Money-can’t-buy experiences | The sports teams putting a premium on hospitality

  • Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City offering glass tunnel ‘clubs’
  • Definition of a ‘premium purchaser’ has broadened
  • Jacksonville Jaguars offer ‘spa cabana’ experience

With three generations of the celebrated Roux family lined up to cook for some lucky Tottenham Hotspur fans next season, it is clear sports club owners are thinking far beyond the traditional pie-and-a-pint when it comes to matchday hospitality.

For the trifling matter of £60,000 plus VAT for two seats, members of Spurs’ H Club can choose to eat this Michelin Star food at a table with the famous chefs themselves – or at an alternative with club legends. They can visit man-of-the-match ceremonies and meet first-team players as well as attending the training ground and board events. If so inclined, they can watch a game of football while they’re at it.

Soccer is not the only sport where this is happening. Jacksonville Jaguars offers fans the chance to watch NFL fixtures from ‘spa cabanas’ featuring all-inclusive food and drink, sofas, televisions, music and, naturally, swimming pools.

Meanwhile Tixstar offered cricket fans the opportunity to walk on the famous WACA pitch in Perth and meet “prominent cricket personalities” alongside a VIP visit to the third Test of the Ashes series in Australia this winter. The one-day package was marketed for A$990 (€644/$759).

Premium sport experiences are big business around the world.

“There are two ways this kind of thing can happen – driven by the brand, to reward customers or get the cameras in – or by the stadium,” says Chris Allen, head of PR at sports marketing firm Pitch.

He says there are two main reasons why sports clubs themselves want to promote exclusive opportunities to watch their product.

“Firstly broadcasters such as BT Sport are doing such an excellent job that people have to be pulled away from their sofas to spend money to watch live. So clubs are saying they need to lure people in with premium experiences from glass tunnels and microbreweries to heated seats with USB ports.

“Secondly they are looking to commercialise their stadiums better. If you spend hundreds of millions on a stadium you need to charge more money – at Spurs they are adding a revenue stream by effectively turning the stadium into an exclusive private members club.”

The elevated status of certain sports in modern society has led club owners to realise the value of their tickets to a wider group than the traditional die-hard supporters.

“The target market is now much broader given the wide range of varied premium packages we have on offer,” says Andy O’Sullivan, Tottenham Hotspur director of hospitality.

“We feel there is something for everyone and this opens us up to a much larger football and sports audience. There is no longer a ‘typical’ premium purchaser – all visitors will want something different and we feel this is reflected by the range of premium packages we offer.”

Allen thinks UK sport is moving towards the American model where sport has become part of the entertainment industry.

“From a corporate perspective, people see the benefits of taking clients to matches, and film stars and people at the top of their game around the world will want to come to the UK to watch one of the greatest sports leagues in the planet.

“The growth of the Premier League has increased its appeal to people who want to go not because they’re Spurs fans, for example, but because it’s something to do while you’re in the UK.”

As well as carving out a new customer base, creating a premium area such as a dining lounge or a cabana – the choice depending on climate, presumably – can bring new commercial opportunities.

“It adds opportunities for corporates to get involved, new areas they can sponsor,” says Allen. “A brand can integrate itself into the event better by taking media and commentators to the experience, as well as fans.”

For brands wishing to project a high-end image, the chance to sponsor a luxury dining experience at a major sport club loved by millions of people is a clear opportunity.

O’Sullivan explains that in addition to housing the Michelin Star eateries, the ‘On Four’ hospitality section situated on the fourth floor of the new stadium will offer sponsors the opportunity to call on the services of an interior designer to customise the premium suites according to their brand values.

Perhaps the best thing about the club’s premium hospitality experience, however, will be the levels of access it will give to those who are willing to pay.

“The first purpose-built glass-walled Tunnel Club in the UK will allow lounge guests to see the inner sanctum with a behind-the-scenes view of the players’ tunnel, while also enjoying the action from player-spec ‘Recaro-style’ seats, located behind the First Team technical area,” says O’Sullivan.

