In it to win it: Steve Parish on the past, present and future of Crystal Palace

On the cusp of FA Cup glory, Steve Parish discusses the journey he has been on with South London soccer side Crystal Palace.

19 May 2016 Adam Nelson
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Steve Parish became the chairman of London soccer club Crystal Palace in 2010 as the leader of the CPFC 2010 consortium, which took the club out of administration while they were languishing in English soccer’s second tier. In the time since, Palace have not only achieved promotion to the Premier League but have stayed there – after a 15th-placed finish in 2015/16, they will contest a club record fourth consecutive season in the top flight in 2016/17. Additionally, they will play a second-ever FA Cup final this weekend against the same opponents they faced in their first back in 1990, aiming to win their first ever major silverware.

By Adam Nelson

In December last year it was announced that the club would receive significant financial backing from American investors Joshua Harris and David Blitzer, with Harris, Blitzer and Parish all now holding an 18 per cent stake in the club and Parish remaining as chairman. The investment was, in many ways, the ultimate validation of Parish’s stewardship of the club, during which time he has pulled them from the brink of administration into the Premier League’s middle-class, with their ambitions set firmly on the division’s upper reaches.

Steve, congratulations on reaching the FA Cup final. How big of an achievement is that for you, six years into your involvement with the club?

When I said we could get promoted when I took over in 2010, people thought I was mad. When I said last year that we can get to the final of one of the cups, maybe win it, people were like, ‘Really?’ Our league form has suffered a little bit for the cup run, as seems often to be the case for a lot of teams, but it’s a fabulous opportunity for the club. I think it really puts us on the map. If we go on our summer tour as ‘Crystal Palace, Premier League club’, it’s one thing, if we go as ‘Crystal Palace, FA Cup champions’ or even just finalists, it gives us a bit more kudos. But we haven’t won anything of any real note in our history, so it can’t get much more important than that really. What’s the point of it all if you’re not in it to win stuff?

Staying in the league this year means next season will be our fourth consecutive season in the top flight, that’s a record – we’ve never done that before, we were in the old Division One for three seasons and got relegated at the end of the third – so we’re breaking records and busting through glass ceilings and we’ve got to keep doing that if we’re going to take the club to the next level. So being in the cup final, great. But let’s make no mistake, we want to win it. We’re not there to make up the numbers or to give Manchester United a game, we want to beat them on the day and it’s a massive opportunity for us to put a trophy in the cabinet.

Was reaching a cup final one of your targets for the club? Was there ever a QPR-style ‘five-year plan’ for Crystal Palace when you took over in 2010?

No. I don’t really do that. I just have steps. So I will think, ‘I need to do that next. That’s that most important thing. And then once we’ve done that we can do the next thing, and then maybe we can do that.’ But I don’t put a time on it. Because I think that just makes you make bad decisions. It’s like saying, ‘I want to be rich in two years’, and you just take ridiculous risks and put pressure on where it doesn’t need to be.

If you’ve got a North Star in that period, then that informs what you should be doing. If you’re in the Championship, you need to get out of it and into the Premier League. That’s your North Star. And as long as you stay focussed that that’s what you need to do, then that will inform the right behaviour I think. I may think that there are different things that we need to do as a football club to get out of the Championship to somebody else, but that’s really in an overriding sense what you should be planning for. So I think refurbishing reception at the club, making everybody feel better about themselves, creating the environment where the players have got a belief system that they can tap into, which from the start is the supporters. If the supporters don’t believe, no-one is going to believe. They should be the most optimistic group going. So that was my way of doing it.

Once you’re out of the division, stay in the one you’re into. Then you can start building things. My end game is to redevelop the stadium and put the club into a position where it should be, in my view, and certainly where it could be. And then the promotions, staying in the league, that has a better chance of sustaining itself over the longer term and really meaning something. So you might have some parallel work streams where you’re starting to look at where you might put a stadium, or can you improve the one that you’ve got, but you’re not spending any money on it until you know that you can get there, that there’s something to build on. But I don’t put a time frame on it, I don’t put a time on any of those things. Because that can make you make bad decisions.

You mentioned the fans and the things that you have developed around the club. How have you worked to carve out a unique niche for Crystal Palace in the crowded marketplace for London soccer clubs, and how important is that for the club?

I think we are unique. And obviously I come from an advertising background so we wanted to amplify those points of uniqueness, we want to be a bit different. What is the reason you’re going to support Crystal Palace in the Championship as opposed to Chelsea in the Premier League? You’ve got to find a quirky point of difference that will draw some people to you. Fortunately, that exists within our club, we just needed to amplify it and encourage it. The fanatics who might get stamped out with some clubs, seen as something that wasn’t beneficial overall, we think they’re a force for good for the club. We encourage them to flourish and encouraged other points of our south London difference, and we encapsulate those in a lot of our marketing materials, we try and draw people to us.

