If you've watched a live football match lately, you've probably done so from the comfort of your sofa – as has the rest of the crowd. Even the word ‘crowd’ creates shivers in the wake of COVID-19, and it will be quite a long time until fans are allowed back into stadia.
Of course, the fans are grateful that there is any football at all to watch. The lockdown has put seasons on hold, and big matches have been cancelled at short notice due to positive tests among players. However, football as it is best, with thousands in stadia and thrilling atmosphere, is set to bounce back when the vaccines kick in and regular fans return to the terraces once more. Those in the business side of football recognise the challenges the sport and industry must weather require imaginative solutions.
So just what are those challenges? And where can you study to prepare for a career in the post-coronavirus football industry?
Football evolves slowly. But fans, players, and stakeholders alike have adjusted very quickly to patterns beyond that to which they are accustomed. As normality returns, it is likely to do so in unpredictable and unprecedented ways, particularly involving fans' return to the stands. Clubs will need to negotiate the unknown, keeping everybody safe and informed as regular habits are disrupted.
In other aspects of the business, change will be put on hold. Many clubs have been working to diversify their fanbase over recent years but will divert some of that energy back to reconnecting with season-ticket holders and loyal supporters.
“Whilst the full financial impact of COVID-19 is yet to be felt,” reported Deloitte ahead of the 2020-21 season, “it is anticipated that the clubs in smaller footballing countries and those in the lower leagues of larger countries will be hit the hardest. These clubs typically have a greater dependency on matchday revenues.”
With nobody coming through the turnstiles, clubs are innovating ways to create revenue on matchdays. For example, top Danish club FC Midtjylland turned their stadium car park into a drive-in to watch games on the big screen. But even when the gates are fully open again, clubs could struggle to attract crowds due to nervousness around using public transport. And fans may require encouragement to hang around and spend their money in stadium shops and bars after games.
Youth players thrive
One unexpected advantage of a ‘recession’ in the football business is that managers can no longer rely on big bank reserves to finance squad improvements. They will have to get inventive to bolster their team. Instead of investing tens of millions in headline-grabbing signings, managers and coaches will invest unprecedented time and care in their youth squads, therefore promoting local talent.
"At Ipswich, we have a really talented group from under-15s and under-16s upwards," says Paul Lambert, manager at Ipswich Town. “I know that if we can’t go out and spend a certain amount, we can bring these guys in and develop them.”
Developing technology – and relationships
The digitalized aspects of football are likely to go into rapid flux as a result of COVID lockdowns. Clubs and broadcasters will lean on technological solutions to deliver new types of content and diversify revenue sources.
Sponsors will require more meaningful relationships with clubs and supporters to ensure they are getting their money’s worth. Again, this is likely to involve digital solutions, as big data and club websites are put to work personalizing fans' experience (and advertising profiles).
Financial hit not as bad as predicted
The good news is financial losses have not been as bad as forecast. “A KPMG study suggested that the Big Five leagues were likely to lose up to €4 billion in 2019-20 alone and that up to €10 billion could be wiped off the value of players,” reports ESPN. Instead, more recent forecasts estimate a total loss of €4 billion across 20 top leagues (rather than five) and two seasons (rather than one). Since that €4bn is from a projected revenue of €45.1 billion, it is clear that the issue is less the size of the loss and more about who it hits and how.
Kick off your career in football business
Everybody is familiar with the players, coaches, and owners of football clubs, the sports anchors and commentators. But the fascinating business side of football takes place behind closed doors – fans see the headlines, but not the talented professionals. They make the figures add up in this lucrative industry. Football marketing directors, executives, and agents need qualifications like the players in any other business.
The University Campus of Football Business (UCFB) opened at Burnley FC’s Turf Moor in 2011 to deliver football and sports-focused degrees to those who want to delve deeper into the sport. UFCB has since opened campuses at legendary Wembley Stadium, home to the England national team, and the state-of-the-art Etihad Stadium, home to four-time Premier League winners Manchester City.
“At the heart of our Wembley Campus sits the iconic and historic Wembley Stadium, with phenomenal facilities surrounding one of the most inspirational, emotional places in sport,” says Sharona Friedman, UCFB’s Head of Future Students. “Walking up Wembley Way, I assure you, never gets boring. It inspires people constantly.”
In just a few years, UFCB has developed a graduate employment rate of 90% within six months of graduation (two-thirds in sport), which is way above the average for sports degree providers. And by partnering with extraordinary brands, clubs, and stadia, the school ensures its degrees are dynamic and relevant.
“We use a mixture of academics from purely academic backgrounds, and also some industry-related backgrounds, and really focus on those areas,” adds Friedman. “You’re going to hear from guest speakers, and that really brings the theory to life, and it makes it more applicable. We provide a plethora of opportunities to go out there and actually try what you’ve been learning in the classroom.”
A Global Institute of Sport
In addition to these fantastic campus locations, UCFB has launched the Global Institute of Sport (GIS), an exciting new hub for Master's degrees and executive education for the global sports industry. GIS has homes at Red Bull Arena in New York, Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, and Melbourne Cricket Ground in Australia. These campuses and partnerships enable students to plug straight into an unrivaled network of leading sports names in the powerhouses of international football and sports.
Programs include UCFB’s MSc Football Business, designed to kick off careers as player agents, finance directors, and other exciting positions in football business.
"My whole life has always revolved around sport, and I've known that I want to work in the industry for several years, so the MSc Football Business gives me a unique chance to specialize in something I am so passionate about," says student Silje Meese, who studies at the Wembley campus. “The course is up to date and relevant to the current state of the football industry, and is a great addition to my Bachelor’s degree in International Marketing.”
“The online degree gave me the flexibility to stay at home with my family and to continue my education in the football industry,” says MSc Football Business (Online) student Maximilian Never. "My lecturer Chris (Winn) was fantastic. He studied football business himself, is very knowledgeable and comes from a football finance background himself in the industry. So it was great to get the chance to speak with him; he was always available, so you really did feel like you were part of everything."
Business at the heart of the beautiful game
BA Football Business and Media graduate Sean Elderbrant is now the Digital Media Executive at the Scottish Professional Football League (SPFL). “When you’re working somewhere like this, you start to see how much goes into making a football match happen,” explains Elderbrant. “It’s not just what fans see when you turn up for 90 minutes in the park.”
Elderbrant met SPFL Chief Executive Neil Doncaster at a UCFB management game session. Through him, Elderbrant secured work experience and an internship with SPFL. In addition to reaffirming that this was the career Elderbrant wanted, these experiences paved the way to the enviable position he holds today.
Naturally, while studying, you can find time to play the beautiful game (lockdown permitting). UCFB has its own football teams, which participate in BUCS, the official UK universities league organization.
Playing with your colleagues is the perfect way to strengthen your network and remind yourself what the football business is about: bringing people together to play and enjoy the world’s favorite sport, however the conditions allow. Better get warmed up!
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