The English Premier League is big money. EPL clubs are as much businesses as they are generational sporting institutions, a point proven when cumulative wage bills total £1.2bn, revenues top £2bn, and an exclusive broadcasting deal with BSkyB is worth a staggering £1.7bn. £100m is paid to each club per season from TV revenues alone, and newly promoted clubs receive a promotional bonus of £60m for reaching the top flight. And that's just the league - domestic trophies like the Carling Cup and FA cup generate even more revenue through sponsorships and advertising, as does Europe's Holy Grail - the Champion's League final. Winning this elusive cup equates to a further €110 million in TV rights, sponsorship, and prize money for the winner.
Looking at these figures, it's easy to see why the Premier League is considered the most lucrative in the world. But if there's this much money involved in the world's fourth highest gross revenue-generating league (behind American football, baseball and basketball), why haven't the clubs in the world's richest football league recognized the value in the fastest-growing and most cost-effective channel available - Online - and invested accordingly?
Setting the pace
The recent launch of Manchester City's new website prompted me to take a look at the websites of the 19 other clubs in the top flight. City (and the agency they used for the build - www.pokelondon.com) had clearly done their research into what makes a site usable and attractive in today's market. More importantly, it seems they spent a while looking at what's not being done across the majority of EPL clubs, and I'd imagine Poke happily realized their work was cut out for them after completing their competitive analysis. Simply integrating social media across a well-built site coupled with a modern, attractive and clean interface, I have no doubt the City site will win fans not just of the team's football, but of a better online experience.
What about the rest?
One might argue that the traffic arriving on a football club's website is qualified enough to know what they want and where to go - allowing the UX to be disregarded. However general web marketing and design should always be given priority, no matter how familiar the audience. What's more, considering the EPL's global reach and revenue, all 20 clubs have potential user bases worldwide, meaning their sites should be optimized for acquisition and retention where and whenever possible. Key web design factors such as usability, interface design & architecture, SEO, grid structure, Flash vs CSS, navigation, page number, page depth, ad space and many more should always be addressed, but in most cases of the sites below, these considerations seem to fall by the wayside.
Below are the websites of the 20 English Premier League teams for the 2009/10 season, in alphabetical order. Some thoughts follow.
- Update and differentiate. Man City's rethinking of what their site visitors want and need - and stripping away the rest - is welcome progress to what seems like a stagnating and under-appreciated medium for football clubs. This thought is enforced by the realization that no less than 7 of the 20 clubs are built on identical templates, provisioned by a wholly owned subsidiary of The Football League called FL Interactive (FLi). The implicit trust those 7 clubs have put in FLi - that the templates used are indeed the most effective, usable and optimized designs and layouts possible - seems worryingly naive. Surely each club's supporter base and season ticket holders are as unique as their club's history? They deserve to be treated as such - both online and off. Instead, these 7 clubs have limited their web channel's potential by using an agency who uses identical templates as 6 of their competitors. Shockingly, FLi actually use the same template for almost all teams in England's Championship, League 1, League 2 and Non-League. See the full list here.
- Become more social. Although Man City is not the first club to offer a live Twitter update feed directly from their homepage, they might be the only club to realize the importance of fully integrating social media across their entire site. Worth mentioning that Liverpool and Chelsea have also highlighted their social media presence on their homepages, with Facebook and Twitter the primary networks of choice. Surprisingly, neither Man Utd or Arsenal seem to have any such presence - yet. Clubs extending their brand name through 3rd-party social sites allows higher degrees of interaction and helps build loyalty amongst those supporters who haven't grown with allegiances to any particular club. This is especially true in other countries where the EPL is broadcast, and where support bases translate into huge revenues through merchandising alone.
- Question the value of 3rd-party ads. Interestingly, given the huge revenues generated by EPL clubs over a season, it seems strange that 17 clubs use 3rd-party advertising on their homepages and subpages. Only Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea opt against 3rd-party ads on their homepages, and it's no coincidence these 3 clubs are currently considered the richest in England. Strangely though, most clubs also tend to run ads for their own content using standardized IAB ad sizes. In my opinion this contradicts a maturing web society's user behaviour: basic run-of-site banner ads are becoming white noise due to saturation and ineffectiveness. I can't recall the last time I clicked a banner ad, so why train users of a club website to go against a growing online behaviour? Improve the overall user experience to gain long or short-term revenue, and lessen the reliability on ad-generated revenue.
- Improved use of white space. After a quick scroll of the list above, one main pattern emerges: the clutter. In the world of web design, white space and padding are not-so-secret ingredients to a successful layout. Proper spacing aids in the visual differentiation of a page's content into digestible chunks for the eye. Unfortunately, the majority of the sites below blatantly dismiss the need for white space, and opt instead for cramming as much content into each page as possible. Again, Man City's new site leads the pack here, and the choice of sIFR typography accents the white space very effectively.
- Deliver multilingual content to a global audience. As mentioned above, EPL club websites can't afford to assume their user base are in the British Isles only. The Big Four of the EPL have included multilingual site variants, with Arsenal and Man Utd opting for Chinese, Korean, and Japanese, whereas Arsenal and Chelsea have also translated into Russian. Both Man Utd and Man City (no surprise given their new owners) have translated into Arabic. Of the 16 other club sites, only Spurs have elected to provide translated content - into Chinese. It should however be a matter of time until the remainder of the EPL sites start translating into languages their records show are generating overseas sales.
So what do they do successfully?
The above recommendations don't touch on the various web marketing methods that are implemented by most, if not all, of the 20 EPL sites - and successfully so. Given the growing size of the UK's mobile industry, SMS marketing seems to be a very popular channel used by all clubs, as well as registration-based marketing and subsequent email marketing for maintaining communications. Streaming video content is also widely used, as are other media forms such as podcasts, TV, blogs and RSS. Various forms of competitions, prize draws and contests are used to retain traffic and build site loyalty. As already mentioned, some sites successfully use social media, although there is definite room for improvement in this area. Ultimately one might consider the point of doing such effective web marketing campaigns when the base website could be so much better.
Have any thoughts on the 20 EPL web sites listed above, or feel I've missed something? Feel free to comment below.
July 20th, 2009