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Marketing lessons from the rise of the Premier League

Liam Curley
Liam Curley
6 min read
Marketing lessons from the rise of the Premier League

Towards the end of the 1980s, English football was at an all-time low. UEFA issued a 5-year ban on English clubs participating in European competitions due to hooliganism.

The national sport was better known for fighting off the pitch than anything happening on it.

In 1992, the combined revenue of the top-tier clubs was £50 million.

Then, they ripped up the old playbook, restructured, and rebranded.

Now, in 2022, the clubs have combined revenue of £10 billion - an increase of 10,000%.

These are the marketing lessons from the rise of the Premier League.

1) Change

Matches on TV are only aired for 15 minutes.

Pre-1992, football was governed by the Football League. It was an antiquated institution where every one of the 92 clubs had a vote on proposed changes to the game.

This was a recipe for stagnation. Whilst North American sports were embracing new media and with it the commercial opportunities, the Football League viewed TV as the enemy of live sport.

They feared that if they broadcast games on TV, supporters would stop going to games and watch from their sofa instead. So much so, until the late 80s they restricted games to only 15mins on air. The coverage would stop immediately at that point.

The Premier League was a breakaway from the Football League, meaning they could take advantage of new media.

Lesson

Change favours the new, and old establishments will always resist. Their very foundations rely on maintaining the status quo.

For entrepreneurs and startups, change is your friend.

Search it out, embrace it, and lead it. You're nimble enough to transition and sculpt your business around the changing environment.

2) Don't reinvent the wheel

In the 1980s, Arsenal chairman, David Dein, took a trip to visit the Miami Dolphins. He loved what he discovered:

  • Big screens
  • Wide concourses
  • Gourmet food
  • Mascots
  • Cheerleaders

NFL was a vision of the future - what the Premier League needed to become.

Lesson

There are hundreds of industries and thousands of markets. They all do things differently to your industry, region, and country.

Explore them. I like to check out the Inc 5000.

Find what works elsewhere, import it, and translate it to your market.

3) An experience

An experience

David Dein learned something else in Miami:

  • NFL wasn't just a game of football
  • It was an event and experience
  • A day out for families

The attraction wasn't the match; it was the event. This would be an ambition for the Premier League.

The same couldn't be said for English football unless you liked a pre-match punch-up in a filthy alley.

Lesson

You're not selling a product or service. You're selling an experience.

That experience includes:

  • Your content
  • Your demos
  • Your pitch
  • Your product
  • Your after-sales service

The whole package is the product. Don't focus all attention on the deliverable at expense of the 'soft' interactions that happen before and after.

4) Customer care

Customer care

When the Premier League launched, toilets at the grounds were dirty, cramped, and stinky. What does it say about your attitude towards customers when you provide these types of facilities?

Here's what changed:

  • David Dein (again) campaigned to increase half-time breaks from 10 to 20 minutes. If you want to sell supporters food and drink, you need to give them a decent loo break!
  • Arsenal led the change to revamp the stadium toilets that you find today. More akin to something you'd find in a hotel lobby.

These changes happened whilst revenues were rising.

Lesson

Here's a common trend: when times are good, make them better. Cut costs to improve margins and increase profits.

Customer care is usually the first sacrifice in cost-cutting exercises.

The Premier league improved conditions even when revenues were rising. The clubs strove to make things better, even when business was booming. If they didn't have this attitude, they wouldn't have grown 10,000%.

Customer service is always vital.

5) Find better clients

English football has working-class routes.

Until the 1990s, clubs hadn't considered corporate hospitality. This would change in the Premier League years. Now, clubs sell corporate tickets at 10x the standard rate. They opened up a whole new market.

Today, many clubs make more than £1 million per match on gate receipts alone.

Lesson

This isn't a lesson on community and social harmony - it's on business and marketing.

Better clients have more money. This is particularly true in B2B.

Want great clients? Pick a market where prospects have the budget to pay for great work.

6) Shared identity

Shared identity

Historically, English football was suspicious of foreigners. The Premier League blew this mentality away.

113 nationalities have played in the league. It's no coincidence that games have aired in 185 nations.

TV fans follow their national idols.

Lesson

People are more likely to buy your product if they think it's just for them. People worldwide watch the Premier League and find at least one player that looks and sounds like them.

Sales come easier when you enable the customer to:

  • Identify with the message you put out
  • Envision themselves as your customer

This is why it's important to niche down.

7) Understanding the benefits

Understanding the benefits

Any team can beat another. That's not the same in Spain or Italy.

The key reason for this is how the money is split among clubs:

  • 50% of TV revenue is shared equally
  • 25% is based on TV appearances
  • 25% is based on the final table position

This relative financial parity leads to a competitive league. A critical USP amongst the top European leagues.

Lesson

TV fans, the neutrals, want to switch on without knowing there's a guaranteed winner.

Spanish, Italian, and German leagues would eventually catch up with the commercialisation of the Premier League. But, due to the league's financial structure, they can't replicate the competitiveness.

Know what's important to your customers.

8) Your core value

Although the Premier League took inspiration from NFL, there remains a crucial difference.

English clubs aren't franchises.

There's a bond between the club, local industry, and community that built it. Town, City, United: the names are evidence of community.

Premier League is a combination of modern and traditional. That's what makes it unique.

Lesson

Some things, you should change for the better. Others, cling to them and never let go.

You should have your values down cold. They give your brand its personality, its essence.

If you lose them, you'll eventually lose any USP and become one of the crowd.

9) Aesthetics

Aesthetics

England has never been a big exporter of players.

But, one person is regularly poached by European competitors - the groundsman.

Lush pitches look fantastic on camera. That matters. So much so that Italian clubs paint their pitch green to compete on aesthetics.

Lesson

Never judge a book by its cover. Only we all do.

Small businesses often skimp on the aesthetics of the product and brand.

Don't make the same mistake. Polish turns prospects and customers into fans.

10,000% growth requires polish.

10) Diversify

Diversify

In 2005, new US owners bought Man Utd. In the same year, the principle club sponsors, Vodafone, cancelled their sponsorship with the club. The owner's response: "Good, they're regional sponsors anyway."

The new ownership would change the sponsorship model.

Before, it was pretty much a main shirt sponsor and manufacturer. Now:

  • Pharmaceuticals
  • Soft drinks
  • Training Ground
  • Airline
  • Tyres
  • Chocolate
  • Couriers
  • etc.

Within 10 years, sponsorship revenue went from £9m to £95m per year.

Lesson

You don't want to dilute your brand and position. But, that doesn't mean you can't diversify your income stream.

Man Utd put their badge on more products.

Can you:

  • Enter a new market?
  • Upsell new products?
  • Create complementary models (e.g. subscription)?

Takeaway

  • Change favours new and small businesses. Embrace it!
  • Don't reinvent the wheel; look for inspiration from vertical and horizontal markets
  • Sell experiences, not products
  • Keep improving customer experience, even when sales are increasing
  • B2B - consciously target clients and markets with big budgets
  • Niche down - create a message that one target prospect can identify with
  • Know what your customer is truly paying for. The one thing that you can't afford to lose.
  • Embrace change, but never shift from your core values
  • Don't underestimate the impact of aesthetics
  • Look to diversify revenue streams

Sources:

All Premier League facts from this article come from:

The Club: How the Premier League Became the Richest, Most Disruptive Business in Sport