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On The Building Of A Global Newcastle United Brand OR The Mike Ashley Conundrum

Creating a global brand is key to modern footballing success. Is Mike Ashley standing in his own way to what we all ultimately crave?

Jan Kruger

It's a sleepy Sunday morning here on the west side of the Atlantic Ocean.  There are Premier League matches happening, but in my self-selected lot in life, none of it means much to me once again this year.  As an American, I wasn't born into Premier League fandom.  I wasn't born in Newcastle or Manchester or Liverpool or Morecambe.  I have no local team, no lifelong sentence to suffer the joys and miseries of being tied by birth to any club over another.  This is not to say I do not understand this bond.  I am a Kansas City Chiefs (NFL) and Missouri Tigers (NCAA) fan by birthright and have suffered my share of heartbreak and misery as a result; they are my teams by the fortune (or misfortune) of where my parents live.  The Chiefs and the Tigers both have championships to their names – albeit before I was even a twinkle in my father's eye (sound familiar?) – but have served up years of disappointment sprinkled with a "This is it!  This is going to be the year!" only to see the ultimate goal slip from our fingers once again.  It is only fitting that as a true free agent supporter I managed to hitch my wagon to Newcastle United in the mid 90's over challenges from the likes of Tottenham Hotspur.  Since that decision, every morning I wake up and tell myself "Self!  Newcastle United are your club."

Surely there have been times during which it would be easy to sever the voluntary ties between myself and the club.  As we all know, it is not always easy to love the actions of owners or the failings on the field even though we all still love the same heart that we know still beats within it.  Ultimately, through 4 AM kickoffs and everything else, I'm still here and still supporting the club I love the best way I know how.  I, and people like myself, am the exception that proves the rule.  As a general rule, we like our sports teams to win.  If you are selecting a club far from your home, a successful perennial winner is going to be a gratifying place to start.  We love to have things sold to us.  There are clubs (you know who they are) who market the holy living hell out of themselves at the international level.  Unsurprisingly, these clubs have a huge international support base which leads into higher revenues generated which leads into even more money available for players (and more advertising!) which leads into more international support... you see my point.  Once you're in the cycle, it takes a greater mismanagement to get out of it than it takes to keep you from it in the first place.

There exists little naivete as an outsider in the global marketing of football clubs.  It costs money.  A whole lot of precious money. 

A couple of years back – during the halcyon days of the Derek Llambias administration (!) – the need to establish a global brand was spoken about freely and openly:

"We’re trying to improve all the time, our next step is to try and improve globally," "We’re a great national brand. We’ve got a touch overseas, which is great but it’s not global and this whole brand needs to be global. That’s our next target over the next three or four years – to try and get sponsorships in a global environment. Maybe that puts another player on the pitch."

Since then, pre-season tours to Germany and Portugal have replaced rumored attempts to tour Brazil and South Africa.  Fertile areas such as eastern Asia have been seemingly ignored while the United States was given the summer tour prior to the 2011-12 season but has largely been ignored since.

There exists little naivete as an outsider in the global marketing of football clubs.  It costs money.  A whole lot of precious money.  It's also going to take time.  It's going to take plenty of time to do it right.  There are reasons that many of the big global footballing brands are nouveaux riche, recently acquired by middle eastern money or huge Russian money.  The steps to developing your global brand as a club go like this:

  1. Club acquired by billionaire
  2. Invest much money in players for club
  3. Win things
  4. Push global development

Unfortunately, Newcastle United are stuck on step one.  The business model of the company that forms the base of his fortune, Sports Direct, is a successful and proven one.  Bulk buying, providing "good enough" merchandise at a comparably low price in an area that appeals broadly to the public is a solid base that Ashley has mastered.  It caters, however, to an inanimate target.  Sure, it actually takes a person to physically travel to a Sports Direct store (or navigate to dot com!), but really at the end of the day, the target audience is this little fella right here --> £.  Whoa, you say - a person still has to make a conscious decision to spend that little fella and where to do it.  Sure, if there are options.  For example: Depending upon your location, you can probably list off between 5 and 10 locations close to you where you can purchase a $.99 cheeseburger without even having to think very hard.  Need a decent pair of trainers at a low price due to budgetary constraints?  Frankly, Sports Direct would kill here in America.

