How Southampton FC is differentiating itself in a competitive market
January 11, 2024
Sport Republic, a London-based investment firm, completed the takeover of Southampton in January 2022, buying Gao Jisheng’s controlling 80 per cent stake in the club and since then the club has adopted a refreshing marketing and branding strategy. Despite being relegated from the Premier League after 11 years, Southampton FC have continued to do well off the field. iSportConnect’s Taruka Srivastav spoke with Southampton FC’s Chief Commercial Officer Charlie Boss to know more.
Charlie, you joined Southampton FC recently. Tell us about your current role and your previous experiences.
I formally joined the club in April last year, which was almost exactly two weeks before the club got relegated from the Premier League. In many ways, this has been a real opportunity for the club to make some changes that will help us accelerate and get ready for the future. Before joining the club, I spent two years working for the Jockey Club, which is the largest commercial operator in British horse racing. Before that, I spent nearly a decade working for Disney on the ESPN brand.
I always knew I would end up back in sport because there is just something so special about being at a live sporting event and feeling like you had a tiny part to play in it. In November, we had a women’s game with our team playing Arsenal in the Conti-Cup. We had 13,000 fans there, which is a new record for Southampton FC Women. It was just spectacular to see those fans cheering a women’s team that wasn’t even professional five years ago, taking on Arsenal and taking them right away to injury time.
What is the marketing and branding strategy of the club and women’s team?
Southampton FC has a unique reputation, both across the UK and internationally as one of the leading football clubs for developing talent. Our academy has produced some of the most amazing players like Gareth Bale, and more recently players like James Ward-Prowse. And because of the quality of our academy, many UK fans have always had a soft spot for the club.
We recently filmed a docuseries with CBBC called The Football Academy which followed the boys’ and girls’ teams at our youth academy as well as the parents and coaches in the U8s to U15s over a season. Netflix had F1’s Drive to Survive and with this, new audiences came through, so with CBBC we saw a real opportunity. We’re now on to our second season. It’s an amazing show and something I’m really proud of.
From a marketing and branding perspective, we want to position ourselves as the leaders in the family space. For the last 10 years, at our men’s games the average age of our audience has been getting younger. And the women’s side helps bring this full circle. At our match against Arsenal Women, which had a record crowd number of 13,000 fans present in the stadium, it was mostly families.
To be a leading family club, you just can’t have a great men’s team, but also a great women’s team. We try to treat the two as equitable as possible. For example, they both train at our Staplewood training ground, and they both play their games at St. Mary’s Stadium, which is really unusual, but it’s part of our intent to give both teams the platform to engage our fans and to engage new families.
What kind of brands do you currently have on your roster?
Our sponsorships are really interesting. Most clubs have the same front of shirt sponsor for both the men’s and women’s team. We have Sportsbet.io, who are the front-of-shirt sponsors for our men’s team while we have Starling Bank for our women’s team. This was a deliberate decision, because although Sportsbet.io is committed to both teams and are involved in both teams, there was an opportunity to bring a new brand into the women’s team that really wants to focus on the women’s game.
Starling Bank became the first organisation to sponsor our women’s team independently of the men’s. The three-year deal includes a number of initiatives launched by Starling and the club to create more grassroots football opportunities for women and girls. Our programme, Coaches of Tomorrow has been really successful and has seen 45 women from the region train to become FA accredited coaches.
So, Southampton FC wants to be like Richmond FC in Ted Lasso?
I do think there is that element of cultural change around the globalisation of football. We’ve got Ted Lasso and its American audience and then we have got the Wrexham documentary and that wider audience. Although Southampton FC isn’t yet a global brand, like the fictional Richmond AFC or Wrexham, I do think that we can speak to a global audience of children. There are so many kids around the world who are passionate about football and because of our Premier League history, and hopefully our Premier League future, I think we’ve got an amazing opportunity to engage them.
As a club, you just cannot partner with anybody, you have to ensure that your values align with the brand’s value. So what are these important things that you look for before you know, committing to a partnership?
We follow what we call the shared values model. Before we embark on any partnership, we sit down with a brand, and we align on what is the common belief which will make this partnership work for everyone.
For example, with Sportsbet.io we will figure out what is it we’re going to try and do. What are we going to try and communicate to our fan base and how are we going to do it.
