I am really happy that I had the opportunity to meet with Filip Sunturlić, the man in charge of phenomenon called Basketball club Crvena zvezda Telekom. Filip came into the club when they had many problems and one of the solutions was to ‘shut it down’, and today, they are the most popular club in the region with around €1 Mil. income from ticket sales!
In my opinion, Filip Sunturlić and Ranko Vučinić (from KHL Medveščak) are the best sports marketing experts in Southeast Europe. Take some time and read this interview, you will learn many useful things.
How many people do you have in the marketing and PR team of Basketball club Crvena zvezda Telekom? How is the team divided?
“Marketing Sector of BC Crvena zvezda Telekom, as well as most sports organizations in the region (and I know a lot of examples, not to say the majority of Euroleague clubs) works with a small number of people who have a permanent tenure in the club. The reason I underline permanent is because we need volunteers to function normally, they play an important role and without them much of the work would stagnate.
I am proud because the Volunteer Stars project is one of the first projects that I started. So far more than 140 students have passed through our system, 30 of them are active at this moment, mainly from the Faculty of organizational Sciences, Faculty of Economics and the Faculty of Sports (Union University), with whom we have an agreement on Strategic Partnership.
To get back to the organisation itself…within the marketing sector of the Club, beside my executive function, we have one person responsible for PR, one for Ticketing, one for Merchandising and one for online activities. All activities are created ‘in house’, although we have outside partners that, with their expertise, help us put our ideas into practice. During Euroleague games, I’m in charge of around 80 people who are directly and indirectly involved in the organization itself.
Sports Marketing in this region, in modern times, and not to say in a professional format, is present, but not as much as it should be. Desire of all of us engaged in this work is that the importance of marketing in the sports industry is even greater. We want people who are at very high positions in sport industry to understand that sport without marketing can’t be financially sustainable. Only marketing and the right communication can bring result and success in a sports organization. The old system, from the previous time, should remain in the past. We should create a new system by ourselves, and look to sports organizations that have implemented the new system years ago.”
It should be said that the club was in ‘disarray’ before you took charge of marketing. Could you describe that situation?
“In 2011, BC Crvena zvezda Telekom was in pre-bankruptcy state, and out of nowhere, new management with Mr. Nebojša Čović at the helm came and began rebuilding the club. It didn’t work overnight (I can guarantee that anything built overnight, will also collapse overnight), but we were patiently building, devising our path, our strategy and plan for each segment of the Club, so it would be viable. When we arrived in the club, the situation was not promising, because we could not use anything we found there to work with (beside the name of the Club, which should be the most valuable part, but…). When you have a powerful brand, such as Red Star, you would think that the work is easy, but it really wasn’t.
I think at the beginning, except insane desire and faith, we had nothing. The Red Star name, image, complete logistics, and resources did not exist. We had a huge problem with the legacy of the recent past, since the most loyal fans lost faith in the club. The problem was huge, and our mission was to fix that. We needed to find a way to restore fans faith in the club (fans unreservedly love this club, but faith was taken away from them). This was all data that we analyzed when we prepared the strategy for the future.
From the beginning, three strategic directions that we have chosen in marketing, scored short and long term “points” for us, and helped us, each in its own way, to restore the reputation and image of the club. Ticketing, social-responsibility and digital are these three directions. Four years later, today, if you ask me if I would change anything, I would have answered with “No, we have chosen the right strategy and that is why results are visible”.
Sometimes, the tools and means of communication we choose at first induce misunderstanding and disapproval. But, after a certain period people begin to understand our message and ideas. We dedicate most of our attention to fundamentals, we try to be original, specific, creative, attractive and entertaining. Did we succeed? Our result speaks on our behalf. And better results are yet to come.”
How did you manage to turn this situation around? How did you win your fans back? Many say marketing is a waste of money, but your example clearly demonstrates it is not so… I guess you do not agree with this statement?
“In the previous answer I stated most of our problems, but also our solutions. Some of my visions and ideas I keep to myself. I’m not saying that everything we do is always OK or the right solution, but unlike many others, we are always trying new things. At the cost of getting it wrong.
