Blackburn Rovers FC – Pulling up the comms drawbridge does not work
More than £100 million of debt, 10 managers in seven years, stadium attendance numbers halved and now playing in the third tier of English football for the first time in 37 years. It has been a tumultuous and heart-breaking time to be a Blackburn Rovers fan. What has hurt fans the most is the apparent lack of empathy and, critically, communication from the absent owners of the club, the Venky’s.
It didn’t used to be like that. Previous owner, the late Jack Walker, is idolised by fans having invested huge sums of his personal wealth (made through Walkersteel) into his true passion, Blackburn Rovers. I once met him at Selhurst Park in 1997 and was blown away with how kind and down to earth he was. His legacy is a large statue outside the stadium in his honour but what would he make of the situation today?
Blackburn is a former mill town, relying heavily on its historic football club to represent the area, entertainment and more crucially, jobs. The former Premiership champions once boasted one of the highest attendances in the country as a proportion of its local community. The club brings pride to the area. It matters.
, The Venky’s bought the club in 2010 for £23 million and set about adopting a ‘focus on leveraging the global influence in establishing Blackburn Rovers as a truly global brand’ and ‘will absolutely respect the Jack Walker legacy and will be actively supporting the organisation to ensure that Blackburn Rovers remain one of the best-run clubs within the Premier League’. Rovers fans were excited.
But things began to go wrong very quickly… Surrounded by a team of advisers, the Venky’s promised to sign Ronaldinho and David Beckham, spoke openly about buying rival club players and reportedly did not know there was a relegation to the league below. There appeared to be a total lack of industry knowledge and the appointments of ‘friendly’ agents and advisers who initially communicated the Venky’s plans publicly, highlighted the company’s frailties.
It became very clear that Blackburn Rovers (and the draw of English football) was to be used as a marketing tool to help boost international expansion for the Poultry giants. The Venky’s stopped coming to games, sacked managers, spent huge sums of money on agents (£1.25 million between 2014-15) and, up until this season, had invested just £250,000 in two years on recruitment. The Venky’s were becoming more and more unpopular with fans as the team fell further down the leagues.
“Communicate, invest or go” came the cry from the local newspaper, the Lancashire Evening Telegraph, in May this year following the team’s second successive relegation to League One. It was supported by Labour’s Parliamentary candidate for Hyndburn Graham Jones, former foreign secretary, Jack Straw, and former title winning players, Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton. Fan groups Blackburn Rovers Supporters Trust and Blackburn Rovers Action Group have tried in vain to engage with the Venky’s with no avail. #Venkysout was trending on Twitter. Fans and club staff were desperate to hear from their absent owners who presumable felt they could limit any damage to the brand by remaining completely silent.
The Venky’s brand was being sullied on a daily basis by fans, celebrities and media alike. ‘Cowardly Venky’s’ was how Henry Winter at The Times described the company and there has even been a local concert organised, Rocking against Venky’s, which looks to ‘bring supporters together against the club’s owners in a new way’.
A football club, like a company, needs direction regardless of performance. This requires clear and transparent communication from those in charge to engage with fans or customers but also with employees. The abundance of communication tools that are at a company’s disposal today means that customer interaction can be used as a highly successful tool to cement brand loyalty going forward.
The running of Blackburn Rovers is a clear example of how not communicating and pulling up the drawbridge can alienate fans or customers, incite dissatisfaction and destroy any loyalty that has been earned over generations. The learnings from this unsuccessful ownership are twofold: 1) know exactly what you are investing in from the start and 2) tell your audience (fans, customers, employees, stakeholders, shareholders, etc) what your plans are for your club/company no matter the performance.
Written by Jamie Brownlee, Director