In addition to my job at Taylor, I’m also the founder of Arsenal America, the official supporters club in the U.S. for Arsenal FC. Occasionally I can combine these two passions, and one such occasion was my interview with John and Matt Simmons, lifelong Arsenal fans who together wrote Winning Together: The Story of the Arsenal Brand. This interview, originally published in April 2006 when the book came out, seemed worth reprinting here now that the English Premier League season has got underway:
Many people don’t like to talk about the commercial aspects of the game. Like frightened ostriches they shove their heads in the sand, recalling the ‘good old days’ when fans were smashed into pens, blacks weren’t allowed to play and getting piss drunk and in a bust up was considered a good afternoon. Fortunately most Arsenal Americans live in the 21st century and understand the era in which we live and follow the Arsenal. Recently John and Matt Simmons, a father-son Gooner pair wrote a book entitled “Winning together: the story of the Arsenal brand” (you can get it here). It’s an intelligent look at the game today and how Arsenal are ‘playing’ off the field. It reveals that in fact Arsenal supporters have much to be proud of. I recently caught up with John and Matt and they were kind enough to answer my question regarding Arsenal FC, U.S. fans and their book…
Rick Liebling: You talk about Brand Identity in your book, and I think it is a great point. It is something that has been lost here in the States as teams, especially new ones, try to be all things to all people. I think fans play a critical role here – what can fans do to shape the identity of a team (brand), and should a club embrace fans more in this area?
J. & M. Simmons: Brand identity is not something you hear discussed a lot in football, but it has always been there. It goes with obvious things like the team colors and crests, but is more deep-rooted than that as it’s based on our perceptions of what the brand/team stands for. We set out what we believe these values are in the case of the Arsenal, but we argue that the values are based on the reality and tradition that have built up over many years. And those values are the bedrock of the brand identity. They’re not a marketing concoction, although you can use marketing to make them even more powerful. But Jeff Bezos of Amazon says “a brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room”, so the brand’s real identity in the case of Arsenal is in the minds of fans.
But fear of loss of identity is a very real one for fans “over here” [the UK]. Identity and location have always been closely linked for most fans – which is why the infamous case of the MK Dons (previously Wimbledon FC) so shocked and scared people. Of course, the MK Dons were following the lead of American sports, where several established franchises have been re-located in more welcoming (or profitable!) cities.
The fear for Arsenal fans was that we would go down this road. We’re sure we would never have relocated to another city altogether (I think even the English FA would have said no to that), but we could easily have found ourselves playing 20 miles outside London in a soul-less new development by the side of a motorway. For us, and many other ‘local’ Arsenal fans, this would have been a massive blow to our sense of identity. It might not have been such a big issue for our foreign fans, or even our many fans from around the rest of the UK.
When it comes to shaping the identity of a club it is the local fans who will inevitably play a larger role, if for no other reason than it is very hard to consistently influence people from thousands of miles away. This said, at a big club like Arsenal it is hard for even local fans to directly influence the club’s identity. Manchester United fans have found this to their cost recently in their losing battle with the Glazers. United fans now have two choices: pay up and shut up (accepting that the club’s identity is no longer their own) or go and support FC United instead (the ‘real’ United, established by fans and currently playing way down the league pyramid).
In this respect fans of small clubs are luckier – with the recent proliferation of supporter’s trusts, many of whom now have a seat on their club’s boards, more and more fans are able to directly engage with their clubs. This is something that should be happening at every club. At the moment it only happens when clubs are in desperate trouble, and need their supporter’s money!
RL: For many fans, especially those here in the States, Dennis Bergkamp was the reason they started rooting for Arsenal. How important is it for Arsenal to find a new player who will bring fans ‘into the tent’?
J&MS: Interesting question – as in the question above, different groups of supporters will look for different things. For local fans, or fans with strong family ties it might not really matter most. Our devotion to Arsenal was no less throughout the 1980s when we were watching Gus Caesar or Ian Allinson stumble around, than it is now watching the sublime football played by the modern Arsenal. But, to take a wider perspective, when it comes to attracting new fans, fans in other countries, or around the rest of the UK, then it does become important. In Thierry Henry we already have that player – the greatest player we’ve ever seen in an Arsenal shirt.
The other point to raise though is what Bergkamp represented, quite apart from what he brought to us as a player. Bergkamp was the first genuinely world-class player to sign for Arsenal in his prime. Which isn’t to say that Arsenal haven’t had other world-class players, just that they either progressed through the ranks, or joined us before or after their peak. I think many Arsenal fans, local and around the world, would love for Arsenal to do that again, lay down a marker and buy a genuine world star. Don’t hold your breath though….but then you see young players like Cesc Fabregas and you know that here is a genuine world star in the making, and how much better for Arsenal to have made him.
RL: Shirt sponsors and corporate partners can play a huge role in the brand identity. I think Arsenal have a good partner in Emirates – worldly, best in class, etc. Conversely, I’m not sure Man United got it right with AIG. I don’t aspire to buy insurance. Should a club factor that in, or just grab the biggest pile of cash they can?
J&MS: AIG was a strange choice for United – really not a good fit at all. It could have been worse – originally they were negotiating with Mansion, the gambling company, but United may have decided that was a stretch too far. Not that it stopped Spurs of course, who are being sponsored by Mansion from this season… So, as you’ve probably realized, we do think clubs should factor in the fit of their sponsor to the club. We’d hate to see Arsenal sponsored by McDonalds, for example, not necessarily because we see McDonalds as at all evil but because we can’t see any real connection between the values of that brand and the Arsenal brand.
