Brighton & Hove Albion chief Paul Barber explains off-field strategy of a Premier League club in waiting

 
Joe Hall
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Sport Industry Breakfast Club
Barber has previously worked at Spurs and the FA (Source: Getty)

In less than a decade Brighton & Hove Albion have evolved from a mid table League One side playing at a converted athletics stadium to fewer than 10,000 fans, to a Premier League club in waiting who call the state of the art 30,000 capacity Amex Stadium home.

Brighton have been amongst the Championship promotion contenders in three of the last four seasons and, despite a couple of bad results in recent weeks, are near certain to at least make the play-offs again this year.

At a recent Sports Industry Group meeting of industry insiders, the club's chief executive Paul Barber lifted the lid on how the club has re-established itself both in the city and in the upper echelons of the Championship.

Barber, formerly a director at the Football Association (FA), Tottenham Hotspur and the Vancouver Whitecaps, also shared his thoughts on a wide-range of issues in football including China's rise, moving into a new stadium and foreign ownership of English football clubs.

Here's a selection of his insights:

Stadium atmosphere

"You don't want it to be too sterile. We always say to parents that complain occasionally about language that this is football, not the opera.

"We have to educate them sometimes that football does have an industrial backbone to it, a history. Unfortunately you're going to get some language that you don't want your kids to hear."

Building a global fanbase

"We need to catch the hearts and minds of Sussex before we take over the world. Even a brand of Tottenham's size struggled to really make a big impact compared to Manchester United.

"For now our biggest priority is getting ourselves to be the biggest club in Sussex and the South of England."

Brighton fans Amex Stadium
Brighton regularly sell-out the 30,750 Amex Stadium (Source: Getty)

Capturing a new generation of fans

"Back in 2010 we had an average crowd of about 7,000 and part of the problem we had was a lost generation of supporters from the wilderness years when Brighton didn't have a home.

"Those supporters started a programme over a decade ago to capture the hearts and minds of youngsters in the city. One of the things that we do is on every seven-year-old's birthday, if you're registered with us and you live in Brighton and Hove, you get a free replica shirt.

"Now when you look around the parks and the seafront in Brighton, instead of seeing Spurs, Arsenal and Manchester United shirts, you see Brighton shirts.

"We also have different pricing for under-10s, under-18s, students, under-21s. So we’re encouraging those kids back. We have the biggest Christmas party for kids in Brighton every year, 2,500 kids come to the stadium completely free of charge. We have an open day in the summer where a similar number of kids go and meet the players and get involved. So we do as much as we can to get those kids to beg their parents to bring them to the stadium.

"Our crowds have grown to an average now of just under 30,000. A lot of that has been the work that has gone into getting the young fanbase back."

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Communicating with fans

"Any email that I get from a fan I reply to personally. It actually doesn't take as much time as you'd think, probably an hour a day.

"And on every single email I send back it has my mobile number in it. In five years of doing that at Brighton I've had two calls from supporters. That number has been posted on message boards, it's been posted on Twitter and no one abuses it.

"I think if people feel that you're open, then actually you've got a responsibility not to abuse it because there might be one time they really need it."

Keeping fans onside

"If you allow football clubs to become separated from their fan base then you do get the kind of issues that are being reported. I see fans with these 'Against Modern Football' banners. I don’t buy that. It’s each individual club’s responsibility to make sure that fans embrace modern football. It doesn’t have to be one or the other.

"If you can retain some of the best bits of the past and embrace what we’ve got now then you’ve got a good football club."

Paul Barber Brighton chief executive
Paul Barber shared his thoughts with sports industry insiders last month (Source: Getty)

The rise of the Chinese Super League

"The problem with any kind of emerging league is for the first two or three seasons it's a little bit like lightning in a bottle.

Read more: Why China could soon be the world's next football superpower

"It's exciting but it's very contained. I think the best leagues in the world have learned that you've got to have a pyramid of some kind below that top level. You've got to have a grassroots structure that is nurturing and developing players, leagues that are competitive that those players can develop in.

