Tottenham Hotspur’s Donna-Maria Cullen on Pochettino, pre-season and the NFL

Tottenham Hotspur FC's executive director, Donna-Maria Cullen, explains the thinking behind off-season trips ahead of their pre-season game against the MLS All-Stars in Denver.

Tottenham Hotspur’s Donna-Maria Cullen on Pochettino, pre-season and the NFL

Pre-season is in full swing for Premier League clubs ahead of the 2015/16 season, with the first round of regular season fixtures set to get underway on 8th August. Following Tottenham Hotspur FC’s recent ten-year deal with the National Football League (NFL), which will see the north London club host at least two games per season at their new stadium once it opens in 2018, Spurs are looking to further establish its burgeoning fan base in growth markets like North America. Ahead of their fixture against the MLS All-Stars in Denver, Colorado – which kicks off at 7:15pm local time on Wednesday - Donna-Maria Cullen, Tottenham Hotspur’s executive director, tells SportsPro about the thinking behind the club’s off-season plans.

SP: Could you explain the thinking, and timeframe, that goes into organising off-season fixtures?

We obviously have our key territories that are important to us as a club and at the moment they happen to be Asia and the US in equal parts. So we always look and listen to what’s possible to do in those two markets. It’s interesting as well talking to you at this time because for the first time we have swapped our pre and post-season around and we went away post-season. [Head coach] Mauricio [Pochettino] was keen to do that in order to get as much pre-season time uninterrupted and with key training times back at base in the UK. So at the end of last season we went out to Malaysia and Australia, which was hugely successful. We have an Asian sponsor, AIA, so we were able to fulfil some deliveries for them while we were out there and Australia was unbelievable. It’s currently clearly our second largest fan base area after the UK – 70,000 attended the match, we had 5,000 attend the open training session, the queue for the store signing went round three blocks – I mean it was just massive. We had great fun; we lit up Sydney Harbour Bridge. So it had a bit of a different feel to it being post-season and the players thoroughly enjoyed it.

And so for pre-season this time we’ve got a great combination – we were lucky enough to be invited to the prestigious All-Star Game and it allows us to go back to the States where our fan base has just seen growth on growth, year on year; particularly after our 2014 tour out there where we saw a 48 per cent uplift in our figures for social media engagement. So it’s great to be able to go out there and play a high profile match to a key audience. And we’ve now got about 43 supporters groups out there - more than any other Premier League club at the moment – and I think we have a growth appeal out there because we are the challenger club and the Americans have really got behind that aspect of us and enjoy the style of play as well. And so at the Denver match we expect 24 of those supporter groups to be represented that will converge on Denver. And again it’s excellent because we get the engagement levels but also they will get to meet up and have a community of their own out there as well.

"So it's about embedding ourselves a whole lot more than just going out there and playing one match."

What data do you use to decide which markets to target? Is it largely social media?

No, it’s a combination of different factors really. We know where we are popular and where we would like to be more popular so we target those key markets. Our sponsor AIA gives us a huge foot in the door to grow our brand in Asia, so that’s why we work in partnership with them at the moment. But what we always look to do when we go to any country is to make sure that we operate at as many different levels as possible.

For example, what we’ve done in the States in 2014 and we also did in Australia is our global coaching guys go out at least a week before the first team travel, so they have already done a lot of grassroots football. So what we’re looking to do is engage with the younger fan base out there. We have ‘Super Clubs’ in the US [Tallahassee Tottenham Hotspur and East Bay Tottenham Hotspur], which is a new initiative by the club which is embedding our academies’ philosophy and style and one of our coaches in a key club that has the right levels of governance and stature and size. So they’re longer projects that are happening on the ground in the States. But global coaching will always precede the first team, gaining through the grassroots football engagement; then when the first team comes out we will also pick up on our CSR and organisations that we work with unilaterally – for example, Special Olympics.

We did events with them in Australia; we’re doing events with them this week in Denver. We also have the supporters group link-ups – there are two supporter group events this week. And they also get engaged with our CSR work, as does the team that we are going there to play. So an example of that, there was a very sad incident with a Denver fireman who lost his life, so we’re supporting the fundraising of that with first team activities while we’re out there. So it’s about embedding ourselves a whole lot more than just going out there and playing one match.

How do you measure the success of your tours?

The easiest measurement we have is the engagement on social media platforms because that is the most immediate. So that is very visible and very immediate. And thereafter you then look at where you get the continual engagement with the club and all of that working its way through to where you see increased sale. So we have on the back of that, in the States for instance, we’ve had a real call and demand for merchandised and licenced products and so we’ve done the deal with Fermata and they’ve engaged with Fanatics – we’re the first club to do that – and the States is really exciting for us. NBC coverage has really opened up the US market for all Premier League clubs. We are doing extremely well there at the moment in terms of having fans engaged with us and the growth numbers that we’re seeing.

Will that licensing deal with Fanatics see a batch of Tottenham products produced that are specifically focused to the North American market?

Yes, so they will sell specifically branded merchandise through their stores in the US and Canada and we will look closely at what the demand is for what aspects we put into those ranges. So it will be a bespoke range for the North American market.

Are you trying to carve out your own ‘Tottenham territory’ in the likes of North America, as a market which is seeing huge soccer growth, or is it more about using the growing appeal of the Premier League to broaden your international presence?

If we make it more specific about ourselves, what we’ve got is a great opportunity with the increased coverage of NBC. I think there’s been three game changers in the US: one is the soccer mum’s who want their kids to play soccer because American football is a more active sport - if they’re looking for one where their kids use different skills, soccer might be the one they choose. The second is NBC’s coverage taking it from behind the paywall into 150 million homes. And the third would be [the US men’s national team’s] success in the Fifa World Cup [in 2014].

So when you add to that the fact that we have players like DeAndre Yedlin who has come through the academy of his club in the States and is still being followed and will probably be one of the most popular figures this week in the match as we go out, along with being this challenger brand, I think we’ve captured the imagination of the floating fans in the States and will have more fans join our fan base going forward.

We’ve also been out there three times so going and doing a tour and making sure you engage and be able to do certain activities absolutely pays dividends and means that you give the American soccer fan a reason as to why they would pick one brand before another.

Spurs and US men's national team player DeAndre Yedlin is helping to boost the club's appeal in the States.

The NFL deal is going to see new games coming to the new stadium from 2018. On the flip side of that do you think there is value in the possibility of competitive league games abroad? What is your opinion on the Premier League’s ‘39th game’ concept?

I think there would have to be a lot more agreement worked out on that and then it would have to have agreement from all the clubs so I’m not sure where that one will pan out. At the moment US fans of EPL certainly get to see the teams a lot because all of the top teams are looking to play in the US and we’ve now got the players moving between the two countries which is another angle. So I think we’ll get the dual interest and then hopefully the broadcast, and then it’s a case of fans travelling and enjoying the matches when they do come.

You mention NFL, which obviously has been greeted on both sides of the pond with great excitement, and I smile because we are starting to get NFL over this side and the Americans are starting to get the EPL over on their side. So it’s almost like we’re switching an interest in sport and being able to engage with both. So again that’s hugely exciting for the club and that’s received coverage across every US state given the spread of NFL teams across the country. So again that’s another aspect where I think we’re probably on the radar more than other clubs over there at the moment.