In the Premier League you’ve got a wider audience to sell that to, and a wider audience to see that visibly because you’ve got this 24-hour rolling news channel in Sky Sports News, that basically publicise you and advertise you. We have our own in-house content team producing very high-quality content. We produce about 100 pieces of video a month for eagles.cpfc.co.uk. It’s a free subscription site, we’ve got about 40,000 free subscribers already and that’s growing all the time. We do all the staples like interviews, post and pre-match, press conferences, all the stuff down at the training ground, a series called Cult Heroes with people like Michael Hughes, Aki Riihilahti, Matt Jansen – people that were cult heroes at the club for periods of time. From that we can draw people out of that kind of Facebook and Twitter environment and we can start to understand a bit about who they are, what they like about the club, what kind of content they like and then we can serve up better content.

What’s really important is all of the stuff we produce is edgy, it’s on-brand. We have a presenter, Chris Grierson, who is the persona of the brand, he’s a proper Palace fan. But we didn’t want that kind of ‘cor blimey geezer’ thing, we wanted south London grown up, we wanted to be part of south London growing up and feeling a  bit more confident about itself, so Chris really epitomises that. It’s authentic, it’s real and we make some great stuff.

How have the ambitions of the club changed since the arrival of Josh Harris and Dave Blitzer arrived as the club’s new owners last year? Particularly in the light of Leicester’s title win this season, how much are the Premier League’s middle-class, like yourselves, looking further up the division?

I think teams always should have been. But hopefully it will make people realise that we’re all there to compete and win games. Probably all of us teams beat a Manchester United or a Chelsea once or twice a season. There’s this myth that you stay in the division by beating the teams around you, but you don’t. You’ll lose to some of those teams and you’ll beat some of the teams above you. What Leicester have done is put a sustained, back-to-back catalogue of those wins together that are often one-offs for the rest of us. The other teams have also found it harder against the rest of us, everyone is giving everyone a game. The fitness levels of the players is incredible and the ability of the players to play to a structure for 90 minutes and to limit the amount of chances that these top top players can get to score goals is incredible. Leicester did that for a whole season and what it’s shown everybody is that it’s possible to do, as Atlético Madrid have done. I watched them against Bayern [in the Uefa Champions League semi-final] and you wouldn’t think that you could sit that deep and win matches on a consistent basis, but that’s what they’re doing.

It’s a different way of playing football and its effective, and we’ve all got to take some comfort from that. We haven’t stolen our way to the cup final. We’ve beaten Southampton away, Stoke at home, Spurs away, Watford at Wembley. We’ve only had Reading from outside the Championship, we’ve played four Premier League sides and one top Championship side. Normally when a Palace get to an FA Cup final you’ll see they’ve played a League Two team on the way, had a bit of an easier run-in. We’re not stealing our way to anything; like Leicester, if we win this cup we’ll have deserved it. I think the world’s changing slightly but I expect the big clubs will come back stronger next year.

And in terms of your business planning, with that new investment coming in, what does that mean for the club?

Well it just means we can do the things that we were planning to do quicker. It puts an amount of finance that everyone is committed to putting into the club for facilities. We desperately need an improved stadium, a new main stand and then developments all around. We’re working hard to make that happen.

The financial stability that gives you presumably makes your relationships with your commercial partners easier, especially going forward with the Premier League’s clean brand from next season? How will you be capitalizing on that?

Well there will be six sponsors for the Premier League. And I think that that gives everybody a little bit more opportunity to work with those sponsors, a broader range of categories that are interested in the Premier League. I think it’s a positive thing and a clean brand for the Premier League all over the world is a great thing for the league. Not that Barclay’s weren’t a great partner, they were, but I think it’s better this way. The overseas broadcasters prefer it, I think it’s enabled us to up the amount we get for rights overseas because they can overlay different things with it.

And the fact of the matter is that you’re getting to the point where these global rights properties for sponsorship are almost too big for anybody. What company can justify the amount of money that moves the dial for the Premier League? So I think category sponsors, where it’s a lot easier to ensure that the sponsor gets something direct out of it, makes a lot more sense. And I’m pleased to see that Barclays are still the banking sponsor so they clearly see the value in it as well.

Having worked in advertising and marketing before taking over at Crystal Palace, you’re clearly very strong on the commercial side of things. How has your previous career influenced you in your role at Palace?