There is a fundamental difference between marketing Sports Direct and doing business as Newcastle United.  You cannot successfully operate with a target audience of £.  122 years of history, organic living, breathing change, hope, euphoria, pain and suffering have made sure of that.  The club is as much a living creature as every single human being that calls it "home" - players, employees and supporters alike.  Like the human body, all systems must be cared for and nurtured in order for the greater organism to thrive.  It is within this idea, the symbiotic nature of supporters, players and club, that Mike Ashley finds himself confounded.

His ultimate goal is a global Newcastle United brand on which he can capitalize financially, but he is unsure or unwilling to take the steps to get there.  In all fairness, you cannot globalize the club as it sits right now.  It would be disastrous to do so when the product on the field is so poor and the symbiotic relationship between local support and club is so out of whack.  (This is not to say the supporters have got it all right and Ashley all wrong - as with nearly every situation in the history of ever there is a truth somewhere in the middle.  I wager it's probably closer to the support side, but hey, I'm a supporter.)  It would be money wasted.

Newcastle are in their own cycle from which they're unlikely to break free (Need to invest in players --> Fear investment--> don't invest in players--> "good enough"--> Need to invest in players)

In the immortal words of Titus Maccius Plautus, you must spend money to make money.  It's scary to spend money on a football club, though.  Players break down, don't mesh with a club or a manager for some reason or just plain flake out.  You are investing in a volatile commodity and while you can find indications that purchasing a Ricky van Wolfswinkel or a Marouane Fellaini will be a sound investment, you just can't guarantee that the return on investment will outweigh the inherent risks.  It's not like building a new streamlined distribution center that you can monetize, quantify and point at a number at the bottom of the a piece of paper going "THERE. That's what we stand to gain to the bottom line - and worst case scenario THIS, which is still pretty good!"  Until Mike Ashley can work his head around this part of owning a football club, there can be no globalization.  There will be no consistent, winning product on the pitch.  There will be no global, marketable star that stays with the Toon long enough to be sold to the world.  Until Mike Ashley can work his head around this, we will continue to see Sports Direct-style bargain basement shopping, buying "good enough" players at extremely low prices while missing out on the likes of a Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

The current player acquisition model is sustainable.  Even as supporters we must recognize this.  It also ties the club to results that will be "good enough" so long as the player management by Alan Pardew is "good enough" as well.  This "good enough" also, apparently, assures an acceptable return to Mike Ashley.  All of this was hammered home during the Europa season.  Mike Ashley looked at the youth squad players who should have been ready for the big time and said "Here are players. We have invested in them, and I arbitrarily decide that they are ready so we will not invest in senior squad players for this upcoming season."  It is the one decision regarding which I truly have sympathy for Alan Pardew during his time at Newcastle.  Pardew tried to play the kids, which gave us the short-lived "The Kids Aren't Alright Tour" that reached it's culmination at the end of the Group Stage at Bordeaux.

Sadly, at the end of it all, the back of my mind keeps going back to the Llambias quote above.  We are in a situation with regards to communication by the club that we have to question everything and be critical about context (as George Carlin said, "People think in language") and I am grabbed by the last two sentences of that quote:

That’s our next target over the next three or four years – to try and get sponsorships in a global environment. Maybe that puts another player on the pitch.

Maybe that puts another player on the pitch.  Indeed.  Perhaps I'm giving Mike Ashley too much credit.  Perhaps he never truly intends to deliver on promises that have been made regarding globalization, or if he does perhaps he never reinvests.  There is certainly enough evidence out there to suggest that as a plausible endgame.  It is hard to speculate when you have to second-guess everything.

I am sat here, then, on what is now sleepy Monday morning on the west side of the Atlantic Ocean with Liverpool set to take on Crystal Palace in a few hours time noticing with a little wry grin that this match in particular embodies both sides of the current Alan Pardew debate – Brendan Rodgers on the stability/work through difficult times and supporter discontent side and Tony Pulis on the get a new manager to revitalize the current roster side  – acquiescing to the knowledge that Newcastle are in their own cycle from which they're unlikely to break free (Need to invest in players --> Fear investment--> don't invest in players--> "good enough"--> Need to invest in players) and secure in the knowledge that despite it all, when I wake up Tuesday morning I will tell myself again as I have every morning since The Decision (MY decision, not some farcical basketball thing) that I am a proud supporter of Newcastle United and will hope with everything I've got that Mike Ashley will find whatever magic economic formula that will allow him to justify making Newcastle United the global brand that has been promised to us.