The beginning of a new season is a special occasion for every football fan, but for those at Brentford, Saturday’s Championship fixture against Birmingham will hold extra significance.
It will be the final time the Bees kick off their campaign at Griffin Park before moving on to pastures new – 0.5 miles up the road, to be precise, to the state-of-the-art Brentford Community Stadium for the 2020-21 season.
The man brought in to steer that project to completion is Jon Varney, who was appointed chief executive in March. There can be few better qualified to oversee an historic year for the club and the farewell to their home of 116 years than a life-long fan and season-ticket holder.
“At first I was really quite apprehensive [about taking the job] because it’s my club, it was my escape at the weekends to come down to Griffin Park,” Varney tells City A.M. “But the more I looked at what the brief was – the football side of the business is in good shape – the focus was very much on trying to make a step change for the commercial business and that was in my sweet spot.”
With an array of experience in sports business from his time as commercial director of Premiership Rugby to founding marketing agency Pitch International, Varney appears well placed to bolster Brentford’s commercial success as they move to a new 17,250-seater stadium.
A fitting farewell
But the first priority is to give Griffin Park a proper farewell and maximise the opportunity this season presents. Having already sold a record 6,500 season tickets and achieved an increase in memberships, the ground is expected to be filled to the rafters.
“The focus and energy is on making sure it’s a great experience for all the fans that come here in its last season,” Varney says. “There will be some unbelievable occasions around the London derbies, our last Boxing Day fixture, our last ever game at Griffin Park. We want to make them all special occasions.
“We’re going to wring out every bit of commercial success that we can from this stadium, and then the big challenge going forward is getting the business set up and ready to move to the new stadium.”
The long-term dreams are bigger, however, as Varney works to ensure Brentford are Premier League ready.
The new chief executive is happy with the unique footballing philosophy implemented since Matthew Benham took over the club in 2012, which includes the Bees favouring a B team instead of a traditional youth academy and expertly playing the transfer market to turn a sizeable trading profit.
The Bees team
“We’re fiercely committed to doing things in a different way, because if we don’t, we’re then just competing alongside everybody else,” says the 49-year-old. “The B team has proved an invaluable pathway of getting players ready and into the first-team.
“A prime example was Chris Mepham, who we acquired and put in the B team. He developed, he then went on to play a number of games in our first team, became capped by Wales, and then we sold him on to Bournemouth for a significant profit.”
While there is little question that Brentford’s ability to consistently finish in the top half of the Championship while making money from player sales is commendable, there has been room for improvement in the other main revenue stream.
“I think it’s fair to say the business part of the club, what I would call the engine room, was underperforming. Not because they weren’t doing a good job, but the reality is this stadium has been a handbrake for the business,” he adds.
“We are probably one of the lowest performing commercial operations [in the Championship] and clearly, the new stadium is the catalyst for change. The handbrake comes off and it gives us a significant opportunity to grow revenue.”
One of the changes Varney is already working on is integrating the different off-field teams at the club into one, open-plan office to create a more collaborative approach, as well as investing in the partnerships team, venue optimisation and digital and business communications.
It will be equally important to ensure the club grow sponsorship deals going into the new stadium, which has already received naming rights interest, as well as getting new partners on board.
“Our new stadium is located on what we call the Golden Mile, from Sega down to Fullers’ Brewery in Chiswick,” says Varney. “We can deliver [locally-based businesses] an unbelievable CSR [corporate social responsibility] platform right in the heart of the community they are embedded in.”
However, they remain committed to bringing current partners on the journey too, including shirt sponsor Fullers, which has long held a relationship with the club.
In another bid to boost revenue, the ground will become the home of rugby club London Irish and is open to hosting other “mid-tier” events that would not fill the likes of the Tottenham Stadium or Wembley, such as international, women’s and younger age group football.
The club’s ambition is clear, and in the last five years it has been heading on an upward trajectory, on and off the pitch, all with the aim of promotion in mind. It would be some accomplishment for a club of their size in the notoriously competitive second tier.
“The Premier League is not a long-term goal, it’s something we think is achievable,” says Varney. “Year-on-year we are building a better squad and better business. It will happen when it happens, I’ve just got to make sure the business is ready for when it does.”
Main image: ©Mark D Fuller/obfcp.co.uk