Well I think we’re all from a sporting background, really. When I was a kid, all I did was play football. I didn’t do anything else. Every single day, I played football, it was all I ever wanted to do, we had nothing else. There was three channels on the television. In the summer, it was either sit indoors and watch cricket all day, ride your bike – skateboards came along a little bit later, they were fun – or play football. At your break, at lunch time, on Sundays, after school, for the school…

Sport was such a massive part of my life growing up, football is everyone’s second favourite subject, I don’t really think that my background wasn’t in sports. I knew a lot about my club, about the game, so it didn’t seem like I was going into the unknown.

There are skills that are important to all businesses. Making everyone feel a part of it, driving the business forward, not really setting individual targets but getting people to see their own targets and creating an environment where everybody wants to be their best and wants to do their best. We’ve got so many things in the club around customer service and so many improvements that we’ve made over the last six years. The place is almost unrecognisable in terms of the way it operates. In my advertising business it was the same thing. If you can get everybody working together, galvanised, moving in the same direction, you can punch above your weight, which is what we’ve done and what we’ll try and continue to do while also trying to layer in and add things that we really need to sustain ourselves as a Premier League club.

How long do you think it will still be ‘punching above your weight’ to do what you’re doing? There are kids now watching the game for whom Palace have been a Premier League team for most of their lives, they’re soccer fans who think of you as a Premier League team. If you’re there for seven, eight years, is it still punching above your weight or do the expectations shift?

That’s the idea isn’t it. The idea is that you become a regular, top-half team and relegation is a distant possibility. It’s always a possibility but a distant one. But I think we’re a way off that yet. It looked like we were definitely getting there this season, but it’s very competitive and everyone’s trying to do the same thing.

You’ve got to look at the promoted clubs. If you’re a promoted club this year – take Burnley, they just got promoted from the Championship. Now let’s say – I’m just guessing – but let’s say their cost base is around UK£20 million a year. And now that they’re promoted, if they don’t sign anyone in June, from June 30th to July next year, they’ve got a turnover of somewhere in the region of UK£130 million. Which means they’re generating UK£110 million in cash in simple terms in that twelve months. UK£110 million in cash! So in a way, they’ve got more money to spend almost than anyone. That gives them a UK£50 million wage bill, and UK£60 million transfer budget, of money you can spend now, which equates to a transfer budget of UK£120 million in staged payments, as you don’t have to pay your transfer fees all in one go. So the three promoted clubs have got more money than pretty much anyone in Europe this year.

“We’re creating a really false market. But it's sustainable as long as the TV money keeps going up every three years.”

That’s the value of the new TV deal, the value of the Premier League. They’re coming from a low cost base whereas all the rest of us clubs by now have UK£60, 70, 80 million wage bills, we’re not generating anything like that amount of cash. They’ll make UK£40 million, UK£50 million profit next year. Easy.

Does that create an environment where teams that go down are much more likely to come straight back up? Will we see a Premier League monopolised by the same 25 teams, or is there still going to be a lot of competition in the Championship?

I personally feel that it depends what the mentality is when you come up. If you have the mentality that you’re going to stay in the division, like Bournemouth did, like we did, then I think you’ll see a lot more teams staying in the division and then getting to the end of the third year and getting a bit blocked up, the third year it starts to get a bit more difficult because you’ve built that cost base, you’re continually spending more and more just to tread water. It gets to the end of the three-year TV deal and you find yourself having to sell to buy.

And we’re creating a really false market. The only market we can ever move a player on to is the rest of the Premier League because of the money that we can pay them. No-one else can afford to pay the players what we pay them.

Is that a bubble that is going to burst, or can the Premier League sustain that ‘false market’?

It’s sustainable for as long as the TV money keeps going up every three years. We get UK£10 million a game at the moment. If you could sell the games for UK£1 to each customer online, how many do you think you’d get watching? A hundred million per game? Two hundred million? Is it inconceivable that you could get that kind of audience? There are 1.8 billion people in China. Would 400 million people globally not pay a quid to see Manchester United v Liverpool? I don’t know. It depends how you view it. But I definitely think there is still some room for growth.

Just finally: what is the target for next year for the club?

To do better in the Premier League than we have this year. I think we’ve all been disappointed with the second half of the season. We need to strengthen over the summer, as everyone will be trying to do, we really need to work hard to strengthen the squad, and try to finish top half of the table. Maybe everyone’s goal should be to win the league, like Leicester, like Atlético Madrid. That’s what we’ll do: start the season, we’re going to win the league. Win every game, win the league.

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