"Not only are we getting inquiries from Premier League clubs for our players we’re getting enquiries from Chinese Super League teams. That shows you how far Brighton’s come in a very short space of time."

Moving into a new stadium

"It takes time for fans to grow into them. At Brighton it's taken us a good five or six seasons to establish people's routines and people's patterns of coming to the game; where they like to drink, where they like to eat, what sort of things they expect and what they don't want from us. Sometimes new stadiums try to force fit things too quickly.

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"We took that lesson from Arsenal, where I think they left it a good half decade before starting to put their club branding into places where the fans congregated as opposed to where they didn’t. We’ve likened it to moving into a new house. Where you first think the pictures and furniture are going to go sometimes isn’t where they end up a few years later when you’ve lived in the house and seen how it works."

Will football's TV rights bubble burst?

"I’ve been asked that question every single year. Maybe one day it will, but so far it hasn’t. That’s because more and more people around the world now are getting access to television.

"More and more people want to see live sport, particularly Premier League football, and as long as that continues I think we’re going to see the rights grow in value."

Brighton Hove
Brighton are mounting another Premier League promotion challenge this season (Source: Getty)

Could digital platforms disrupt the TV model?

"The Olympics was the last time we had an opportunity to see what kind of impact digital media was going to have on a major sporting event. And from the numbers that I saw, traditional broadcasting still massively, massively outweighed anyone watching on digital media.

"That’s not to say digital media doesn’t have a part and increasingly it will for sure. But the vast majority of the population still rely on what I call traditional broadcast media. Whether that’s paid TV or terrestrial, there’s still a massive place for them."

Foreign owners of English football clubs

"Foreign ownership is not necessarily a bad thing — look at Liverpool and Manchester City. My concern is with those foreign owners that have got a different agenda and perhaps not the same ambition for their club or the same feel for our game.

"Not all of them seem to understand how important the fans are or how the game works at a fundamental level. And that really worries me for the future of our game.

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"I do think we’ve got a responsibility within the EFL and ultimately the FA and Premier League to make sure that if people are buying into football clubs, they’re buying into them for the right reasons.

"Now, it’s very, very difficult to say to someone who’s sitting there with a big pile of cash; ‘What are your motives? Do you intend to be in this northern industrial for the next 100 years?’ It’s a very difficult question to ask someone who’s outside of this country...There aren’t queues of people with British passports lining up to buy football clubs."

Sharing knowledge with other teams

"We’ve had about 40-50 visits from football clubs around the world to the new training ground. That includes Juventus, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Barcelona and pretty much every one of the top 10 in the Premier League.

"We’ve been to Wimbledon [All England Club] and looked at how they set up for the championship for fan experience and hospitality. We’ve been to Manchester City to get ideas on how they’ve integrated their women’s football into their new training facility. We’ve been to Manchester United to look at the way they merchandise because they’re the best in the world [at merchandising]. We’ve been to Tottenham to look at their new stadium and they’ve spent a lot of time looking at what we do in our stadium to take ideas back for theirs.

"There’s only 92 professional football clubs and there’s probably only 35 of us with a stadium size that is really directly comparable. So if we don’t share with each other, where are we going to get our knowledge from?"

Goal line technology

"Technology is really important and particularly in the Championship because we’re playing for stakes of over £100m in a season. If goal line technology could be the difference between us scoring a goal or not conceding a goal, we’ve got to have it.

"It’s going to cost Championship clubs up to £90,000 a year. In the scheme of things that’s nothing if the prize at stake is £100m to £150m."

Video replays

"Referees have a really tough job and anything we can do to help them get their decisions right, we should take. We’re doing supporters and the game a disservice if we leave too many things to chance.

"The only thing I would say is that the debate on a Saturday night or Monday morning on whether or not it was a goal is part of the fun of football. I wouldn’t want it sterilised to the point where that debate becomes null and void because that’s part of the marketing of the game. TalkSport and Sky Sports News have made an industry out of those debates."

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