Be the Airbnb of football
There are conventions that govern any industry. In the world of hotels, one convention is that you own real estate. Another is that you have someone greet guests to check them in. There are countless others – or there were, until Airbnb decided to break them. They effectively asked: what if you didn’t have real estate? What if someone didn’t help you with check in? They would never have been able to compete with brands like Marriott and Hilton without doing so. In football, we’ve seen successful ‘disruptors’ do the same.
Take Atlanta United. The convention for expansion teams in MLS was to recruit older, big names from Europe as designated players, because of the supposed performance and commercial benefits. Atlanta rejected that, signing younger players from South America, and within two seasons were MLS Cup champions.
In Denmark, FC Nordsjælland have broken convention in consistently fielding one of Europe’s youngest teams. Received wisdom is that teams need some experience in order to survive in a first division. Nordsjælland haven’t just survived, they’ve qualified for European football too.
As for one extreme example: Hashtag United broke the convention that you need history, a stadium, and well, anything, to grow a fanbase and a brand.
Some conventions are easier to break with the support of evidence. We’ve found that there’s no reason to believe that you should sign players who perform especially well in big matches, for example. Other conventions feel harder to break, perhaps because no one has ever tried before. But how about breaking some of these:
- You have win bonuses to attract and motivate players
- You employ just one head coach or manager
- You have just one shirt sponsor for the whole season
- You have a consistent style of play from the academy through to the first team
It’s useful to ask what might happen if we chose not to follow one of these ‘rules’. If we didn’t have bonuses, what else might we do to attract and motivate players? Perhaps we’d have more emphasis on cultural benefits, or on personal development. We could offer players the option of win bonuses or masterclasses with world-class mentors, or instead offer seed investment for players with post-career entrepreneurial ambitions. These might seem like wacky ideas, but if we’re prepared to spend 30 minutes to an hour exploring where rule-breaking might take us, we could end up with a practical solution that differentiates our club in a crowded market.
When competing against bigger, wealthier rivals, we should be challenging everything we assume we know, and asking what would happen if we changed the convention. If we want more wins for the same or lower cost, then doing things differently is the only way to go.