English Football Club Plymouth Argyle had been in the Third Division, with an unpopular management team and a bleak future. Incoming managers made major changes on and off the pitch and success soon followed. The club also completely overhauled its business plan. Central to this was a major research initiative that included both quantitative and qualitative elements. The research results gave the club the information it needed to implement a new marketing strategy that has seen season ticket sales increase by more than 500 percent and merchandise sales rise by more than 200 percent. The club has been in profit since 2001, a rarity in English football.
Plymouth Argyle, now an English First Division football club, based in the south-west of the country, was languishing in Division Three at the time of a takeover by a new board in 2001. The incoming directors took the view that it was unrealistic to throw money at the team to create a strong business on the back of sporting success. Lack of funds also meant that this was not an option. Instead, they decided that the realistic way forward was to get the management right both on and off the field.
The board felt that in Paul Sturrock they had the right team manager, so they focused their efforts on the business side of the equation. The starting point was the publishing of a five-year plan which set out the club objectives. The medium-term aspiration was to reach the First Division and consolidate the team's position there.
The club did not expect on-field success to come so quickly, so aimed for promotion to Division Two and to be in a position to challenge for Division One within five seasons of the plan being announced.
The directors also aimed to establish Plymouth Argyle as the West Country's pre-eminent football club; the undisputed leader in football terms, and a strong differentiated, customer-focused brand in its own right. A key part of the plan was to undertake research into the views of fans. This comprised quantitative and qualitative elements and was designed to provide input on supporter satisfaction with club facilities, to understand the fans' views about the club and to provide feedback on what drives season ticket sales in order to increase uptake.
Overall, the research delivered encouraging news, showing that fans were loyal, that support was long-term and that there was a high proportion of frequent attenders. There were also good levels of satisfaction with many aspects of the club's facilities.
However, there was relative dissatisfaction with stewarding, pre-match/half-time entertainment and food. In terms of fan communication, the picture was mixed, with transactional contact rated relatively highly but other communication not faring so well. The surveys also demonstrated that the club had an ageing fan base, which was an issue that needed addressing.
The survey results led the club to introduce a series of initiatives to give it greater exposure in the city of Plymouth and to create new season ticket holding and membership schemes. This included a particular emphasis on recruiting children and young adults to become loyal fans.
It is difficult to isolate the financial success of the five-year plan because of the club's rapid on-pitch success. This alone is certain to have led to increases in ticket and merchandise sales. The club has, however, seen a dramatic increase in season ticket sales and club shop receipts and has now been profitable for several years. There is good reason to suppose that a significant level of commercial success would have happened regardless of the position of the team because of the commercial improvements seen at the programme's outset.
At the time of development of this case study, Plymouth Argyle Football Club (PAFC) was among the leaders in the English Second Division. …