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FC Barcelona makes women’s football the core of its US commercial drive

  • LaLiga  club  wants NWSL franchise to activate sponsors and ‘be different’ from rivals 
  • North American  commercial partners brought in $99m of club’s $1bn revenue in 2017-18  
  • Cancelled Miami game against Girona seen as missed opportunity to  build  Barça  brand 

FC Barcelona has made women’s football one of the key parts of its commercial push in North America for two principal reasons: to build  the club’s  brand  in the region and “to be different” from its rivals.    

There is reason to believe the commercial opportunities of women’s football equal those of the men’s game in the US. The 2015 Women’s World Cup final featuring the USA v Japan is the most-watched football game (men’s or women’s) in the country’s history. And according to social intelligence software company  Shareablee, women account for about a third of sports engagement on social media in the US,  with football the third-most common sport  they engage with.  

Barcelona last summer used the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills to announce the expansion of its global partnership with American tools and storage company Stanley Black & Decker to become the first jersey sponsor of its  women’s team, FC Barcelona  Femeni, starting in the 2018-19 season.  

According to the club, it is the largest commercial deal for a women’s football team anywhere in the world. 

And its US office, set up in 2016, continues to push for the creation of a sister side in the National Women’s Soccer League to gain a more established presence in the US football landscape.   

“It could be very important for us to have a tangible asset here in the USA and one which fits perfectly with our strategic plan,” Xavier O’Callaghan, the managing director of the Barcelona New York office, tells SportBusiness. 

Xavier O’Callaghan

“We are more than a club [the Barcelona slogan in Catalan is  Més que un club] because we have gender equality, and having a women’s team in the US fits in with our strategic plan in Barcelona,” he adds.  

“It is an asset to grow our fanbase, it’s an asset for activations for sponsors, so it’s an interesting opportunity for us.  We  have to  agree with NWSL how to do it and then we need to explore locations, partners, investments…all this stuff. I think that we can help that league as well. It will be a boost for them if we can compete.”   

Barcelona  is eager  to become the first European club to set up a women’s team in the US. “We always think if what we do fits in with our philosophy and if we can do something that makes us different and unique from everyone else. A women’s team – nobody is doing something like this…but we are doing this. It will make us different from everyone else.”  

Barcelona’s interest in setting up an NWSL expansion team was approved by the league’s board of directors in 2017, but discussions are at an impasse due to Barcelona’s insistence that the proposed team play in club jerseys, with all official sponsors present.    

The issue stems from Barcelona’s $174m-per-year (€153m) kit deal with Nike, which runs until 2023. The club wants assurances that its NWSL team would play in Nike-branded kit throughout that term but, while the nine-team NWSL  has its own deal with Nike, it only runs until 2019 and the league could sign a partnership with another company thereafter.  

“We don’t want to share our brand. We are very protective of the ways we present ourselves. We want to use our crest, our  colours  and our sponsors. Otherwise this will dilute the brand. 

“We have a long-term partnership with  Nike  and we have to play with Nike. If  the  NWSL changes to a different brand, then we have a problem.”   

O’Callaghan  remains  bullish that a deal can be agreed.  

FC Barcelona marks the opening of its New York Office (Ed Mulholland/Getty Images)

Commercial strategy in the Americas
Barcelona’s New York office,  in Midtown Manhattan,  serves both North and Latin America and followed the opening of a Hong Kong base in 2014. The regional offices were established as part of a strategic plan to reach  annual  revenues of  €1bn by 2021.   

The club’s commercial partnership strategy is to focus on quality, not quantity.  ”We want to provide a very good activation feedback and we look for brands that are global so we can take care of them in a very professional way,” says O’Callaghan. “If you have a lot of small partners you cannot provide a good service to them because you only have 20 or so players [for marketing and activation purposes].”   

The club specifically  searches  for global partners  –  such as in  the  automotive, insurance and energy industries  – but also seeks major regional partners, specifically in  banking and telecommunications.  

Its three main offices work hand-in-hand to ensure they do not step on each other’s toes.  “We have the same targets. If we  have to  look for an automotive partner, we will do it together, not alone,” O’Callaghan says. “The offices have to reach one global partner, it does not matter who [does the deal]. We contribute with our knowledge and ideas but if it is done in Hong Kong, then it is fine, it is for the club. The club is one body – we are one arm and Hong Kong  is  one arm.”   

In 2017-18, Barcelona’s North American commercial partners – kit manufacturer Nike and sponsors Gatorade, Stanley Black & Decker, Gillette and Scotiabank – contributed about 29 per cent of the club’s $340m commercial revenue ($99m of $1bn total).

The expanded Stanley Black & Decker deal – the company has been a partner of the men’s team since 2014-15 – was orchestrated from New York.  

“Without being here I am sure that we couldn’t do this deal,” says O’Callaghan. “We understood  [after opening the Hong Kong office]  that providing a good service to our partners could be done in a better way: being in the local market, the same time zone, the same culture.   

“This was why, having several American partners, we thought it could be useful for us to be here. It is not easy to do this when you are 7,000km from your partners. 

