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Ajax’s Champions League run boosts visibility, but growth is underpinned by creative commercial team

Ajax's chief commercial officer, Menno Geelen, alongside the club's chief executive and former goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar, in Times Square, New York

  • Ajax’s run to Champions League semi-final in 2019 helped digital and social growth, but club tries to keep commercial success insulated from on-pitch glory
  • Club positions itself as global representative of Dutch football, with popularity on social platforms outstripping all 17 Eredivisie rivals combined
  • Tailored partnerships and strong digital presence help secure long-term partnerships with Ziggo, adidas and Budweiser

To football fans of a certain vintage, AFC Ajax remains one of those clubs, like Juventus or Real Madrid, that belongs among the elite of the European game. When an unfancied and youthful Ajax came within minutes of a Champions League final last year – having overcome Cristiano Ronaldo’s Juventus and reigning champions Real Madrid en route – the surprise was how surprising the achievement is now, from the club that produced Johan Cruyff and Marco van Basten.

The team that was ultimately cruelly beaten by Tottenham Hotspur was largely made up of young players developed by the famed Ajax academy – a point Menno Geelen, the club’s chief commercial officer, says is crucial to the team’s identity. “At Ajax, we have a strategy that runs through the whole club,” he says. “We call it ‘for the future’. Because we have never been a club that buys legends. We create them. We have to think creatively and offensively, not only on the field, but off it.”

For example, Ajax can’t take for granted the retention of high-profile sponsors such as Mercedes and Hublot in a world where numerous rival teams in the top five European leagues can offer greater television exposure.

“We have big sponsors who are looking for international exposure, and that for us could be a big problem, because we cannot give that by TV, our league is not visible in many places,” he says. “That’s why we have to work so hard, we have to do it ourselves by making content ourselves, making YouTube videos, Instagram posts, etc. If you’re a part of the Premier League, you’re already broadcast everywhere around the world. We have to do that by ourselves, just like we had to develop the players that took us to the Champions League semi-final.”

Sustainable growth

While the Champions League run helped to dramatically improve Ajax’s visibility, particularly to younger, international audiences across its digital channels, Geelen notes that the club’s overall commercial strategy is designed to cut through the vagaries of on-pitch performance – there was no attempt to take short-term advantage of the 2019 results.

The club’s turnover for the 2018-19 season reached a record-high €199.5m ($222.1m), a near-doubling of revenues from the previous season, based largely on broadcast and prize money from the Champions League. Commercial income over the season rose just €4.4m, attributed to minor bonuses from sponsors associated with reaching the latter stages of European competition. “I don’t want to say too much about the contracts,” Geelen says, “but of course, for some of our partners it is important that we show up on the international level, and when we have success there it is beneficial to the club.”

The aim, of course, is for constant commercial growth, regardless of on-pitch success, and Geelen notes that “we don’t have extra sponsors when we win, but we don’t lose sponsors when we lose.” The focus is on retaining high-profile sponsors to long-term deals.

“Of course it helps to play [in the] Champions League, which helps to sell tickets and hospitality packages, but it hopefully doesn’t influence too much on partnerships,” he says. “Even when we have a bad season, and we have had a few, we still see a growth in partnership income, because we try and make our offering about more than just sport. Our strategy is focused on sustainable partnerships, which is why we have long-term partnerships with our five or six main, important partners. We look for partners who are in line with our ‘for the future’ thinking, who align with our sustainable approach, including sustainable growth.”

Ajax’s ‘for the future’ slogan guides the club’s strategy on and off the pitch

Squeezing maximum value out of every partnership is a crucial part of the work of Geelen and the commercial team. Highlighting the disparity between the Dutch Eredivisie and the world’s richest football division, the Premier League, Geelen points out that a team who finishes bottom of the English league will receive almost €100m in broadcast money alone, while Ajax’s TV revenue comes in at just under €8m per season. “So we are forced to think creatively, but also offensively,” he says. “Otherwise we are not going to reach the European top. We have to focus on what we can do, and create new domains and new revenue streams.

“If you’re getting €100m in TV money, maybe you don’t really care if your main sponsor is paying €4m instead of €5m. But for us, the reason we can live is because of sponsors. We are probably the only club in the world who makes more from just our main sponsor than we get from TV: €8m from our TV deal, €9m from our main sponsor [telecoms brand Ziggo].”

Ajax’s historic popularity has allowed the club to position itself as the representative of Dutch football on the global stage, its storied history and worldwide fanbase giving the club far greater visibility than any of its domestic rivals or, indeed, than the league itself. “On Instagram, Ajax alone is three times bigger than all the other 17 clubs in the Eredivisie combined,” says Geelen. “They have 1.3 million followers together; Ajax has four million. On Facebook, we have twice as many. There are only 17 million people in the Netherlands, and we have 4.2 million of those as fans. So for a brand, if you want to reach the Netherlands, it’s better to work with Ajax than with the league or with all the other clubs together.”

