You know that times are tough when even oligarchs have to tighten their belts… even some of those who own football clubs.
“We have four clubs which are owned by oligarchs and they are certainly thinking about how they can spend less,” reflects Volodymyr Geninson, president of the Ukrainian Premier League, a job some would consider just about the toughest in football.
His goal is to turnaround a financially-failing league by dragging it into the 21st century and bringing to play some of the ideas which have become standard sports marketing practice in many parts of the world.
But Ukraine is a far-from-typical football market. As a nation, it faces unique economic and political challenges which have had a profound impact on areas of life far more important than football. The annexation of Crimea by Russia and subsequent destabilisation and conflict in the east of the country were the culmination of years of simmering tension and have added significantly to the challenge faced by Geninson and his team at the Ukraine Premier League.
The annexation of Crimea by Russia and subsequent destabilisation and conflict in the east of the country were the culmination of years of simmering tension and have added significantly to the challenge faced by Geninson and his team at the Ukraine Premier League.
Geninson, who built a career in the hospitality industry with a top international hotel chain and has a degree from Champaign University in Vermont, took on his new role earlier this year knowing he had a tough test ahead.
But his international vision and willingness to draw on best practice from around the world give him a shot at enabling Ukrainian club football to realise its potential, despite the environment he is forced to operate in.
The back story is fairly depressing. Not so long ago Ukraine’s top league was ranked eighth by Uefa and impressive performances by top clubs Dynamo Kiev and Shakhtar Donetsk in European competition meant the future looked bright. Thanks largely to the oligarchs behind the top four clubs, the Ukrainian league became a go-to destination for a raft of players from Africa and Brazil, who complemented local talent to raise the standard.
Today many – but by no means all – of those foreign stars have left, robbing the game of some of its glamour and international appeal. Shakhtar and two other teams based in the eastern city of Donetsk have been forced by the troubles to relocate. Shakhtar and neighbours Metalist now play ‘home’ games in Lviv, close to Ukraine’s western borders while Olimpic play in Kiev. The disruption has, inevitably, had a major impact on attendance and, consequently, revenues.
With Shakhtar exiled from its Donbass Arena home and regular sell-out crowds, the average attendance last year dropped to around 5,000, but the problems in filling stadiums go deeper than what happens on the pitch.
Geninson understands that the curse of hooliganism, which has taken a hold on Ukrainian football in recent years, needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.
“We certainly have a problem with ‘ultras’ and there have never been so many different groups. The situation has been made worse by people returning from the war and seeing football as a way of dealing with their aggression,” he says.
Grounds for optimism
But even against this background Geninson’s business-like approach has created some grounds for optimism.
His mark was certainly all over this year’s season-opening Super Cup , held in Odessa, where Dynamo Kiev beat Shakhtar on penalties after a 1-1 draw in which the Brazilian Fred – who had once refused to return to Ukraine after a friendly in Paris – scored the opening goal.
The match itself was played out in front of a sell-out crowd in the coastal city of Odessa and was the highlight of a week-long festival of football designed to help re-connect the sport with its current and future fans.
According to Oleksandr Kucheriavyi, an advisor to the Premier League president, the Super Cup may just come to be seen as the dawn of a new era.
“It was very special and we have had great feedback. In every way it raised the bar in line with the new policies of the Premier League,” he explains.
Critically, two sponsor packages were sold for the event and the first title sponsors, development company UDP were joined by City One as main sponsors.
“We were delighted, because UDP are really getting involved and want to use football as a key communications platform, and will be doing road shows and many other events which help promote club football in Ukraine,” said Kucheriavyi.
“In addition to the sponsors, we worked with the broadcasters MGU (Media Group of Ukraine) and 2+2, the free-to-air channel, to ensure that the coverage set new standards. It was at least up to the level of Champions League coverage,” he says.
Add to that a programme of in-stadium entertainment not previously seen in the country and Kucheriavyi believes a corner has been turned.
But both he and the president know that a successful showpiece event is not the same as gaining traction for a league which is struggling for attention.
The new-broom approach was seen in action during Super Cup week, when the UPL invited representatives of all the country’s professional clubs to a two-day workshop, featuring expert speakers from around the world sharing their insight and experience into the issues faced by clubs.
“The idea was to help raise the level of commercial awareness and capabilities of all of our clubs. That will, in turn, raise the quality of the league,” Kucheriavyi explains.
The workshop was also designed to help unite the clubs behind the Premier League in its efforts to modernise.
While Geninson’s plans may not appear radical to those outside Ukraine, the prospect of clubs giving up certain rights to be sold centrally was a major step and significant work was required to persuade some clubs the move was in their best interests.
“The only way we can maximise revenue is to centralise rights and bring those in-house,” Geninson says.
“We are also working on an open tender for our TV rights outside the local market and have introduced a new league structure for the current season, which will make it far more exciting and valuable,” he said.
The Ukraine Premier League, like a number of other European leagues, is dominated by its two biggest clubs, Dynamo and Shakhtar, which have enjoyed a near monopoly on titles and have by far the largest fan bases. Coupled with the reduction of the league to just 12 teams as a result of bankruptcies and the loss of clubs in the Crimea, this would have made for a short and probably dull spectacle if played over a standard home- and-away format – hardly the sort of property that either domestic or overseas broadcasters were likely to pay premium rates for.
The solution, explains Geninson, is to adopt a ‘more dynamic’ format, producing 192 games across a season in which the league splits in half after the initial phase to create mini-leagues to compete for final places, European spots or relegation.
Together with new branding, which has been designed to make a break with the past and put the new-look league on a business footing, Geninson and his team are confident that that the components for the re-birth of Ukrainian club football are falling into place.
However, even after the rapid progress which has been made in recent times, there is still a way to go. “We know we need to build for the long term and that we can’t rush,” said Kucheriavyi.
“This is all about a long-term vision and it is important that we work together with the clubs to achieve it, and that has meant helping them to become more effective as businesses.
“As we go into the new season, all of the 12 clubs are in good enough financial shape, but we have lost clubs during the season in the past.
“The clubs need to act as sports businesses in their own right and generate revenues themselves to complement those raised centrally by the league. We can help and support them, and we will succeed by doing this together.”
So how far can the Ukrainian Premier League move up football’s commercial food chain?
President Geninson looks across the country’s western border to Poland for an example. “There, a new president changed everything and everything has changed.
There has been a massive increase in the value. I am sure that if we have the right tools – which we are now creating – we can double or triple our revenues.”
While a wide range of social and economic factors can influence Beninson’s ultimate success, the league under his presidency appears to have passed at least its first litmus test.
Not only was this year’s Super Cup a sell-out, with ticketless fans accommodated in a nearby fan park, it also attracted representatives of many of the world’s leading sports marketing agencies, whose noses are attuned to sniffing out profit in the least obvious places.
“The fact they were here shows that they can see potential for the product,” says Kucheriavyi. “Now it is up to us and the clubs to deliver, so that potential can be realised.”