The Halftime Show. The ads. Even the Puppy Bowl. There’s no doubt about it: American football is synonymous with entertainment. It always has been.
But the same cannot be said for soccer. Especially in Europe.
Leagues and clubs have lagged behind for years as they chose to only engage a very loyal fanbase. The result has been pretty isolating for the rest of us, and that’s only been underscored as pitches stand empty amid this global crisis.
However, there is one football club leading a revolution in brand strategy within its sector as it looks to completely shift gear and forever change how we experience the sport.
"All of a sudden, it’s not about match day any more," said AC Milan’s Chief Revenue Officer Casper Stylsvig. "It’s not about the build up. It’s not about the manager interviews on a Friday afternoon. It’s about delivering every single day."
AC Milan, the beating heart of Italian football with seven UEFA Champions League wins and hundreds of millions of fans and followers around the world, played its last game on March 8 before the league was suspended.
Matches weren’t the only thing lost that day—the club’s physical experiences were immediately paused too. No tours. No meet and greets. Nothing. It dented a major revenue stream and forced AC’s hand to accelerate its digital transformation at a speed many thought not possible pre-COVID.
Immediate initiatives include launching a partnership with Headspace in which goalkeeper Asmir Begovic raised awareness about mental health? and held a live meditation session on the club's Instagram. Meanwhile, the club went to work delivering more than 2,000 care packages to senior season ticket holders aged 65-plus. Drives like this have been cemented in daily content with messages of hope and unity.
Stylsvig said: "Football clubs of the scale of AC Milan are very often seen as untouchable or difficult to reach. But communicating and recognizing that the true heroes have gone from being the footballers to those on the front line is absolutely fundamental.
"Adding new content of a certain magnitude on a week-by-week basis has been fundamental for us and shows that the club is innovative and thinking in the right direction. It’s not only about financially benefiting from this; it’s about giving back to our fans."
But the move that really cements AC’s position as a transformative club paving the way for its competitors is its unprecedented partnership with Roc Nation. The marriage of a European football team to Jay-Z’s American entertainment company gives birth to an entirely new and exciting global platform unlike anything the sporting world has seen before.
It kicked off at the start of May with a virtual concert that raised hundreds of thousands for those working on the frontlines to fight COVID-19. "From Milan With Love" was hosted by DJ Khaled and headlined by Alicia Keys and included performances by Robin Thicke, Kelly Rowland and more. It streamed across the team's social channels and TIDAL?, as well as a number of international broadcasters. The project was pulled together in an impressive seven days.
This marked the beginning of what is hoped to be a long and successful fusion.
"The border between sport and entertainment is very fluid," said Stylsvig. "We were talking to Roc Nation for a while, unrelated to COVID, and we quickly felt there was a need for a partnership—there was an incredible energy from both brands and we could see how we could mix the entertainment and music world with the sports world.
"We’re taking football to the next level. It’s probably quite normal in the States when you think about the Super Bowl and how it’s always mixed with music entertainment, but in Europe it’s a first of a kind. We’re very proud of this partnership—there’s a lot in store. There will be multiple events which will involve music, entertainment but also other brands."
Hinting at what’s to come, the CRO added: "Milan is the fashion capital of the world and Roc Nation is working in that world too, so there are multiple opportunities."
AC’s vowed to radically alter its sector with this union and all eyes will fall on its progress in the months to come. Aiding this metamorphosis will be lessons learned from diversifying at an unbelievable pace amid COVID. There are a number of new-found creative and operational processes which will be baked into the club’s strategy in a post-pandemic world. Those include better activating assets it’s already sitting on (be that players or existing partnerships) and further harnessing the power of deep analytics to understand consumer behavior (data reaped from its media platforms and app, launched last summer, are already providing more low-hanging fruit).
One of the bigger, more immediate challenges is virtual relationship-building.
"How do you approach new brands post-pandemic when you can’t travel to meet face-to-face?" Stylsvig questioned. "That’s something we’re looking a lot at: How do we wow brands? How do we sell them our vision and make brands want to be a part of our journey and story? We’ve worked very hard on that. Being much more creative is forcing us to think much more outside the box."
There’s another piece to this goliath puzzle at play that—once pulled off—will surely solidify AC’s success: A new stadium.
Chatter has been swirling around AC Milan and Inter Milan’s new home since plans were unveiled last year for the 60,000-seat venue.
Earlier this month, AC said the concepts designed by Populous and Manica/Sportium include retention of part of the current Giuseppe Meazza Stadium, which will sit within a new retail and sports district featuring around 106,000 square metres of green space, open all year round.
"I do hope we’ll soon have positive news in terms of a new potential stadium," he said. "It will hopefully be one of the most impressive stadiums in the world, and that provides further opportunities for the club to grow but also establish the brand as we are—a very premium brand—on a global scale.
The CRO added: "Milan having an impressive stadium is so fundamental, not only for the economy and the fans, but also for the whole country. It will lift the club to the next level, and that will make us more competitive in attracting the best talent both on and off the pitch."
Talent is the fuel Stylsvig needs to turn this fire into an inferno, and achieve the mammoth goal he’s set himself and the brand: To become the sporting world’s biggest inspiration and a blueprint for how transformation is done on a global scale.