- Once as low as #66 in Fifa’s ranking, Belgium are now top of the world
- But the legacy of an old-school partnership strategy left money on the table
- A new approach with digital at its heart is being rolled out
Under normal circumstances, millions of football fans across Europe and around the world would currently be immersed in Euro 2020.
But nobody needs reminding that these are far from normal times. The competition’s rescheduling for next summer is a particular blow for the Royal Belgian Football Association, whose star-studded team has topped the Fifa rankings for the past two years and were among the favourites to be crowned Champions of Europe.
That status represents a remarkable turnaround for ‘The Red Devils’ who failed to qualify for the finals of the Euros in 2004, 2008 and 2012 or the Fifa World Cups of 2006 or 2010.
According to Manu Leroy, director of marketing at the Royal Belgian Football Association, those were dark days for the sport and the country. At one stage the team slumped to 66th in the Fifa rankings but, even as it withered, a new generation of talent was maturing and has since flowered. Those players ply their trade at some of the world’s biggest clubs in the biggest leagues and many have become global stars in their own right.
But while the team was reaching new heights on the field, the commercial infrastructure behind it had failed to keep up and opportunities to build on established revenue streams and develop new ones were missed.
Now, under the new RBFA management, that is changing. A new commercial strategy has been developed with the aim of making Belgium one of the leading National Associations. An extensive Benchmarking exercise, conducted with the help of Uefa’s ‘Grow’ programme, has provided vital guidance and focus and a commercial revolution is now under way to mirror that on the pitch.
“It’s about transforming the Belgian FA from what was a sort of sports ministry into a modern commercial company,” says Leroy.
“We are in the best possible place sporting-wise, so we want to be on the same level in every other respect, including the commercial side.
“Working with Uefa we benchmarked against Spain in terms of performance, Portugal in terms of being a similar size of market, and Holland and the Nordics in relation to a population with similar spending power. We wanted to see where we sat in terms of different categories of sponsorship. What we learned – and what I already had a gut feel about – is that we were not making the most of the opportunity we now have.
“When the team was not qualifying for the finals of competitions it was like a commercial desert. Now we are turning around a strategy which was a bit old-school to make it far more modern and more measurable. In doing so it is our ambition to become less dependent on team results by establishing new parameters and building a database so that we can always give value to partners even if we fall down the rankings.”
Many of the current roster of 12 partners have been with the Belgian FA over the long haul and Leroy admits that their loyalty during the bad times made it difficult to increase fees to reflect the new reality.
“But now they understand that we are #1 in the world and that prices have gone up. But they are not just paying for the same level of service. We are building new layers on top of the visibility and ticketing part.
“For instance, producing branded content is really important because we have a gigantic reach. We are the biggest influencer in Belgium, so we want to leverage that for our partners and use the data we have.
“Luckily the predecessors here invested in in building a solid database. We’re actually in a process of cleaning that up so that we are able to extract data, segment it and give other types of return to the to our partners.”
Data and content are central to the new proposition. Work on a brand-new digital platform is due to start shortly for completion by early 2021.
“That’s when the magic will start to happen and when we will be able to deliver on our digital promise,” explains Leroy, who expects to see usage ramp up ahead of the rescheduled Euros next June.
His vision is of a virtuous circle that sees fans signing up to download an app, which delivers a feast of unique content, and the personal data they agree to provide in return becomes valuable currency for the Belgian FA when pitching to brands and pricing partnerships.
“Branded content has an important role. It is produced by us as a sort of media house and has our tone of voice. The key thing is that it has to be relevant and make people want to watch it. That means using players and coaches and going behind the scenes to produce things you just won’t see on classical media,” he says.
The hunger to associate with a team of stars scattered across Europe is evident whenever Belgium plays in a major tournament. The flags, shirts and painted faces represent the united face of a county which, says Leroy, is complicated by its regionalism and language divisions.
But arising from that is a group of players who come from different cities and regions and different ethnicities. They say that ultimately talent trumps all and it is a group of players whose fortunes are followed by Belgian fans wherever they play.
“It doesn’t matter that they don’t play in the Belgian league because most people have pay-TV and can watch them play wherever they are. The interesting thing we have noted is Belgian fans become fans of the clubs they play for and then move with them. So, a fan might follow Eden Hazard at Chelsea and then become a Real Madrid fan when he moves there,” Leroy says.
And it is in access to those players that much of the value of the Belgian FA’s sponsorship proposition lies.
“Right now, we have quite a flat structure in which most of the 12 main partners get pretty much the same inventory and opportunities, but they don’t all pay the exact same fee. That sometimes causes frustration among our partners.
“We are moving toward a pyramid in which a smaller number of sponsors get more and receive more. Our goal is to have a clearer structure that will protect our most valuable asset, the player IP.
“In the past all partners got shooting time with the players for commercials but we need to be able to control that and ensure that you have to pay a certain entry level fee to get that access….it’s worth a lot.
”Right now we have some legacy deals so what we are doing is creating clarity and additional value propositions for the cycle after the 2022 World Cup when existing deals are finished and we have a clean sheet as the new pyramid kicks-in.”
Leroy says that fans have become a little blasé about success, making it more difficult to sell tickets for qualifying games at the 50,000 capacity King Baudouin Stadium in Brussels.
“Now that we are always in Pot One (for the top seeds) we always have games against less interesting teams and these can be a challenge,” he said.
“To address this, we’ve reactivated our fan club, which rewards loyal fans who have their own section within the stadium, and we have introduced entertainment like post-game concerts and half-time DJ sets to make each game more of an event.” A 42,000 crowd for an inevitably one-sided Euro 2020 qualifier against Cyprus in November suggests that the strategy is beginning to work.
Its s not only the men’s senior team which is subject to the new commercial strategy. The upwardly mobile Red Flames women’s team is, for the first time, treated as a separate entity and opportunity.
“In the past if you sponsored the men the women’s team was thrown in as part of the same deal. That’s no longer the case, there are no more free rides,” Leroy explains.
“The women’s team offers different opportunities to different brands so companies can now partner with just the women’s team. We’re delighted to have sold our first women’s team-only partnership to Connections, a travel agency, and other brands are beginning to look seriously at the opportunity. We have also sold media rights to the women’s team to public television for the first time.”
Leroy’s strategy aims to maximise the value of the Belgian national team while it is on top of the world and maintain that value should form and position dip. Head coach Roberto Martínez has put in place a talent identification and development system and there is confindence that the pipeline is in good shape and that the country can look forward to another decade or so of success, defined as remaining in Fifa’s top 10.
Like the current crop of superstars, the youngsters are drawn from all backgrounds and sections of society, reflecting a diversity Leroy says must be celebrated across football and which is in line with the mood and aspirations of sponsors.
“I think the big message for all of football is that we need to mirror society otherwise we’ll never be able to really connect with those people from different backgrounds. It’s a big ambition within our federation in the coming years to create diversity in gender and all other areas. Our amazing team is incredibly diverse and that’s a good message for sponsors who think it’s an important area for them to leverage on.”
To watch video highlights of Manu Leroy’s interview with SportBusiness, click here.