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Sevilla’s back-room operations working to catch up with team performance in modernisation push

  • Sevilla FC has doubled revenues since 2014 but is targeting even more rapid growth
  • Heavy investment in infrastructure is under way to help reposition the club
  • Flexible approach to sponsorship deals is key to new strategy

When Kevin Gameiro stepped up to smash home Sevilla FC’s fourth – and winning – penalty in the 2014 Europa Cup final shoot-out in Turin, it marked the first of an unprecedented trio of consecutive Europa League wins for the Andalusian club. Spain’s oldest professional football club – founded in 1898 – had confirmed itself as a heavyweight on the European scene.

But market research in 2014 into the club’s global standing showed that it did not have the kind of international following it had expected. This was a club that had also won the Europa League in 2006 and 2007 and was the sixth most successful club in terms of historic performance in LaLiga. Success on the field was not translating into awareness off it.

This was borne out by the club’s income. No LaLiga teams seriously expect to compete with Barcelona and Real Madrid in the money race, but the €9m ($10m) in commercial revenues earned in the 2013-14 season was not even a match for many mid-ranking clubs in other European leagues.

The club knew it had to change up. Enter Ramón Loarte in May 2014 as the club’s new chief marketing and commercial officer, tasked by the board to help effect a transformation. He has now done so. By the end of the 2018-19 season club revenues had risen to €226.5m, an increase of 165 per cent on 2013-14. Commercial revenue doubled to €18m.

The club also now appears to be putting down the global footprint it feels its performances merit. In June 2018, Nielsen was commissioned to conduct research into Sevilla’s fanbase in 25 markets across five continents. The key takeaways were:

• 563.4 million people are aware of Sevilla FC
• 144.5 million people are either interested or very interested in the club
• 46.8 million are very interested in the club
• 44 per cent of those very interested in Sevilla are in the Americas, 33 per cent in Europe and 2 per cent in Asia Pacific.

The other metrics are ticking along nicely. The average home-game attendance last season was 35,942, an increase of nine per cent on the previous season. The cumulative global television audience for Sevilla matches last season was 159 million. Followers across social media platforms now stand at 4.3 million.

Jose Antonio Reyes of Sevilla FC poses for photographers with the trophy after the Uefa Europa League Final match with Liverpool in 2016 (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)

Loarte tells SportBusiness that a cultural change has taken place within the club since 2014, and identifies some core elements of the new approach:

• Restructuring propositions to brands, companies, media, institutions
• Focussing on international brand development and defining brand positioning globally
• Creating new assets and new sources of revenue
• Defining the mission and goals of the club and sharing them to everyone involved
• Building a business intelligence dashboard
• Putting brands and sponsors at the centre of every decision
• Measuring, testing and learning; not repeating things which don’t hit a minimum performance level
• Hiring talent
• Building a ‘glo-cal’ strategy in defined key markets which focuses on audiences and engagement
• Creating a new digital ecosystem
• Communicating in key languages
• Creating relevant ad-hoc content for each market.

But while the revenue curve arcs nicely upwards, it is still not steep enough for Loarte. “Doubling the commercial revenue might be considered good, and I think it is,” he says, “as sponsorship revenues are not increasing the same way the player transfer market does. But we should be registering a double-digit growth every season if the team is performing the same way as in the recent past. We believe the potential of Sevilla FC is still huge”.

With sponsorship having been identified as an underperforming vertical, Loarte last year brought in Michael Higham from Premier League club Arsenal, where he had spent just under four years developing commercial partnerships, with a focus on early renewals or extensions. For the previous two years, he had been part of the commercial juggernaut at Manchester United.

Flexible, international

The two bedrocks of the new approach are flexibility and internationalisation. As Loarte puts it: “Our commercial growth will be caused not just by a success in sports performance but by a greater international brand development across key markets. If we don’t execute our international plan, we will never have any chance of achieving our corporate and business goals.”

On flexibility, he says: “We start any proposal discussion with first asking the brands what their goals are for the partnership and then we go away and come back with a bespoke partnership package for that brand. Some brands simply want brand awareness so that package is more advertising focused. For some, digital growth is the key driver, so we get our social media team to focus on a bespoke package for them.”

LaLiga clubs are limited in the amount of rich match-related content they can provide, as the league looks to protect its growing incoming from centralised media-rights sales, both in Spain and abroad. So much of the content is tailor-made behind-the-scenes or player-related material.

Digital is now a “key focus and driver” in offerings to partners, he says. “We work very closely with our social media and CRM teams to make sure our partnership proposals offer brands the best digital assets for them to connect to their target audiences. Our current club partners are looking to create more and more digital content in their efforts to have an open dialogue with fans, and as a club we are pro-actively supporting them by providing daily branded content opportunities.”

Sevilla now has 14 sponsors (see table). In July, it agreed a new main shirt sponsorship deal with online betting firm Marathonbet. The deal is reported to be worth up to €5m per season, with bonuses.

At various times, the club has shared sponsors with its city rival, Real Betis. This year, the two clubs worked together for the first time to help the brand create a marketing campaign with ride-share company Uber featuring both clubs. Uber produced an advertising campaign featuring two gay male fans, Romeo and Julio, one from each club. The campaign also helped position the two clubs as being committed to “coexistence, respect and tolerance in the world, not just football,” Loarte says.

Infrastructure key

Under current club president, José Castro, the club’s overall strategy has been defined as ‘Building the Sevilla FC of the Future’. It is not just about maximising revenues from existing assets, but involves heavy investment, particularly in infrastructure. As Loarte puts it: “Modern infrastructure is key when you are promoting your club, your brand”.

The club is spending €30m to upgrade its training ground and is revamping its Ramón Sánchez-Pizjuán Stadium, with spending currently at €15m. The training ground will be known as the José Ramón Cisneros Palacios Sporting and Business Campus. It will cover 260,000 square metres: 60,000 for the first team and 200,000 for the academy.

The Pizjuán is well known in Spain as a cauldron of passion, probably the closest thing the country has to a South American atmosphere at matches. Refurbishment will be completed by 2021, when it is due to host the final of the Europa League. Given Sevilla’s recent dominance of the competition, there are perhaps few more fitting venues.

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