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This two-part series features extracts from a research project
on developing futsal competitions that was carried out for my UEFA Masters.
Part 1 investigated the reasons why futsal hasn’t yet attracted the size of audiences that could be expected for such a spectacular sport.
Part 2 looks to the future and how futsal competitions can be marketed to take advantage of the enormous potential that was identified in Part 1.
A lack of interest leads to a lack of revenues which means there is an inability to attract professional management to the sport. This creates a negative loop as the expertise isn’t there to identify and execute strategies to attract more fans.
Recognising this, sport industry leaders were interviewed to gain their opinions on the approach that should be applied by sports competitions, in particular those in futsal, to generate fan interest. They were either sport marketers (SM) or competition organisers (CO).
Those approached had diverse profiles to ensure a wide range of perspectives. Several had experience of some of the world’s most popular sport competitions such as the UEFA Champions League, The Olympics and the Indian Premier League. Others had achieved success building competitions from more niche sports.
There were experts who had little knowledge of futsal but also those who are some of the most experienced futsal practitioners. An example is Javier Lozano, The President of the LNFS, who kindly supported the project by agreeing to be interviewed. All the interviewees responses are anonymous which enabled them to be more forthright in their opinions.
Whilst not a comprehensive analysis, it provides an insightful summary into some of the key factors for success that futsal competitions would be advised to consider. Interestingly, in some areas their opinions contrast with the general consensus within the sport.
Several of the interviewees said the first step to generating interest was to research the market and define a specific target audience. Sports Marketer 3 (SM3) discussed this and proposed who they would aim futsal at;
“I think you have to be really strategic about your approach because you can’t become everything to everyone…For me, when I think of futsal, I think skills, I just think ridiculous goals… for me it is a great example of where you can extract clips and really package it together that’s relevant and interesting for the next generation.”
The literature review had highlighted that shorter formats of traditional sports attracted younger audiences. SM2 was another who suggested targeting a younger demographic;
“I think you just have to hype it up from a brand proposition, the excitement, it is fast-paced, probably for a more youthful audience.”
And SM4 mentioned families and those that participate in small-sided football, implying an underlying link between participation and spectator interest if they are connected as research has demonstrated.
“One is get families engaged as it’s an easy way for them to consume a football type product. Then, connected to that, is you’ve probably got more people in the world playing small sided football than 11-a-side football. So if you can connect those two and go actually we’re more for everyone than football then you’ve got a really, really strong opportunity of building a property.”
A similar response was given by SM5 highlighting the opportunity if the high numbers playing small-sided football in some regions could be converted into futsal fans;
“I don’t know how many tens of thousands of people or more play 5-a-side on a weekly basis in [England]. That’s a massive audience, getting out to those guys and saying there is an elite game happening around the corner.”
SM4 suggested a way to gain the interest of those playing small sided football;
“Once you’ve gone beyond creating that event is how do you cascade it down? Can you create a bottom up event? You have a global futsal league or a national futsal league or a regional futsal league. The guys who are playing it week in, week out, who might be playing 5-a-side at the moment. I think this is where you look to. How do I get all my 5-a-side players to move from 5-a-side to play futsal? I think what we would traditionally call a grassroots level, that would be my approach.”
When asked directly on the connection between participation and generating interest in elite competitions, the responses were mixed. Some, such as Competition Organiser 3 (CO3), see it as essential;
“If you don’t have people that play, it’s difficult that there will be people interested.”
But others such as SM1 view it as helpful but not essential to drive interest;
“I think participation, maybe it does have an impact, but it depends on the sport. Meaning the couch potato doesn’t play any sport, right? And the couch potato is the backbone of the television business.”
Forming a brand to attract the chosen audience was highlighted as key which is interesting in the context of the earlier discussion of futsal’s identity being overshadowed by football. Here, SM3 mentions that alongside having a story;
“in terms of interest and fan loyalty it comes down to building a brand and being very clear what your story and proposition is and what you stand for and being very consistent with that.”
SM5 attributed the current lack of interest in futsal to the brand identity as had been suggested earlier;
“I think it’s almost a brand issue”
SM3 discussed what brand strategy could be effective for futsal focusing on uniqueness;
“What’s your unique proposition, your unique selling point? The fact that it’s a fast-paced, skilful game with lots of goals and it could almost have an urban and lifestyle DNA embedded into it.”
CO3 was among several that mentioned the requirement to create a brand that is truly distinctive;
“the brand is everything in my view because this is what captures attention. This is what shows the creativity or the originality of your product.”
CO1 illustrated this through twenty20 cricket which the literature review identified as comparable to futsal;
“Twenty20 cricket doesn’t look the same as test match cricket, doesn’t mean one is right and one is wrong, it just means they’re different. The important thing is they’re clearly distinct, people know what they’re going to get when they go there.”
Relationship with Football
The relationship with football was discussed by all the respondents. Firstly, SM5 mentioned football in relation to the target audience;
“[Your target audience] won’t be your 35 plus, male football fans because they’re already doing something else. So who is it then?…You can’t compete with Premier League football… But there are a lot of people that aren’t watching Premier League week in, week out and there are Premier League fans that want more football.”
