s pre-commercial age, Liverpool were among the first English sides, along with Lancashire rivals Manchester United, to develop a truly international fanbase. The breadth of it becomes apparent as Dale checks off a list of the club’s regional commercial targets. “There are some very established markets for Liverpool in terms of fanbase,” he says. “A lot of people talk about south-east Asia and south-east Asia is hugely important – we’ve got a million Facebook friends in Indonesia so we’ve got a very strong following there, huge presence in Thailand and other territories around south-east Asia. But let’s not forget about Scandinavia, where there’s a long-term, very passionate presence for Liverpool. Similarly with Ireland. We have a tremendous amount of support in South Africa and Australia, areas where we’re looking to develop more relationships and develop our presence.” Not forgetting, of course, that although their 18th and most recent English league title came as long ago as 1990, Liverpool remain perhaps the best-supported club in England and the dominant thread in the cultural fabric of their home city – with apologies to both Everton and The Beatles. Maintaining equilibrium between domestic and international interests,
SportsPro Magazine | 65
SPECIAL REPORT | SOCCER
Liverpool chief commercial officer Billy Hogan (left) and sales director Olly Dale (right), pictured at Anfield in Liverpool on Sunday 4th November
Anfield, rich with history, is Liverpool’s home, but the club has long had support overseas; fans in Guangdong, China during the tour of Asia in 2011
Hogan concedes, is a “hard balance”, albeit one the club is better equipped to deal with than ever before. “I think if you look at the way that we’re structured,” he argues, “and it goes back to the Fenway Sports Group component, we now have a team here in Liverpool, a team in Boston, we have folks in Asia, so we are now spread out across the globe to be able to focus almost from a regional standpoint on developing the business.” There remain some ways in which Liverpool approaches its supporters on a global scale. Several long-term partners, such as Carlsberg, retain branding rights in every market. Meanwhile in kit supplier Warrior – who came to the club through FSG connections and owner New Balance’s deal with the Boston Red Sox – the club has an enthusiastic new worldwide cheerleader. “When you look at what the opportunity was from the club’s perspective, it was a new partner in the world of football and we were intrigued because of the fact that we would be the one club that they were working with initially,” says Hogan, revealing that the club has enjoyed record sales since the first Warrior replica jerseys launched in the summer. Increasingly, however, it is the regional partnerships which are shaping the club’s ‘geo-targeted’ international strategy.
and Nigeria. Liverpool have even been able to reach further beyond the traditional boundaries of a soccer club’s activities. “One of the exciting ventures that we are working on currently is a joint venture with the London School of Business and Finance,” reveals Dale, “where we will be offering, together, education products on an international basis that focus on leadership and management, and also language and football, which are new, pioneering products that we’re working on with an established partner in that space. That’s going to give us the opportunity to offer a whole new different insight on Liverpool and provide a whole new different outlook on the football club.” Ultimately, though, it all comes back to Anfield. Liverpool’s home is modest and unassuming compared to many modern grounds, nestled snugly in a residential area of the city next to Stanley Park, but even on a crisp, clear afternoon the air around it is thick with history. Looking around the directors’ box on a matchday it becomes easy to see why, after a recent charity dinner attended by former players, Brendan Rodgers was moved to admit he felt “like an impostor”. In October, the club announced its intentions to refit Anfield as a 60,000-seater venue rather than build a new stadium elsewhere. The success of the project, which carries an estimated
66 | SportsProMedia.com 67
There have been a handful of such deals already: in the betting category, for example, 188Bet is Liverpool’s international partner but Paddy Power retains rights in the UK and Ireland and Misli has secured them in Turkey. The advantages of such a strategy are many, not least in opening up the range of potential partners and the markets in which fans receive greater attention. Brand protection becomes easier too, Hogan argues: “The more partners you have, the more protection you ultimately have because your partners are just as concerned with your brand being protected because they’re the ones that have the rights to use it.” It also allows for, and demands, a “very tailored” approach to meeting the needs of both parties and, in Dale’s words, “creating value”. “We’re in a situation at the moment where we have, say, a Honda motorcycle partnership in Thailand where we have thousands of Liverpool-branded vehicles on the streets of Bangkok in a city where we have 396,000 Facebook friends,” he suggests. “So that kind of relationship in Thailand is going to look very different to some of the relationships that we’ll nurture in the States. So it’s about being flexible.” The club’s communications operation is being shaped in a similar mould. “Just like we talked about listening to your partners
and trying to come up with a plan that works for them on the partnership side, the same has to be done on the fanbase side,” says Hogan, “creating products in Indonesia that are going to be different from what you might have in Australia.” Being: Liverpool, a TV documentary series produced by Fox and aired internationally earlier this year, was the inevitable subject of terrace humour but a “tremendous” success in connecting with the club’s fans, according to Dale. Again, though, the international supporter base is met not through a blanket method but on an ever-more localised basis, not only through bespoke social media initiatives but also through content created within the club’s in-house outlets. “That means obviously having the news and the content that comes out of the club here but it also means creating content that’s local as well,” explains Hogan. “You know, if you’re a fan of Liverpool in Melbourne you probably follow the club differently than if you live in Merseyside.” Alongside the partnerships comes what Dale describes as the “permanent infrastructure” of the club’s international strategy, of which tours and soccer schools form the foundation. Commercial and social interests come together in this sphere, with Standard Chartered supporting many of the club’s schools in developing countries such as India, Kenya
UK£150 million cost, remains dependent on the approval of local residents and a planning application will not be submitted until next summer. For Hogan, who compares the plan to FSG’s decision to keep the Boston Red Sox at a redeveloped Fenway Park, it is a “great story” and a compelling idea. “Just as a fan,” he says, “as somebody who supports the club, staying at Anfield would have to be the more attractive opportunity because of what is here – it’s 120 years of history.” Hogan describes his first match at Anfield as “sort of a life-changing experience” but his support for keeping the club there has pragmatic as well as romantic motivations. In the search for new sponsorship, he believes that “there are opportunities for partners to participate with the club that frankly wouldn’t exist if you went to a new stadium.” He adds, “I think being a part of helping the team stay at Anfield, if you will, is a great opportunity for partners to be involved with the club.” In the immediate term it also frees the commercial team’s hand to develop the hospitality offering, which has fallen behind the experience available at newer grounds. Space is at a premium, but already a pilot scheme is in place where the club’s most esteemed guests
can share an ultra high-end suite with the owners before and after the game. The increasing differentiation may bring more opportunities to make money but wherever the supporters sit they share the same ambition for Liverpool: a return to Champions League status and the restoration of greater former glories after that. Hogan and Dale spend the hours after the interview meeting guests and sponsors, among them representatives of the Turkish suit maker Ramsey, with whom the club signed one of its regional deals in May. Anfield fills through the mid-afternoon and Liverpool’s match is one of those late autumn affairs in England where day turns to night at half-time. It is not the only change in the game after the interval. The home side, a goal down after a timid first half, find purpose and vigour in the second period. It feels something like momentum. An Anfield crowd that has fallen into diffident quiet begins to stir. The equaliser comes and although a winner does not follow, optimism lingers among the streams of red-shirted believers flowing back into the city night. “I’m glad you got to hear that Anfield roar,” says Hogan after the game. It may be that after a difficult few years, one of world sport’s great teams can once again find its full voice.
SportsPro Magazine | 66 67