Interview: The World’s Richest Soccer Club Is Like A Free Content ‘Startup’

The world’s wealthiest soccer club will deploy RFID chips, augmented reality season tickets, online data toys, connected TV channels, Foursquare, mobile remixes and more as it tries to make itself also the world’s best-supported, its digital head Richard Ayers tells paidContent.

Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan has spent £1 billion on Manchester City Football Club since he acquired the club in 2008, including lavishly on player talent that has boosted its Premier League ranking. But, online, the club has clicked “undo” on a paid content strategy and is instead investing in numerous free digital services for fans.

It genuinely feels to me like a startup,” says Ayers, who was hired in January after stints at Trinity Mirror (LSE: TNI), Magic Lantern, Tiscali and others. “We’re running as fast as we can, but under the umbrella of a very sensible ‘VC’.”

Free for fans

Though City, like most English and Scottish soccer clubs, had previously charged fans a monthly subscription to watch its online video through newly-listed Perform’s service, it tore up that strategy after the Sheikh’s acquisition and instead contracted Endemol to produce behind-the-scenes and highlights videos that go out for free through its Poke-built website. About 100 “CityTV” videos and 150 text stories are produced each month, by a total 15-person team.

“You never forget about the football, but we are focusing on audience growth,” Ayers says. “We don’t charge for content – we were the first and may even still be the only club that gives away all our content. Arsenal have started to give away some content for free – but, for 99 percent of clubs, it’s all locked behind a paywall.

“One of the guiding principles we have is about bringing fans closer to the club. With lots of clubs, you devote your life and give money for season tickets and get back the right to buy more shirts.”

Since the change, on-site dwell time has risen from two minutes to an average three minutes and 40 seconds. Although the Premier League itself remains in a court battle with YouTube (NSDQ: GOOG) over highlights posted by users, City this month started its own YouTube channel with CityTV’s behind-the-scenes videos. One, of new striker Samuel Nasri’s arrival at the club, clocked 100,000 views in 10 hours.

Not just behind-the-scenes footage; to its own site, City can even post match highlights from midnight on the day after a given game, after Sky Sports’ and ESPN’s TV window expires and after Yahoo’s initial exclusivity on online highlights expires. “On your own site, you can give context and interaction like no other place,” Ayers says. But the club is also seeking a syndication manager to sell much of its footage overseas and will begin implementing geo-IP blocking. And, from the sounds of it, City is likely to launch CityTV on the new range of internet-enabled TVs hitting the market.

A place to experiment

City can likely draw on more owner investment than any other club, but so far ranks only eleventh by revenue and less by actual value.

Despite the club’s moneybags reputation, Ayers says his digital team, which sits both in City’s brand/commercial and its communications departments, doesn’t enjoy bottomless pockets. “Sadly not. I worked at a number of other places where the media budget is bigger than here,” he says. “The financial strategy is solid, it’s pretty strict – they don’t throw money away and give a massive budget and say ‘go and play with this’. But, if you come up with a good idea, there is the vision to go and back it. It’s arguably the best place i’ve ever worked – there’s a can-do, creative environment.”

One example – for the new season, Ayers helped the club rationalise a four-tier club membership structure in to just one RFID-equipped smart card, bearing a QR code and an augmented reality placeholder, without even having a firm idea how to use them.

“We will work out things to do with the combination,” he tells paidContent. “I see that as a huge opportunity. We get 40,000 people who turn up every week, all carrying these cards – if you can’t do something with that, then you’re doing something wrong.” Initial ideas suggest competitions, voting and treasure hunts, and Ayers wants agencies to pitch him with “cool ideas”. The card is already being used to unlock website tools that let fans pose with the FA Cup.

Scoring with ‘data-tainment’

If, as the adage goes, “every company is now a media company“, there appear ample opportunities for Ayers’ City to reach the “audience” formerly known as “fans”.

Another way is with a marriage of data and entertainment Ayers embarrassedly calls “data-tainment“. The data soccer managers take about their players movements from services like Opta and ProZone can be deployed for fans.

“We are going to put in an entire data architecture across the whole website,” Ayers says. “The performance analysis data that the club gets is just amazing; I had no idea – it’s not just how many shots or goals; it’s even the average sprint speed for a particular player in the first half. We can integrate it in to the stories, video, specials, in to games.” Agencies are again invited to put forward ideas.

Leveraging mobile and music

So far, Manchester City has clocked “surprisingly good uptake” of 15,000 downloads for its £2.99 iPhone app, which carried a fee just to dip the club’s toe in mobile waters. “We’ve had a couple of dabbles with mobile,” Ayers says. “We are currently reviewing the strategy because there’s so much more you can do.”

A second version of that app will come, along with Android and mobile web versions, and: “We’re talking to Foursquare about the best way to partner and they’re excited because there’s so much you can do.”

Meanwhile, City will also be rolling out a music remix mobile app based on Bounce Mobile technology that will let fans produce their own versions of tracks including its club anthem Blue Moon. “Man City as a brand is built closely in with the city and its musical life – and not just because the Gallachers are a big fans,” says Ayers. “We’ve developed this app so you have a bunch of tracks for free – Blue Moon is our signature song – but we’re also talking to Doves, Oasis and Mike Pickering (head of A&R at Sony (NYSE: SNE) BMG’s Columbia).”

With all that digital activity, it’s tempting to draw parallel’s with City’s red-shirted Manchester rivals. Ayers says he can’t speak for Manchester United directly but: “People tell me it’s not really a focus for them.”

Ayers, meanwhile, is recruiting for a successor so that he can drop back in to a directing position to spend more time on his new role as a dad.