We spoke with sports industry expert Drew Barrand about pre season tours and the challenge of player welfare versus commercial gain...
For many clubs, the start of the league season comes after a bewilderingly long pre-season tour to far-flung lands. Now a crucial revenue generator for the world’s leading clubs, there is every possibility that we’ll reach a tipping point whereby these 10,000-mile tours begin having a negative impact on what happens on the pitch. We sat down with Drew Barrand, former Marketing Director of the EFL, to take a deeper look into the issue v rewards.
Football is well and truly back under way. It’s a good job they had a long, quiet, relaxing summer to take the strain off.
Well, not exactly. For the most part, the footballing season in Europe finished in May – with the exception of June’s UEFA Champions League final. Players will have no doubt soaked up a few weeks of sun, but before they knew it were back in the gym, out on the training field and jumping on an aeroplane to travel thousands of miles for a few feeble friendlies. Why? All in the name of cold, hard cash.
“If you ask anyone on the playing operations side, they’ll say that a good pre-season involves competitive games against decent sides where you can test new strategies and formations,” Drew Barrand explains.
"The reason pre-season tours have become what they are today is entirely commercial; it’s all about building a global brand.”
Take a look at Liverpool, for example. After winning their sixth Champions League title in June’s final, they were back in action just five weeks later and preparing to jet off to America shortly after their first two fixtures. What happened Stateside will soon be forgotten by the football department – but the trip was part of a wider commercial plan that is paying dividends, and for the club’s international fans it provided moments of a lifetime.
Meanwhile, in South Korea, fans were up in arms because Juventus’ star man Cristiano Ronaldo didn’t feature in the game, despite reported contractual obligations to do so. "It’s a catch 22", says Drew.
“These tours only work at their commercial best if the big players are part of it, but they’re the ones who need the most rest. It doesn’t matter if they only play five minutes, it’s just about bringing them to the market and getting fans in seats.”
The maths seems simple – sell out huge American college stadiums, like Manchester United and Real Madrid did in 2014 when 109,000 people watched the teams go head to head, and rake in the revenue from ticket sales. Job done. Once again, there’s a bit more to it than that. It’s been said that data is this generation’s most valuable resource – it’s 21st Century oil – and getting ticketing information from international fans opens up a whole host of opportunities in new, as-yet-undeveloped, overseas markets.
“Most clubs will be thinking more long term than just selling tickets.”
“Now, they’re capturing data that will give them something to hang their hats on in America, Asia or wherever it may be. Pre-season tours used to be about making a quick buck, but by using data to develop a relationship you’re getting much more out of it than just the money that fan is spending on the day.
“Obviously, they are still looking for that immediate return on investment – clubs pay a lot of money to put these tours together and it has to be able to wash its own face – but it’s also an investment for the future. By creating brand platforms in new markets, the clubs involved are engaging with fans in ways they won’t have experienced before, and capturing their data allows for continued personalised marketing efforts dependent on location, increasing the value of current and new commercial sponsorship deals.”
But at the end of the day, players must be put first. Juventus prioritised Cristiano Ronaldo’s fitness and wellbeing, and while it riled a few fans it won’t have impacted too much on the tour’s commercial success overall. It’s no surprise that, by managing himself and his fitness effectively, Ronaldo is still playing at the very highest level as he heads towards his mid-30s. At the other end of the spectrum, Alexis Sanchez has been much maligned for his performances of late, but a little look into his playing record may shed some light on his drop in form – if Chile qualify for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, the Manchester United man will have had just one full summer of rest in an eight-year period.
Between them, the top six Premier League clubs travelled a total of 80,499 miles in preseason – Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men trekked as far as Perth, Australia, for a friendly meeting with Leeds United, whose stadiums are a mere 48 miles apart, while Manchester City played Wolverhampton Wanderers in Shanghai. The financial impact of these tours is evident, but that’s not something that staff within football operations departments care much for.
The conflict between these two halves of a football club is now an annual event, and as pre-season tours get more and more ambitious and far-fetched, that is only set to continue.
“It’s such a long season now that you’ll have football operations teams fighting to make sure players aren’t too lethargic or too tired for the start of the competitive season."
“It’s about working in unison and teams within any given organisation need to make sure it works for both sides and strikes that balance. Liverpool provided a fine example of that – it wasn’t all about results and their international fans understood that they were there to watch an exhibition match, so the score line didn’t matter. They left America winless, but have started the season off to a flyer.”
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