Talking Commercial Partnerships with Villa’s George Harborne

Talking Commercial Partnerships with Villa’s George Harborne
15, June 2017 Donnacha Brennan

Continuing our buildup to our Fan Engagement Conference in Brighton, Colm O’Mealoid of Sportego sat down with George Harborne, Senior Partner Acquisition Manager at Aston Villa, to get his thoughts on commercial partnerships, mobile apps, the importance of social media in partnership acquisition and much more.

George will be speaking at #FECBrighton on the 5th of July; more details and tickets available at (where this interview was first published) and at Today is your final chance to grab the 25% early bird discount so hurry!


You’ve worked in the commercial side of sport now for a few years, have you seen a change in how brands approach partnerships?

“Sports properties have had to become savvy to show how they deliver value to make it a true partnership”

Yes absolutely. When I first entered the world of football, a lot of brands were happy with a placement of their logo, or at least clubs believed that brands were satisfied with that. Certainly, in the last 3 years plus, that has changed massively. Today, brands want to make the sports property work harder for them and instead of simply showing media exposure, more tangible results are requested. The tangible results vary, be it reaching a specific number of followers or something aligned to the specific objectives of the business. For this reason, sports properties have had to become savvy to show how they deliver value to make it a true partnership.


Do you predict further changes in the approach of partners when it comes to connecting with fans in the future? Is there one thing that doesn’t happen at the moment that will become common in the future?

As mentioned before, partners are challenging clubs more and more on the value delivered as it is, so we’ll see more and more of that. There will be more of a focus on the tangible return on investment or return on objectives.
Brands are asking where the true value lies and how clubs can assist in delivering their business objectives. More and more brands will set fixed objectives for clubs to deliver on, as should already be the case. The traditional model of offering hospitality and placing a logo somewhere is something resigned to the history books – sponsorship has evolved and it has evolved to partnerships.


When it comes to fan engagement initiatives with partners, do you create a joint strategy together with the partner or do you present them with a plan beforehand to offer ready-made opportunities to the partner?

It has to be a bespoke offering. Each partner’s objectives are different. It is vital to understand what brands wants to achieve from the partnership. I would encourage brands to come up with their own ideas and we can see what works. Doing so also allows you to learn from other industries other than the one we reside in. Take betting as an example, their strategy of engagement and the results they seek are likely to be very different from, for example, a consumer electronics brand. So instead of pre-packaged ideas, it’s always better to react to what a brand wants. This means the offering is truly tailored and the experiences they create reflect their actual needs rather than what the club perceive them to be or what a rights holder knows is easiest to deliver.


When it comes to acquiring new partners, how important is a strong social presence of the club?

It has an impact to a certain extent. The social media value is obviously included in the overall media value of a partnership. Companies are becoming savvy as to the true value of social media and the engagement levels that can be delivered. From a sales perspective, social media figures are great on a superficial level, but in reality, it is the quality of the CRM database that matters the most for delivering real value to partners.

Again, it depends on the partner’s objectives, if they wish to achieve a certain number of impressions, then social media is very relevant, but if they want to take it one step further and use their relationship with a sports property to convert sales, that’s not going to happen solely from social media. Sports properties need to be able to talk about how they can influence the purchasing behaviours of fans and this comes from a strong CRM base, not just a strong social media following.

Unless you can show a value as to what you can convert and how you can influence fans purchase behaviours, social media following may very well be irrelevant.


On that note, is CRM database analysis something you present to potential partners, or do they ask to see evidence of this?

I think that most clubs will focus on the media value and social media figures when speaking to potential partners because these numbers are strong, but not every club truly understands the value of the assets they have. I’m not referring to the traditional assets, I’m referring to the access they have to their fans, their brand advocates, and their ability to influence these fans. I would say the onus is on the club to show what value they can add, rather than be happy to just share social media figures, and brands should demand more too.


Book your tickets to hear George and other fantastic guests at FECBrighton!!


Do some potential partners also evaluate the social media presence of the club’s players?

I haven’t experienced this as being a major influencing factor. One reason is probably because in UK football, the clubs don’t own the player rights. It might become relevant if a club owns the players’ image rights however. For example, Napoli recently launched a partnership with Tinder whereby Arkadiusz Milik, their star striker, was used as a brand ambassador, so Milik’s social media presence probably had an impact there.

It might also have an impact from a kit supplier point of view as players are more likely to post a picture of themselves in training kit on personal channels but otherwise, I don’t see it having a massive value.


Coming at it from the other side, does the social presence of a partner - and therefore their ability to engage more people - factor into a club’s decision when it comes to evaluating the value a partner brings?

Absolutely, but it’s not necessarily about the brand’s social reach. It’s the wider strategic benefit that a brand can bring to the table that could add great value to the club.

The relevance depends what the sports property places value on. If the organisation places the ultimate value on the rights fee, the highest paying brand will be selected, but others may seek out a strong brand to align themselves with. The third pillar is a strategic one. For example, if a club wants to reach certain territories, a type of customer or other strategic goals they may select a partner that will help them to do so. No matter what the club’s objectives are however, what the partner can bring to the table for the sports property should always be considered.


When measuring the return on investment for partners – is that something the club will do or do you leave that to the sponsor?

A bit of both really. There are certain elements we’ll be able to track. Sports properties should always be tracking campaigns, not only for the benefit of sponsor but also, as a club, you want to know what the fans want and the interaction they seek. Clubs can then use those learnings for other partners and the also for partner you are working with so that the next campaign can have a bigger impact.

However, there is certain information that the club will not have access to. Again, when it comes to betting, the club won’t be able to tell how many accounts are opened or how much money is deposited. From our point of view, it’s about setting the expectation of the partner – telling them what we’ll track, what we need them to track and set the bar for what a successful campaign looks like for both parties.


What are your thoughts on virtual/augmented/immersive reality – do you think they will become truly mainstream?

The jury is out. If you look at what BT Sport did, they did a fantastic job delivering VR across multiple platforms – on TV and social for the Champions League Final. However, the major issue is the cost and the value that clubs can derive against that cost. Of course, the cost will come down as the technology develops and at that point I think we will see much more adoption, but for now, it will remain a luxury in the marketing budget of most clubs.


Finally, what are your thoughts on mobile apps for sports teams. How beneficial are they and how can teams best leverage off having an app?

When it comes to an app, it is a fluid process. Clubs need to be constantly listening to fans to understand what they want to see in the app and updating it accordingly. Clubs should be continuously reviewing what will increase usage of the app. In terms of the benefit to the club – I do see a benefit as it increases the contact time between the club and the fans. Apps have some very nice features; we’ve all seen the stats as to how effective push notifications are for click-through rates and getting the fan to engage with content. However, the most important thing is to listen to the fans as to their wants and needs and not to decide for them.


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