There was a consensus that the association is beneficial, but futsal must be careful in how it impacts on the distinctiveness aspect. The view was that it was especially useful in the early stages to capture fans’ attention before the audience becomes more educated and aware of what futsal is as CO2 explains;
“I think it comes in another question whether to bundle it with big football, with a big brother. It can help you but it can also put you in the shade. Basically, it is showing a bit of a lack of identity in a way… I still think football can really put us under the spotlight until some point but this is only half of the message. The futsal world in itself can be in the spotlight by its own and without Neymar or anyone saying this is cool.”
SM1 offered a similar opinion having experience of organising a futsal competition that included famous former players from the 11-a-side game;
“I think when you launch it would be of some advantage to use football as a type of reference point. We used football celebrities to promote futsal and it worked… so if I was doing it the second year I wouldn’t need to say anything about football. I would say come and watch for futsal, it’s a dazzling new game. So when launching it I would need to piggyback on football and later on I will get onto a distinct identity.”
SM2 highlighted the opportunity to engage current fans of men’s football in the context of women’s football, which has experience of the challenge of utilising the association or being more distinctive;
“I think the latest insight shows that 80% of the country had some sort of interest in football. Whether that be attending or loosely following, they are showing interest at 80% and there’s no other sport that captures that. So instantly you’ve got 80% of the country interested in what you’re doing just because of the game… but at the same time [women’s football] do need to have a form of differentiation.”
Several responses emphasised the need to get the appropriate balance between opportunity to engage a large market but still communicating that futsal’s offers something different as SM3 discusses here;
“I don’t know what the answer is but there is a sweet spot in the balance between riding the popularity in the fact that football is the number one sport in the world versus distinguishing yourself as something which is very different.”
Futsal may want to position itself as a distinct football alternative to replicate the success of twenty20 which did this for cricket fans, becoming their most popular format.
Three of the respondents gave the example of Coca-Cola’s similar approach in the consumer-packaged goods market with their different offerings. Here is CO3’s take which relates back to the point of being distinctive;
“Football is Coca-Cola, the main product and the one that makes the most money. However, Coca-Cola also has other products to conquer other very important market niches. For that reason, they created Zero, Light, Fanta, Powerade etc. These latter products would be futsal and belong to the same brand but with different characteristics, different audiences and their own objectives. Another market and another business but maintain the same essence; satisfy different needs, different presentation, different taste and different business.”
This comparison illustrates how new entrants, i.e. futsal, can help the related incumbent, i.e. football, grow as has been seen in cricket, rugby union and basketball. SM4 talked in detail about how to create the distinction in practice and brought up the topic of futsal clubs representing well-known football clubs;
“For me it’s not clear, futsal tries to look like football and futsal isn’t football. For me, futsal isn’t football. So, whilst you guys try to look like football, you’re on a hiding to nothing. You’re just going to get people going that’s not proper football…It is very easy to go I’m going to create a Manchester United futsal team and an Arsenal futsal team.
I think that’s probably a good way of doing it as you get instant traction but if it’s just seen as being guys just not good enough to get in Manchester United football team and that’s why they’re playing futsal. They need to look different….My Arsenal futsal strip would be very different to my Arsenal football strip…You have got to make a decision of if you’re going to go into Arsenal and Man Utd, you are going to shadow the football clubs, then you need to be even more distinct in your visual appearance and how you play the game.”
When the topic of futsal teams using the football club brands to generate interest in the sport was brought up there were differing opinions with CO3 seeing it positively, speaking about the increased promotion and exposure FC Barcelona’s futsal team offers. SM5 shared a similar opinion;
“I think it’s a good thing (using football brands). Your issue now is probably just a lack of branding and awareness…They’re some of the biggest brands in the world.”
However, others saw this merger less favourably such as SM3;
“I wouldn’t go too far to the point where, to answer your last question, I don’t think I would necessarily have a Manchester United Futsal Club or FC Barcelona Futsal Club. I think it would be great to see teams from these iconic cities like Manchester and Barcelona and let’s say Milan for sake of argument. But I think they should be positioned as something completely different. I really do.”
SM1 cautioned about it being positive short-term but negative in the long-term. The idea about futsal being neglected when an organisation’s ultimate concern is related to football was hinted at.
“It will be an easy way of starting off but somehow I think Manchester United will never treat the futsal team with the same respect they treat their football team but to start off it would be a great way to start. Taking a long-term perspective, I wouldn’t go with the existing football brands. It will always be seen as a second to that.”
SM2 spoke about their experience of football clubs creating women’s teams and how they’re trying to transfer that existing loyalty from the men’s teams over to the women’s. They recognised that this had been challenging;
“I think building individual loyalty on the women’s game is something we’re trying to do at the moment, but it hasn’t necessarily happened at the moment yet. We’re seeing a lot of people coming for 1 or 2 games but they’re not becoming regular ticket buyers or they’re not buying season tickets so there’s a lot more work we need to do, at the moment, in building that loyalty.”