Tottenham might lay claim to having the first ‘purpose-built’ glass tunnel in the league but it’s certainly not the first. Fellow English Premier League outfit Manchester City is already bringing fans up-close-and-personal with their heroes, having retrofitted a similar feature at its stadium.

Members of the Manchester team’s Tunnel Club also get a pre-match presentation and performance analysis from manager Pep Guardiola’s backroom staff. “Our guests can expect the most immersive matchday experience that they have ever had – unlike anything they have ever experienced in football before,” says the club’s chief operating officer Omar Berrada.

This brings us to a second strand of premium experiences, which rather than focusing on luxury, revolve chiefly around authenticity. Where a pool party at the NFL may be looking to bring in those at the margins of a club’s fan base, these alternatives are seeking the most passionate individuals.

Canadian native Michael Mahoney moved to London five years ago and set up FC Sport Experiences to tap into exactly this market – people who live and die their favourite sport club and want to get closer to it.

“In Canada and the US, sports fantasy camps give people a ‘live the dream’ behind-the-scenes experience,” he explains.

Mahoney designs multi-day events that can include the chance to train at club facilities under the guidance of team coaches; have dinners with club legends and executives; VIP hospitality to a game; and even the chance to play on the senior pitch.

He helped Liverpool Football Club put on such an event in 2014, which he says was attended by 40 people paying £3,500 each for hotel rooms, tickets, kit and food.

“People who live in the city or nearby have probably done everything they can do – been to the games, the shop, a stadium tour, a legends dinner. The remit was how can we provide more things for fans to do?”

One challenge with such events is ensuring supporters do not feel milked. Last year thousands of Liverpool fans walked out of a game in protest against increased matchday ticket prices.

“Locally based fans who are scraping together £500 for a season ticket may not want to see an email asking them to come to something for £3,500 – there may be a backlash,” says Mahoney.

Although four Brits attended the event – titled The Dream – the target audience was largely overseas, with nationals from Norway, Kuwait, the US and Australia.

The event was seen as a success and Liverpool FC still puts on a range of events that include training at The Academy, a stadium tour and meals with club legends.

However, various factors inhibit the growth of Mahoney’s product in the UK, including access to critical personalities and facilities and the sheer purchasing power of the TV companies.

“The market is bigger for the big clubs, the Real Madrids, the Manchester Uniteds, but the clubs make so much money from TV revenue it is hard to get them to bother with a £100,000-profit event,” says Mahoney.

He is now focusing on mid-table clubs in Spain’s La Liga where the climate is better – allowing pitches to be more regularly used – and the financial expectations slightly lower yet high international interest remains.

“At the smaller clubs there is more interest from the clubs for the promotion benefits but the market is tougher,” he says. “I will have to target tribal local fans, but I will promote it internationally as well.”

Access is always going to be key to any premium sport project’s success, Mahoney says.

“Exclusivity makes the events marketable. People are after experiences not just more stuff. People of means have bought all the stuff they need, and supporters go to games all the time. What’s left is to get closer to the club.”

He says there is room for fresh thinking.

“Clubs could make better use of their facilities, some are doing a better job than others. Most get as much commercially out of their players as they can but the physical facilities such as the stadiums and training grounds are probably not being used as much as they can – with some creativity they could be used more.”

As well as the commercial and engagement benefits, there is another key reason to look for premium experiences for fans.

“Clubs are thinking: sometimes we don’t win,” says Mahoney. “People then go home not so happy so they have to do a little bit more.”

Allen warns that any premium experience has to be well thought through.

“It has to be credible and enhancing to the sport entertainment – I heard about a plan for vibrating seats at an NFL stadium and it felt gimmicky, like it might annoy you.

“There is also a balance between attracting big spending fans and keeping the die-hards that create the atmosphere. With too many corporate customers it could move too far from being a sporting event.”

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