A perfect example of this, Geelen says, is US-based beer brand Budweiser, which signed a partnership with Ajax at the end of last season – worth €12m over six years, according to SportBusiness Sponsorship data. Having decided to increase its sponsorship presence in European football, Budweiser “signed a deal with the Premier League for England, they signed a deal with La Liga for Spain,” explains Geelen. “But in the Netherlands, they chose Ajax, because, for sponsors, Ajax is bigger than the league, we give better access to that audience.”

Similarly, the club’s primary and front-of-shirt sponsor, Ziggo, renewed terms last year on a deal worth €9m annually until 2024, despite having no presence outside the Netherlands. Its outlay is entirely focused on engaging a domestic Dutch audience, and it sees Ajax as the best vehicle for this. It has no partnership with another Eredivisie club, nor with the national football association or the league.

Custom partnerships and data leverage

The relationship with German sportswear giant adidas is one of which Geelen is especially proud, and one which he feels showcases the creativity of Ajax’s commercial department. Having initially come together in 2000, Ajax is one of adidas’ longest-standing football partners, and was another major brand to recommit to the club in the last 12 months, in a deal estimated by SportBusiness Sponsorship to be worth over €10m annually.

“I think it’s a real compliment for our strategy,” says Geelen. “Of course they supply lots of clubs, but in terms of similar sponsorship deals, they only have Real Madrid, Manchester United, Bayern Munich, Juventus – really the top, top clubs of the world. But they also chose Ajax, because of what we can offer them on the media side, the commercial side, and we are able to fight with those other clubs on a European level.”

Adidas also benefits hugely from Ajax’s strong digital and social presence – which Geelen says the club has been heavily investing into for the past decade – particularly its aforementioned dominance in the social media space in Dutch football, which allows for precisely targeted activations. “We try to treat social media like a funnel,” says Geelen. “At the top we have football fans, then we have Ajax fans, who we want to follow us on social media. But then we want to go even further and get them from just following social media to joining our own platforms, registering with our website, so we can collect data and then we can start really helping the big brands.

Ajax’s man of the match trophy has been rebranded ‘King of the Match’ as part of its partnership with Budweiser

“For an example, we ask our followers, ‘do you also play football yourself?’ And in exchange for answering our questions we offer chances to win prizes, etc. But then when we come together with adidas, we know when the amateur football season starts, and when people are buying new football shoes. We can offer them discounts, offers to buy, to really specifically targeted, one-on-one communication.

“Instead of adidas speaking to everyone in the Netherlands, instead of speaking to 4.2 million Ajax fans, we can say for sure that we have 90,000 people who we know play football, we know that their season is starting in three weeks, we know they’re going to buy shoes this this month, so we can target them together. That really helps us to grow the commercial side because this is exactly what brands want now.”

The two announced a joint clothing line at the end of last season, emblazoned with the “the future is here” slogan.

Digital future

Internationally, the last year has offered a major boost to Ajax’s performance on social and digital platforms. Ajax has appeared in the top ten most-viewed official club channels on YouTube for each of the last 12 months and sits in the top 25 for engagement on Instagram, a position which it has leveraged to create co-branded content with its partner brands. During the run to the Champions League semi-final, Ajax worked closely with adidas to create a digital campaign that highlighted prominent elements of both parties.

“Our slogan is ‘for the future’ and their slogan is ‘dare to create’, so together last season we worked on a series called ‘you create the future,’ so part of adidas, part of us,” says Geelen. “It was not only on our social media channels but on their main channels, and we showed the stories of some of the players who came from Ajax youth all the way to the semi-final of the Champions League. They got millions of views.”

Geelen also notes that esports has played a crucial role in the international and digital development of Ajax over recent years. In 2016, the club launched the Ajax eSports team, recruiting three-time FIFA world champion Koen Weijland before expanding globally. “We have a player in Brazil, a player in the US, in Japan, and players in the Netherlands,” says Geelen. “It was a really important element to us, because  it started out with a problem that we had to solve, which was reaching out to younger fans.”

There is, he says, a large demographic of under-25s who “don’t watch regular television, they don’t read newspapers, they don’t read normal magazines or football magazines. But inside the commercial team, we also recognised that this is probably an even bigger problem for our partners. If we have problems reaching out to a young target audience, then so do big brands. What can we do to help not only ourselves, but our partners, make that connection? So we started investing in esports.”

Ajax eSports is now worth over €4m annually to the club, says Geelen. “It didn’t cost us nearly this much to set it up, and it is becoming more and more an important revenue stream,” he says. “€4m, to a club like Ajax, is equivalent to another commercial partnership, and this is before we have really started to build on what we can do with it, with our existing sponsors or new sponsors just for Ajax eSports.”

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