“American companies, here everything is fast, everything is done in minutes if possible…in Barcelona,  it’s different.  

“We have an activation team here and all the communication to the club from the partner goes through that executive. They act as a bridge to the several departments in Barcelona that should provide services to the client. If you need tickets, meet with the football department and need background for a press conference they go through that person who then goes to each department to deliver that task.”   

The New York headquarters started with four full-time employees, with Austrian Arno  Trabesinger  as its initial managing director, and began principally as a commercial hub. It has since expanded to 10 staff members, with O’Callaghan – a former FC Barcelona handball player – taking over in July 2018. All staff – who work in  business development, partnership activation, communications, foundation and back office –  are American, apart from O’Callaghan who is Catalan.  

The aim is to turn the office into a headquarters for the Americas. In the future, O’Callaghan is looking to hire  US  merchandise/licensing and marketing executives to grow it further. “If I am able to bring some people from Barcelona to do it and make it profitable for the club then I’d like to,” he says. “I’d like to enlarge the office in areas where we have services to provide to American fans.”  

Barcelona has looked to develop close relationships with US teams and leagues  – including  the NBA, MLB team the New York Mets and NFL team the New York Jets  –  in order to learn best practices. “For sports-entertainment this is best country in the world. We are a very good  club  but you can always learn something in the USA,” O’Callaghan says.   

Attempts to grow the fanbase 
As well as searching for new commercial partners, one of the main  objectives  of the New York office  is  to grow the club’s fanbase in the Americas.   

“We understood that if you want to engage with your fans, if you want to be close to them, then you have to be on site,” O’Callaghan said.  “Another reason to be here is to be closer to our fans and  enable  them to understand the club better and to understand the way they want to be reached.”  

Barcelona has around 84 million fans in the Americas, with Brazil the most popular market  (in large part due to the club’s history of signing  Brazilian players), followed by Mexico and then the US. According to O’Callaghan, this is a “slight improvement” from 2016 when the NYC office opened.  

The club has numerous official fan clubs, or  penyes, in the Americas. In the US, they  are located in  San Francisco, Dallas, Houston, Miami, Charlotte, Washington DC and New York City. “We do not influence what they want to do but we have good relationships with them, we invite them to watch parties and the summer friendlies,” says O’Callaghan. “We used the [2018] summer tour to meet all the US  Penya  presidents in Dallas.”  

To  engage with its Americas fanbase, the club  uses its official English, Spanish and Portuguese social-media accounts. Barcelona has a specific US Instagram channel and geo-targets US-focused posts, such as for Thanksgiving, on Facebook.  A specific US Twitter account, like one established by Bayern Munich, is not planned because the club does not want to “dilute the brand”.   

Academies play a key role in Barcelona’s plans to grow its fanbase in the Americas. The club has eight in the US, six in Canada and nine in South and Central America, plus additional summer camps.   

Barcelona licenses its academies under the FCB Escola brand and they are managed by local partners. “We have almost 50,000 people in camps and academies. It’s a lot of kids related to us,” O’Callaghan says. “Of course [we want them to become Barcelona fans] but we are trying to educate players in the Barcelona way all over the world.  

“There is a commercial  aspect  but money is not the only reason why we are doing this. If we can discover the new Messi here or in China that would be  fantastic  but we want to bring back to football what football  has brought to us.”   

Barcelona part owns and operates one of these academies  in Long Island, New York. 

Cancellation of Miami  LaLiga  game ‘a pity’
Barcelona was due to play Girona in an official  LaLiga game at Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium on January 27 – what would have been the first in the league’s history – as part of the 15-year partnership between  LaLiga  and  Relevent  Sports to promote the league in North America.   

Due to opposition from numerous stakeholders –  including  the  Spanish players’ association, the  Spanish football federation  and  Fifa president Gianni Infantino  –  Barcelona withdrew from the game in December – albeit while saying they “were and remain willing to play a LaLiga game in Miami”. 

O’Callaghan rues a missed opportunity to promote the club and activate with sponsors.  “For  [us]  as an office it was a pity because bringing an asset like a real game could be an amazing tool to promote the brand and I think that  football  in the US could be well promoted with these games,” he says.   

“We don’t like confrontation so if everyone feels that it is not working it makes no sense to do it. If everyone agrees then we are happy to do it. It is possible,  for sure.”  

The New York office has a healthy working relationship with  LaLiga’s  US  base in the city. O’Callaghan, though, would like to see  LaLiga  secure a better  TV deal in the US to further its reach.   

LaLiga  is broadcast on  beIN Sports, which was available to 22.1 million cable households in February 2018, a figure which has since declined after  the  network  was dropped by providers Comcast Xfinity, DirecTV and Verizon Fios (temporarily) over carriage fees. The Premier League, by contrast,  reaches  84 million households on NBC Sports.  

“I would like to get a better [TV] distribution here. I think  beIN  is a good  partner,  but I feel a bit of lack of exposure here in the US,” O’Callaghan says. “It is not so easy to reach the channel. This is something we would like to be  different,  but we cannot influence it. It is not up for us.”  

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