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  • Writer's pictureLewis Wiltshire

How the richest game in football unlocks digital potential

One year ago almost to the day, Huddersfield Town's German defender Christopher Schindler walked from the halfway line at Wembley Stadium to take what would be the deciding penalty in a shoot-out against Championship rivals Reading.

His kick was low, hard and to the goalkeeper's right, and it earned Huddersfield a fortune which is currently heading towards £300m, as they clinched promotion to the Premier League. Little wonder that the annual Championship play-off final is known as football's richest game.

Fast-forward one year. Fulham and Aston Villa meet at Wembley on Saturday for a place in he Premier League. Once again, millions of pounds of revenue are at stake, but also the opportunity to significantly grow their global fanbase thanks to exposure to hundreds of millions of fans around the world.

Based on Deloitte's calculations for last year's game, the winner of Saturday's game nets £170m across three seasons even if they are relegated at the first attempt. Survive the first year, as Huddersfield did, and Deloitte estimates the potential revenue at £290m. Welcome to the big-time.

Much of that money, which of course is driven by TV deals, will be spent on players in a high-stakes attempt to stay in the division (it has been compared to prune juice, famously and indelicately), but the revenue earned from digital tends to stay within the club, and it can be significant if clubs invest in the right strategy.

Here at Seven League, we have worked on digital strategy and implementation for more than a quarter of Premier League teams (as well as the Premier League itself) and as such have a keen awareness of the global exposure that is gained by a place in this division.

Newer entrants to the Premier League may be smaller than the sleeping giants in the Championship by some measures, but membership of the world's richest league provides an opportunity to supercharge the growth of the club. Digital is a central part of how to do that.

Huddersfield ended their debut season in the Premier League with over 339,000 followers across their social media platforms. Before Christopher Schindler's penalty, they had 171,000. One year in the top-flight gave them more than a 98% increase.

Leeds United, whose average attendance is over 31,000, have over 960,000 followers across social platforms but have not been exposed to Premier League audiences since 2004. Norwich City, with an average attendance of less than 26,000, have been in the Premier League much more recently and boast almost 1.5m social followers.

At this point, a reminder of what every good social media manager knows (and constantly tells their executives): follower numbers mean very little in isolation.

Not all of Norwich City's 800,000 Facebook fans will be active users of Facebook, and even those who are may not see the club's content, depending on the Canaries' performance and ranking in the algorithm. Follower numbers are indicative but it's engagement that counts: that is how clubs earn money from digital.

Remember the recent mini-furore when the EFL said its clubs would vote on whether to scrap the rule that forces them to produce a programme? I saw at least one tweet claiming that while clubs make money from printed programmes, they do not from digital. Very few people still believe this, and for good reason: it's not true.

Even a club outside the top six can make anywhere between £1m and £3m per year by creating of packages of digital content that can be sponsored, selling branded digital assets and utilising their fan database - but only if done properly. For the very biggest and most successful Premier League clubs that number rises exponentially.

This figure does not even include the contribution digital will make to online ticket sales or e-commerce through the club store.

A cohesive digital strategy is no longer something clubs think about when they become established in the big league: it's something none can afford to ignore.

That is especially true now that every club outside the top six has a reasonable shot at being the Best of the Rest (not my term but one that a Premier League club's executive said to me recently).

Seventh place is a realistic ambition for 14 clubs. This season it was Burnley (average home attendance: just over 20,000; social followers: almost 900,000) and many clubs are eyeing that slot for the coming year. Whoever gets it, will need to immediately re-invest in digital, in order to turn global exposure into engaged fans and revenue.

What might that look like? In the 2016-17 season, Seven League rebuilt Leicester City's primary fan-facing digital channels. In 2017, we ran the integration of 5 key vendor platforms allowing the club to offer an unrivalled digital fan experience. We have taken on content and commercialisation projects for Leicester, who can now use match attendance, digital, and physical club shop purchases to get a coherent view of an individual fan.

Newcastle United had the vision to overhaul their digital presence ahead of their return to the Premier League in 2017. Seven League helped the club to optimise their website and revenue streams, adding Accelerated Mobile Pages, Facebook Instant Articles, optimised social share buttons, social share tracking, open graph tags, structured mark-up and more.

In the top six, where the opportunity is even greater, we about to enter our third season leading Tottenham Hotspur's digital strategy. In that time we have relaunched key digital products to coincide with the opening of the new stadium, created a social media and content strategy that delivers the most engaged audience in the top six (Facebook and Twitter, via Crowdtangle), and impacted both direct revenue (retail, ticketing) and indirect revenue (evolved approach to digital with commercial partners).

Life in the Premier League is transformative for football clubs in so many ways. Either Fulham or Aston Villa is about to return to the big-time, and their brands will be immediately catapulted back on to smartphones and other screens the world over. The opportunity to grow, engage and monetise that audience could be one penalty kick away ...

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