In summary, the respondents all agree a balance is needed in the association with football but there is debate as to where the optimal balance lies for the benefit of futsal.
Several of the respondents mentioned creating a good fan experience with entertainment and the advantages an indoor environment brings such as these comments by SM1;
“I thought [futsal] would provide a good spectator experience which football cannot give such a great experience as it’s not in a closed environment.”
SM4 reiterated this and spoke about fans being active participants which has been identified as helping to build fan relationships, identity and loyalty;
“So, if I go my core focus is on families and why does that work because its indoor, warm and it’s a safe environment versus outdoor, cold and relatively unsafe environment… I start to have people carrying out entertainment activities whilst they’re there so that can be a whole host of things. I can also have them doing educational activities there which is teaching them what it means and how to play futsal. So, a game isn’t 2 hours in the afternoon, a game is actually a 4 hour visit that you go and have in which you’re doing a lot of other activities as well because you’re taking over a specific venue. You can’t let kids run on the pitch at [a football stadium] but there’s nothing wrong with kids running around on the pitch in a futsal environment.”
CO2 and SM3 referenced the fan experience in the NBA where there is lots of ancillary entertainment and theatre in addition to the sporting action;
“You can go very much of the wild way like they do in the NBA or these indoor top events… Let’s be creative, let’s do crazy things. Something that brings added value to a product because the game is great, no doubt, but it would be even greater with crazy things.”
“I think in futsal, I don’t know why, but I just feel with the nature of the sport, in the way it’s structured, the way it’s played inside an arena as well. I just feel like you could do so much more where is in football we would love to do more of what the NBA is doing.”
SM1 spoke about the priority of attracting fans to arenas in order to attract broadcasters and sponsors;
“Even for TV you need to see a full stadium. An enthusiastic noisy crowd. The spectators are important.”
A couple of those interviewed mentioned the opportunity to be innovative with futsal, again offering the opportunity to be distinctive from football, as evidenced by these comments by SM5 and SM3;
“The men’s game (football) is almost cursed because try to change the men’s game, you can’t. Even things like the NFL. It is commercialising and adding all this added spectacle that would get booed off…The opportunity with futsal is do whatever you want because there are no expectations.”
“I think with a sport like futsal, where I would see a huge opportunity, you could be bold and you can do things that in traditional football you wouldn’t be able to get away with just because of the nature of the stadium, the format of the competitions and so forth. I really think you can think outside of the box and push the limits. And I also think you need to, to differentiate from other traditional sports because personally I wouldn’t see futsal as a traditional sport. I would actually see it as something different and unique.”
The importance of engaging with fans who don’t attend games through digital media was highlighted by several of the practitioners including SM3;
“if you look at who the next generation is following, it is not your traditional BT or Sky Sports or ESPN in the US. It’s platforms like Bleacher Report, like Copa90, House of Highlights [all online] and the way they approach different sports is completely different to the way you and I grew up following these sports and that’s where I think futsal could stand out…the reality is that [game attendees] are only a small percentage of your fan base because there is only so many people who can have the chance to come to a live sporting event. So, I would actually say it’s the people who are consuming your content online who are the priority.”
SM5 also spoke about the importance of engaging content as well as fan interaction;
“If you don’t have unique, exclusive content that fans can watch, get behind and take part in in their everyday life, you’re not really competing…how I can actually engage with it, take part in it, vote, have my opinion heard, hear back from the players. How can you take part in this sport in a greater way than just physically going to watch and content is the number 1?”
SM1 spoke about promoting the individual stars, as the literature review identified, through social media to build interest in a competition;
“One case study in sports is the UFC. The UFC started MMA in United States. They started off brilliantly. They used social media so well to build up the personalities who were playing. They really did it very well… So I think the key is to use social media to build the tournament but the tournament also is only composed of stars. So you need to create the personalities and the fan following and all of that in advance of the actual tournament. Social media is the key to that.”
The Potential For Futsal
Overall, the interviewees projected a very positive outlook for futsal’s future such as SM5 here;
“There’s massive potential. If you look at it from a participation perspective its where it’s at. If you look at other sports, these smaller formats are where it’s winning at the moment…It’s not rocket science, it can actually be a success.”
CO2 is responsible for a futsal competition and spoke of the need for investment to reach its potential;
“It’s a circle basically so it would just need some clever investment injected into the game, into the segments of the game which make the product more sellable to fans, more sellable to TV, more attractive because of the technology…from there you will have more media, you will have more fans, you will have more viewers on TV. And if you have more viewers on TV, you have more adverts on TV and more money flowing and it grows like this until it reaches the sky like football.”
Even with little investment, CO2 has witnessed the sports upward trajectory;
“When you see the growth of the game and with the means that we have had, human resources or financial resources, the growth is just amazing over the last 15 years… it can be the biggest indoor sport in the world.”
SM4, who has never worked in futsal but has worked on one of the world’s most valuable football competitions, was even more ambitious for the sport;
“There is no reason why futsal can’t be bigger in either participation or viewing figures than football if you target the right audience, you go after families, and you make much more of an engaging product, you can easily do that. You have got a massive opportunity .”