It’s all about consistency – if your brand (as Arsenal’s is) is built on tradition, quality, doing things the ‘right’ way, then you can’t be sponsored by someone that doesn’t share these values. Arsenal really are unusual in this respect though – most clubs don’t have as strong a set of values as Arsenal do, and most boards will just grab as much as they can from whoever is offering it.
RL: U.S. fans are often derided as ‘plastic’ by some of the hardcore, what is your view on the role of foreign fans for today’s football clubs?
J&MS: We’d hate to see any genuine fan called ‘plastic’ simply because of where they came from. When I was growing up (this is Matt at this point), I used to love reading the section in the program about our many overseas supporters’ clubs, or the stories of fans making a once in a lifetime pilgrimage to Highbury. This always seemed to make Arsenal more special to me, not less. London is one of, if not the, most cosmopolitan cities in the world, and increasingly our support reflects that.
Traditionally the measure of a real fan was someone who went to every single game week in, week out. I’m not sure if this really applies anymore. Nowadays I feel it’s more about what’s inside that matters, not where you are. Someone who lives in the USA, but passionately loves Arsenal, supports them in whichever way they can, and defines part of their identity through being Arsenal, well, you can’t tell me they aren’t a real fan. In fact, I would argue they are more of a fan than some of the season ticket holders I’ve had the misfortune to sit near down the years, who don’t seem to have any interest in the team, never sing or cheer, or even seem to enjoy being an Arsenal fan!
As well as this, foreign fans are increasingly important financially. The UK can only expand so much, so foreign markets will be a big focus for all big clubs in the future. For most clubs, I think this is all they are though – a potential cash cow. I hope this isn’t the case at Arsenal, and I may be a little idealistic here, but I do hope our foreign fans are seen as part of the Arsenal family, not just an easy mark.
RL: Marketing efforts by European (including UK) clubs often lag behind that of U.S. franchises/brands. Should Arsenal be looking to Madison Avenue or even Hollywood for ideas? Closer to home, should they be emulating Chelsea or Man United by doing pre-season tours in Asia and the U.S.?
J&MS: We’d have to say no to both questions. The last thing English football needs right now is more glitzy marketing. The game is already over-hyped beyond saturation point, and introducing new, slicker marketing ideas from the U.S. would not really improve matters. But there’s marketing and marketing, and it’s not all Madison Avenue. Better marketing based on building better relationships with the fans we’re all in favor of that but it doesn’t need advertising and promotions to achieve it.
This isn’t to say that UK clubs couldn’t be smarter commercially. Where clubs should be focusing their attention is on the basics of running a successful business – giving their customers what they want when they want it, and focusing on customer service when things do go wrong. Football clubs over here have never felt the need to pay much attention to such matters, as their fans’ loyalty has kept them coming back no matter what. Customer service has improved a little over the last 20 years, and most fans are no longer treated like animals, but at the same time ticket prices have risen quite dramatically, so people’s expectations are higher. Arsenal’s customer service has been bad, but that’s the norm for the football business in the UK, so we can only hope this improves in the new stadium.
Regarding the pre-season tours of Asia and the U.S – we have to say that we’re very pleased we haven’t joined the rush every summer. We write about this in the book, and we love the fact that Arsenal (and this is down to Arsene Wenger) place more value on preparing the team properly than on chasing every last Dollar or Yuan. So, Arsenal spend every summer playing low-key warm up games in Austria, while Chelsea and Man United spend pre-season getting jet-lagged and complaining about player exhaustion. What a great example of the difference between the Arsenal brand, and that of Chelsea or Man United! But we’re all for building links with Arsenal fans and football clubs at all levels around the world, and Arsenal do a lot of unpublicized work in Asia and Africa, and should probably do more in the US too.
RL: It’s often said no one player is bigger than the club, but what about Wenger? What role does he play as a brand ambassador – to fans, potential transfers, etc. – and how would his departure affect the Arsenal brand?
J&MS: Another good question – no one man, not even Wenger, is bigger than the club, but he certainly comes closest to achieving that status, certainly since Herbert Chapman, if not ever. You just can’t underestimate how important Wenger has been, and is, to the club. The success Wenger brought on the field (for incredibly little outlay) has allowed the club to build the new stadium, fantastic new training facilities, and hang on to (most) of their big stars. And of course we’ve also seen the most thrilling, dazzling football any Arsenal fans have ever seen.
Wenger is also fantastic for the club as a brand ambassador – witty, articulate, educated and urbane, he’s brought a more sophisticated edge to the club’s traditional, maybe slightly old-fashioned, identity. And he’s a massive selling point to potential signings as well – his record improving players is second to none.
So, how would his departure affect the Arsenal brand? Well, it would be a massive blow. We’d rather every single member of our playing squad left than him. We’d struggle to fill the stadium without the kind of football he’s got Arsenal playing, and how many other managers could build such successful teams on such a comparatively small budget? The good news is that he doesn’t seem to be thinking about going anywhere soon (he really gives the impression that Arsenal is in his blood now), and that the current, young team he is building could well be his best yet.
RL: Finally, what do you say to fans who think football it too commercial?
J&MS: They’re right! But most fans don’t object to a certain amount of commercialization. We accept that in order to buy new players, Arsenal have to sell a lot of replica shirts. We’re happy for our season ticket money to pay for a new player, or new facilities. Like all fans, we want our club to be successful, and we all realize that you need money to do this. What fans are really objecting to is when this edges into exploitation. So, it’s not replica shirts, wall-to wall TV coverage and shiny, branded stadiums that most fans object to. It’s being ripped-off that bothers them!
I’d like to again thank John and Matt for taking the time to provide further insight into the off-field side of the modern game. To read more about this and really capture a great understanding of what Arsenal FC are doing or perhaps need to do, I recommend their book – Winning together: the story of the Arsenal brand