Today, due to everything that is happening in our society, people are afraid to make mistakes, and because of this they limit themselves and their knowledge and talent. We are aware of the existence of errors, but that pushes us forward, and allows us, through personal experience, to push much faster and more powerful than others. I say this for one simple reason, because this is the main reason why the supporters restored their faith in the club, and the people who work in it. They saw that we want to work, and if/when we make mistakes, we don’t give up, we move forward. They saw sincerity in our approach, the way we work, and it is not rare that we actually listen to what they have to say, and that their words and ideas are a part of the strategy we are developing. This way they feel like they are really a part of this club, an active part of this club.
Marketing as an expense – it has become more of a cheap phrase and it is mostly used by people who are not on the right track or are not informed how modern business works. It seems to me that this ‘virus’ affects a lot of people from our region, while I don’t see such examples in the rest of world. True, it is not desirable and normal to spend enormous amounts of money on propaganda during financial crisis, but to take away means of marketing to a company is equal to suicide.
Since our topic is Sports Marketing in the region (where money is an abstract noun), the first thing to recognize when it comes to sports organisation is, whether it will bring us money or financial loss? Why did I start with this question?! We are engaged in marketing, communication, and it is well-known that in our region, in sport, athletes playing for us, do not get the money earned (clubs do not have money, delays in payment, the vast majority of athletes is at the edge of existence … not to say that they are amateurs, because they are not amateurs, but sport is organized in such manner…we don’t want to face the facts). And now imagine that we start to take more money from club’s budget for marketing then for player salaries, or employees? That would not be normal. And every fan would realize that. And that would be the end of our marketing story, our strategy, sport…everything would stop. And this happens in many cases in the region. Therefore, although some people do not agree, I always say one thing about sports marketing: marketing is not the key player, it’s just a tool to assist athletes to showcase their skills to fans, for fans to enjoy; and for management to provide all the necessary means for the organization to run smoothly. As soon as something goes wrong in this system (in this region) there are no results, no success, club or sport in general.”
It is interesting that you are more powerful and have more fans on Facebook than your rival, BC Partizan. What kind of content do you publish on Facebook? How do you encourage your fans to interact? Do you encourage players to create their own official Facebook page?
“As I noted, we understand trends and the direction in which society is going (related to communication). This is why BC Crvena zvezda Telekom put digital as one of the primarsy directions of development, as I stated earlier. At the very beginning, except the web portal and Facebook page with 14,000 members, the club did not have any logistics in this segment. With constant work, development, combining content, even personal communication with the fans, we have added Twitter, Instagram, Youtube (KKCZTV), Radio CZ (Naxi radio is our technical partner) and Linkedin. We adjusted the form of communication for each channel separately, because they are not using the same formats. Today, after a difficult start, when it comes to digital, we are in the 5 th place among all basketball clubs in Europe, and the 1st place in the Balkans. We are in competition with all the sports clubs and organizations in the region, and the club with the largest growth on all social networks. It is not uncommon that even the Euroleague, or the world media who follow sports, take our content and publish it on their sites, which would be an introduction to my conclusion on this topic, it’s all in a diversity of content!
We always recommend players that, especially now when they are public figures, they should pay attention to their posts and content, because monitoring of pages on social networks is a delicacy for the media. They can’t find such content anywhere else. It would be crazy for us to take control of their social media, but a little guidance and education is beneficial for them, and also for fans and the club.”
We must also mention another marketing activity. You’ve started BC Crvena zvezda TV (TVKKCZ), how does it work? Are you satisfied with the reactions? Facebook started extending reach for video content, did you use that option?
“We launched TVKKCZ nearly two years ago, and we immediately obtained the expected results. It is a useful marketing tool, and the fans took it really well. We try to have different content, but the most important thing is to be disciplined and consistent, because the fan quickly gets used to a certain content, and that is what you have to give him. An hour after any game, we already have 3-5 match highlights online, and sometimes it happens that online media uses our video content. For now we are in a format provided by Youtube. Publishing video content on Facebook will be done in the future.”
You have a very interesting and well-organized website, and most importantly, it is up to date. How long did it take you to arrange everything the way it is now?
