Bologna FC iSportconnect

“We Are Constantly Growing From A Commercial Point Of View”

By Community | June 2, 2022

iSportConnect speaks to Christoph Winterling, Commercial & Marketing Director at Bologna FC, to find out how one of Italy’s most historic clubs are trying to reinvent themselves from a commercial point of view, taking the club to a new level digitally.

Tell us about your early days in sport and your experience up to this point?

I started working in the sports industry in the late 90s for what is now called SPORTFIVE on the sponsorship team of Siemens Mobile in Europe, particularly Italy where they were the main partner for several clubs. For around ten years I was then working for other agencies and brands.

In 2009, I moved to Italy and started to work for Adidas as the Head of Sport Marketing. In my current role the knowledge of having worked for brands is crucial to understanding things, so I’m very thankful for the experience. AS Roma was bought by an American owner in 2012, who wanted to set up a more international structure and organisation and I was the Marketing and Commercial Director. After this experience I got in contact with Mr. Saputo, current owner of FC Bologna, where we immediately had a very good relationship and I joined in the same role here.

“We’ve made a lot of investment into infrastructure through our training centre and are looking to revamp our stadium very soon.”

Bologna’s a very historic club, we’ve got seven Serie A titles, albeit a long time ago, and had some difficulties prior to Mr Saputo coming in, but we are constantly growing from a commercial point of view. We’ve made a lot of investment into infrastructure through our training centre and are looking to revamp our stadium very soon, so it’s an exciting project with a lot of potential.

When you are heading up the commercial and marketing at a club like Bologna, what are the central areas that your role is focused around, because there are so many layers within that so what are your biggest priorities?

As the Commercial & Marketing Director I’m managing all of the different revenue streams. The biggest for us outside of TV rights are sponsorship, corporate sales, and ticketing, but there are lots of other activities we’re doing where we generate revenue. From the marketing department: marketing research, partner activation, brand development.

But then I also head up the stadium management. We’re not the owner of our stadium, but we manage it during the week, organising around 50 events a year, which has helped to drive a lot of tourists in recent years, which were of course affected by COVID.

“When I joined the club seven years ago, our main goal for our marketing strategy was to strengthen the relationship within our territory.”

The advantage of Bologna is that it’s in the centre of Italy. So for companies which are our sponsor and want to do an event in a football stadium, Bologna is good because every partner or company the client is working together with is here, that’s where the city has a big advantage.

As you say, it’s definitely not a small club and you have a 30,000 seater stadium, but since you’ve been with Bologna, how much has changed within the marketing department? What is your main focus – is it enhancing the experience for current fans or trying to create a bigger fanbase?

When I joined the club seven years ago, our main goal for our marketing strategy was to strengthen the relationship within our territory because, as you mentioned, we’re not a global club. We have appeal outside of Italy, thanks to the fact that we are playing in Serie A, but our core is local.

We started to develop a strategy with our partners to make them feel closer to the club. When you now see our stadium, the look and feel is completely in our club colours of red and blue. Partners love this because it shows the link they have with the club. For example, in the second row we have partner boards which are all red in blue, and we have our main partners featured there. 

Bologna put their sponsor boards in the same colour as their logo to get the organisations closer to the club and the fans.

At Bologna we wanted to have our partners communicate more with our club, at this time we didn’t have a data system in place so it wasn’t easy to know our fans, but we started to create membership clubs across different age groups and use different initiatives also in the steam again for kids for our hardcore fans, so we wanted to work individually on on our fans, to bring them to bring them back and to enjoy the club in the best way possible.

In the meantime, we invested into data management via a CRM system to better understand our fans to communicate in a better way with them, and use this in a positive way with our partners. The focus was and is to be closer to our local territory and really understanding the needs of every single fan.

Are you trying to bring that via personalisation in your fan communications now that you are able to understand more about them?

This is really necessary because they all have different backgrounds, so it’s always good to understand what the fan needs to do then propose him or her the right thing. I think the fact also that we, besides our CRM investment, decided also to create different activities for different target groups.

That’s very interesting about the pitch side boards being in team colours because obviously every brand has their own logo and colours. Has there been any difficulty at all in selling to people that their logo might be on a different colour scheme to their brand guidelines?

Luckily we’ve had no issues because the partners understood the message we wanted to get across to our fans by being more credible. But also from our perspective many of the partners are from the local area so are supporters of the club. Therefore it’s probably easier to do this than perhaps for an international brand, but with our international partners it is yet to be a problem.

“We have a lot of services they can use on the app, such as live images from the game they can use as well as lots of information about the club that only the club gets.”

You mentioned Covid earlier as well, one challenge was the fact that we have a lot of partners who are also fans, so trying to keep them engaged when they couldn’t come to the stadium and bring employees or clients, because at the end of the day we also sell emotions. Fortunately, we created a lot of activities and a B2B platform on mobile where partners can communicate with each other. We have a lot of services they can use on the app, such as live images from the game they can use as well as lots of information about the club that only the club gets.

Has the way you approach commercial deals changed at all since Covid? Have you been experiencing many changes from your side when it comes to digital partnerships?

COVID was accelerating a process which was already in place before and we were able to increase the digital opportunities for our partners. The clients have now become more and more digital so we have to keep pace with them and offer them the right opportunity in the future via digital work, but I think what the match they can offer is still very important for our partners.

Leading on from that, In terms of a digital transformation what are the biggest changes you’ve been undergoing in the past couple of years to keep driving the club forward?

As a club we are only at the beginning. It will take some time to do a real digital transformation within the club, because it’s not only sponsorship, but communication, the finance department, administrative department and the sports department.

“We signed a deal with Socios a year ago for fan tokens and are now close to signing an NFT deal with a global company.”

We work together also with accelerated programmes where we would like to understand how the world is evolving to find the best opportunity for us to do this digital transformation. One of the most recent opportunities are NFTs, we signed a deal with Socios a year ago for fan tokens and are now close to signing an NFT deal with a global company. We’re also looking into the metaverse, which is a big, big discussion at the moment. Those are our most important digital projects.

What are the next steps for the club’s modernisation process then as you continue to develop the physical facilities and the internal processes? 

Moving forwards we want to keep this capacity within the stadium but make sure it is modernised by bringing our main stand closer to the pitch, with more commercial activities inside the stadium like bars, restaurants, a museum and so on. We want this to be a smart venue and we’re working together with potential partners to create the best service possible for our fans.

We’ve got so much potential through our history and luckily an owner who supports us in planning a great vision. I hope that not only us but also Italian football can come back quickly to where it was 20 years ago. Some infrastructure can be improved but overall everyone wants Serie A to be managed well and competing at the highest level within Europe too.

Bologna FC iSportconnect