With relegation from the Premier League, we really wanted to bring more local businesses into the fold and create that bridge into the community that perhaps had been eroded after so long in the Premier League, where the platform is this global media platform. We have brought back one of my favourite sponsors, Draper Tools. A local business, that are quite famous because they were front of shirt sponsors back in the 1980’s. This season they’ve been able come back into the club, to be back-shirt-sponsor of the men’s team as well as the Women’s First Team back-of-shorts.
They are so engaged as a sponsor because what we’re both trying to do is celebrate this shared rich history we have. As an example of that, the chief executive will send messages to his staff coming into the office on days where they’re all wearing Southampton shirts, and it feels like something they really deeply care about.
Being connected at that level, sharing the same interest, and sharing the same celebrations and losses together is something which is born out of love and passion rather than a very commercial partnership. Commercial aspects are important, but the passion is what puts these brands on your agenda.
We’ve also been working closely with our fan advisory board and in the last ten months or so we’ve really tried to bring them closer into our decision making, because ultimately, they can help us bridge the communication to fans. As an example of that, when were relegated, we were thinking through what our season ticket pricing should look like and how we do that in a way to bring as many fans back into the stadium as possible. They helped us not just around what the pricing should look like, but how we communicate that to fans, and the result of that is we’ve sold more season tickets in the championship than we did last year in the Premier League, which I think is pretty astonishing.
Is Southampton FC looking to do more with smaller startups and how would you get more of them involved, etc? Any plans?
This actually plays really nicely into our ownership model. Our owners, Sport Republic, is a London based sports investment firm founded by Rasmus Ankersen and Henrik Kraft and financed by lead investor Dragan Šolak. Solak is a media entrepreneur, and our club Chairman Henrik Kraft is from a media and technology background and is also an active early-stage investor in sports technology companies such as Tonsser, Sportlight, Wave.tv, and Oura Ring. The vision for Sport Republic is to create this ecosystem where they invest not just in football clubs, but in sports technology. And we can get access to those technology companies and use the club to help them refine their offering so they can work with us directly to create something that works for football clubs.
This not only benefits just Southampton FC as the sports technology company can then go and monetize their product. So, an example of one of their investments is an app called Tonsser which allows undiscovered talent to essentially showcase their skills to professional clubs. It’s already a very successful app in France and it launched in the UK with Southampton FC in 2022, where we did an event at our Staplewood Training Campus. Our owners also own a club called Valenciennes FC in France, and they’re now doing something very similar based on our experience.
How important is sustainability for the club and what is the kind of work you are doing around it?
We have a sustainability strategy called the ‘Halo Effect’ which is really designed to bring together all the different aspects of sustainability. The Halo Effect has a dual meaning, inspired by our crest and club’s heritage, whilst also signalling the combined positive impact we hope initiatives will have on our people and community.
We think about sustainability in terms of the environment, governance, our relationship with the fans, and in terms of behaving responsibly in the community. Back in 2019 when the Sports Positive League started, Southampton FC was near the bottom and in just three years we were one of the best, finishing fourth in the 2022 Sports Positive League.
As part of our environmental efforts, we have an initiative called the “Home Grown” initiative. Every time one of our boys or girls from the academy makes their first team debut for the men’s or women’s team, we plant 250 trees at local schools in Southampton and preserve 250 trees in the Amazon Rainforest. My view is that, in the short term, if you are a leading club from a sustainability perspective, it opens up new partnerships opportunities as there are certain brands who will want to tell that story. In the long term, I think it actually almost flips. I think that if you don’t take sustainability seriously, there will be a lot of brands who will not be willing to work with you. And frankly, in time, there will be a lot of fans who will not be willing to buy from you because we’re going from a world where sustainability is a competitive advantage to sustainability being a requirement.
And finally, what is the vision for Southampton FC in 2024?
The short-term vision for the club is clear – to achieve promotion for our men’s team back into the Premier League, and for our women’s team into the WSL. I truly believe that is where both teams belong. Everything at this club both on and off the pitch is ready for topflight football. As part of that, we are increasingly investing in our home at St Mary’s to ensure this stadium provides a world class experience for our fans. That starts with introducing wi-fi in February, and with far more to come over the year. We are determined that when we return to the Premier League, we will do so stronger than we were before.