“First of all, our site design is old, not to say that it is run over by time, but I think we got the most from it. Therefore, I would like to announce that in the next few days a new redesigned website and webshop will be launched.
Taking into consideration the site we have, our PR team tried to publish different content every day, and especially at first in 2011/2012, to promote our website as a place where media can find correct and relevant information, and for fans to know what is going on inside the club.
At the beginning, website was the primary channel of communication, and after all the other social networks were included in our strategy, and by using cross communication channels, we achieved fantastic statistical figures, which brought us great digital success not only in the region, but globally as well.”
When we talked in Portorož, you mentioned that you have great success with selling products. What prodacts do you sell the most? Do you have advice for other clubs? Which products should they focus the most?
“During Sporto conference in Portorož, we helped people with our story, and our experiences in merchandising. We have a lot of good and bad experience to share with people. The most important thing is that there is no universal model to share with others, because we also fail at some things, and something that we think could have great success, does not show any results. I think the key thing in this business is to be fast and to react immediately to current trends, because this can bring you success.
More or less, the range of merchandise is the same everywhere, so you can not change too much. Perhaps a better idea of the price policy could help, taking a look from as many different angles as possible, and listening to customers (fans). We have examples in our country of people buying a 300RSD (less than 3€) game ticket with small bills or coins they saved up over the week. I think with “ordinary” people, the fans, who would be the first to purchase your product, money is by far the biggest problem.“
You had the record attendance in the Euroleague last season. That’s how they say, ‘icing on the cake’ of your great work. Are you satisfied with your work so far and what do you expect in the future? What will you focus on the most (in marketing / digital marketing)?
“Last year, during a Eurocup 1/4-finals game against BC Budivelnik, we set a new record in attendance for a basketball game in Europe, with a staggering 24,232 fans, and at the end of the season we had 1 million euros in income from ticketing. This season, we are by far the first team in Euroleague in average attendance (about 16,000 visitors) and we will probably have a total gross income 30% higher than last season. Such figures are incredible in this region, and this is the crown of our work, at all levels of the club. Not to say that this is the basis of a self-sustainable business of the club.”
In a match against BC Laboral Kutxa, which was due to Euroleague penalties played in an empty gym (Pionir Hall), we thought of an amazing campaign with fan photos. This way, fans gave support to players who weren’t alone after all…
I would like to start this topic subjectively, as an ordinary citizen, who is aching from injustice for what happened in Istanbul, where our fan was killed only because he was part of a group that supports the other team. A lot of bad feelings overtake when something like that happens, and you hope that whoever is responsible will be punished.
The culprit was successfully found, and BC Galatasaray was fined for poor organization of a sports event. In addition to this, BC Crvena zvezda Telekom was punished as a guest team, even though we had nothing to do with the game organization or the unfortunate event (financially, but also with one match of playing in front of empty stands). We appealed to this decision, and we are still waiting for the outcome. But that feeling inside me when I heard we were getting fined as well (and our supporter was brutally murdered), made me think really hard, made me want to find a solution that will deliver a clear message to the world – THERE IS NO PLACE FOR VIOLENCE IN SPORT!
Taking into consideration that we are playing in front of an empty gym, and the game is important to go to the next phase of the competition, and players need to feel some kind of support from the stands, i said “Ok, fans cannot come to the game, but that doesn’t mean they cannot be with us. Have them send their photos to us, we will post them all over the stands (and that is 6,000 chairs), we will play Crvena Zvezda fans songs in the gym, and create a packed gym athmosphere, as if everything is normal.” And it’s not!
With the help of the Crvena Zvezda portal, we launched the campaign and very quickly we collected near capacity number of photos (it was vey difficult to glue all 6000 photos, but club volunteers helped finish everything on time and I’m very proud of them because they realized the seriousness of the campaign). Craven zvezda Telekom fans are loyal and devoted, they love their club, and they are hurt by injustice, like anyone else is. It is this feeling of injustice that started this whole campaign, united everyone (even the supporters of other clubs from the world, supported the action) and provided great success, because the message that we sent was heard all over the world, and it was representing all people who work in sports, and follow sports.