Liverpool the Business: A Beginner’s Guide

Ever since Kenny’s return to L4 at the beginning of the year, ever since Luis Suarez walked through the Shankly Gates in place of El Nino, ever since we turned around our league form to come within an inch of finishing the season among the European places, most of what we’ve heard about Liverpool Football Club has been on the pitch. Rightly so, given the traditional “Liverpool Way” of focusing only on the next game and leaving everything else to the side.

A year ago, we were struggling with the Hicks and Gillett regime. “Finance” (or, more accurately, “refinance”) was probably the word that we Liverpool fans dreaded the most. Liverpool the business was hampering Liverpool the football club. We didn’t like Liverpool the business; we just wanted our football club back. Business and football were the last two words we wanted to see together ever again.

Oh, how a year has turned things around. Now, we can’t go a week without hearing an ex-player or someone in the Liverpool hierarchy sing the praises of the way FSG has revolutionized Liverpool as a business. Behind the scenes, the reality is that the business side, the “everything else” of our football club has undergone as radical a change, if not more so.

Let’s go all the way back to the Standard Chartered sponsorship deal. Now, before we fans got any wind of this partnership, we were cruising along perfectly content with the Carlsberg logo splashed across the front of our shirts. Sure, we saw O2 on the shirts at Highbury, and we saw vodafone, and subsequently AIG, at Old Trafford, and then we saw Ashburton Grove renamed as the Emirates Stadium. Those corporate sell-outs. Carlsberg: the best beer in the world. Liverpool: the best football club in the world. End of story.

But then, one fine (or cloudy, or rainy, I forgot which) day in 2009, the news came through that we struck the largest shirt sponsorship deal in football history. I very clearly remember that day. That was the day that made me sit up and take notice of what we were capable of achieving as a company. That day, on the back of a successful Premier League season, as I saw Rafa Benitez, Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres swapping shirts and posing for pictures with the Standard Chartered management, I realized that our club still had an amazing appeal to it.

This, remember, was a financially unstable club with rumors about our long-term financial stability. Amidst ownership struggles behind the scenes, we managed to pull off a deal like that. I almost immediately started idolizing Christian Purslow (and latterly Ian Ayre, when I read that he was the Commercial Director then). When it was first established that we had genuine financial concerns going forward, I didn’t panic. We even appointed Martin Broughton from the British Airways. Despite his outspoken Chelsea links, here was the chairman of one of Britain’s most famous corporations, brought in to “save” our club.

We would’ve been forgiven for thinking that ousting Hicks and Gillett was the final piece to the financial jigsaw.

But there are bits and pieces to the journey that cannot, and should not, be ignored. We saw Rafa overhaul the Academy. Yes, the headline news was that we want to go back to our famed traditions of graduating top players to our first team. But we didn’t just see Rafa take full control of our youth development. He restructured the Academy and brought staff in to take up managerial positions. He brought Kenny back to spearhead our youth recruitment drive and latterly as a Club Ambassador. These were all new roles. What Rafa noticed was not just that we were falling behind as football club; we were also falling behind as a company, a business, a corporation. And these were his first steps to establishing a structure at Liverpool, to the greatest extent he possibly could.

And when FSG recruited Damien Comolli and gave him the position of Director of Football (later renamed as the fancy Director of Football Strategy), it was not just a signal of our intent to bring in the world’s top footballing talent; it was our owners’ way of further instilling business organization and structure to Liverpool the corporation.

Outside the club, FSG helped us establish links with LeBron James, one of the biggest stars in modern basketball (and indeed in modern sports), in the process linking us with the Boston Red Sox. FSG and Standard Chartered put together our Asia tour this past summer with great aplomb, complete with a tour-specific website, extensive media coverage of all the players’ football and sponsorship activities, and a chance for our Chinese Reds to win a meet-and-greet with LeBron James. The express plan for our summer activities next year is a money-spinning trip to the US: imagine the fervor that would greet Gerrard, Suarez and co. as they run out onto the Fenway Park pitch.

But it’s not just the dollar signs and star brandnames that show our transformation as a corporation. Look at the way we have been catered to (in business terminology: customer experience) – comments in almost every LFC.tv article, expansion in the LFC.tv forums, the Bootroom Sports Cafe, our first ever official Supporter’s Committee, The Kop fan blogs and social network…

Oh, and don’t forget that key business buzzword: corporate social responsibility. For all the corporations that might have skeptical motives behind such activities (for example, a tobacco company sponsoring a health clinic), our family- and community-oriented traditions makes CSR a perfect fit for our promotions. Here’s an observation: have you noticed a significant increase on LFC.tv in the promotion of free football clinics in the Liverpool area? Coaching sessions in Korea? Summer camps for disabled children both in Asia (while others were promoting our business interests) and in the UK? We’re beginning to hear a lot more of these campaigns that are a win-win-win combination: they sustain our image and reputation within the footballing community; they help our players and staff understand the community better and thus form a stronger bond with Liverpool Football Club; and they bring us commercial opportunities in previously untapped areas. We are already in talks to establish Liverpool-themed cafes and lounges in India after setting up our academy there.

And on I ramble.

During my short working career, I’ve been exposed to the way businesses and corporations are run on a strategic and institutional level, and I hope I was able to give you some basic insight on the good work being done by FSG, and to help you make some sense of the commercial operations and developments that might sometimes slip under our radars.

I will wrap things up with a quote from Ian Ayre: “The absolute reality – in the case of Liverpool, not everyone – is that this is a global brand, one of only a handful of clubs that are truly globally recognized and supported.”

Liverpool as a business: I personally have been very excited about the way our management team has driven commercial growth and organizational change. Keep up the good work, gentlemen.

————

If you’re interested in further reading, here’s a list of articles that I’ve referred to in this post:

http://www.managementtoday.co.uk/news/1068601/Ian-Ayre-transformed-Liverpool-FCs-commercial-fortunes/

http://businesstoday.intoday.in/story/liverpool-fc-cafes/1/18199.html

http://www.bizjournals.com/boston/news/2011/08/04/lucchino-liverpool-football-club.html

http://www.bitc.org.uk/community/communitymark/communitymark_companies/liverpool_football.html

http://www.liverpoolfc.tv/corporate/charter

http://www.liverpoolfc.tv/corporate/lfc-is-listening

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703280904576246640754493456.html

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/sport/football/premier_league/liverpool/article6831489.ece

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