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Frédéric Longuépée: ‘We are trying to build Rome in three days’

As Paris St-Germain took another step towards European glory with their win over Chelsea in the first leg of the Champion's League round of 16 encounter, a look at how the French champions approach the business side of football

Frédéric Longuépée. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint<br />
Frédéric Longuépée. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

In football, nothing speaks quite like money. Just ask Paris St Germain FC, the top division (Ligue 1) football club of the French capital: a mid-level player in the European football landscape just five years ago, in 2011 they were bought by Qatar Sports Investment, a part of Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund. Since then, PSG’s value—both as a football team as well as a brand and business—has skyrocketed. When the 2014-15 season ended, PSG’s annual revenue had increased fivefold to €484 million, the fastest growth among any major football clubs anywhere. This year, they came in fourth on the Delloite Football Money League—a list of the richest football clubs of the world—behind only Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Manchester United.

In 2012, PSG spent €145 million on transfer fees—more than any other club in the world—to buy players like the Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Brazilian defender Thiago Silva. A period of unprecedented success has followed—PSG finished top of Ligue 1 for the next three seasons (they had won Ligue 1 only twice before this, in 1985-86, and 1993-94), made it to the quarter-finals of the Champions League three times in a row, and swept all domestic titles in the 2014-15 season. The small Paris club, founded only in 1970, had joined the European big league in no time. The former French captain and now PSG coach Laurent Blanc told a newspaper: “It was a sleeping beauty for 40 years, we kissed it and peeeooow!"

Frédéric Longuépée has been a part of this rise since the beginning. The former Olympic gymnast was appointed general manager of PSG’s business activities in 2012. He calls PSG’s transformation from a small club with little following to a global powerhouse as one of the “most ambitious sporting projects ever". Mint spoke to him when he visited New Delhi as part of the French presidential delegation for the Republic Day ceremony.

Edited excerpts:

A lot of major football clubs around from Europe have shown an interest in India—it’s a big market for you.

Our project is not only a sporting project but also a business project, and it was a fantastic opportunity to meet with top representatives of the government, top CEOs. We also took the opportunity to meet the representative of the first PSG academy in India—we already have eight locations across two cities. We’ve welcomed more than 1000 kids in the last year and a half and we are looking to expand our footprint; send some people to India to train coaches, take some kids to France.

We also want to create what I call ‘smart partnerships’; having Indian companies who are willing to expand worldwide partner with Paris Saint-Germain. By creating partnerships, not just sponsorships, we give the company an opportunity to get immediate awareness in France and Europe, and they give us the means to expand our footprint.

India is home to some of the biggest companies in the IT sector, and I think a football club offers a fantastic opportunity to tell a story together with an IT firm. IT can help enhance and improve both the sport performance as well as spectator and fan experience, and if you look at all the data that are behind that, you can tell a fantastic story.

It has been a mach-speed journey for the club since you joined. Tell us a little about that.

Two or three days ago Delloite ranked us 4th on the Football Money List 2016; it’s a great milestone. In 2011 we were a club that ranked in the middle of the table, making €90 million. We now make almost €500 million. We are the 9th most followed club in the world. So it’s been growing dramatically and growing very fast. We are exactly where we wanted to be when we launched this project; I would say we are ahead of the objectives we set ourselves 4-5 years ago. Obviously, it’s always linked to the sporting results on the pitch—which is the heart of the engine—apart from that we are trying to create one of the best sports properties in the world. We believe we have the greatest assets a franchise could dream of. We are the only football team in one of the most iconic cities in the world. You take the values of Paris— the Eiffel tower, the food, the fashion, the elegance, the aesthetics—and you mix that with the top players we have and it’s an unique cocktail. Even 2 or 3 years ago you couldn’t spot a PSG jersey outside of Paris. Now you go to different parts of the world and you can see kids wearing the PSG jersey. At that time, 90% of our social media fans were French; today 90% of them are foreigners. We have most followers from Brazil, then Indonesia, and India is 7th.

What objectives did you set yourself when you joined?

All the sport franchises, all the sporting events in the world rely on the same basics—when it comes to business and revenues—the basics are ‘create an experience’. If you ask me what I’m doing on a daily basis, I will say ‘I am the answer to what are we doing tonight’. I mean, you could choose to go to a movie theatre, you could choose to go to a restaurant; so if you choose to come to PSG, the experience you leave with must be fantastic. So first we created the basics of having a good experience for spectators. Then we worked on the match day revenues, the sponsorship revenues, merchandising revenues. We worked on the brand, reinvented the logo: We emphasized the Eiffel tower, the word ‘Paris’. We removed the date (from the logo) as well; when you compare the date of the club to EPL clubs or Spanish clubs, it is too young. We did very precise work analyzing the data, trying to capture not only football fans but also people who are interested in architecture, art, gastronomy, fashion, design—we believe that to create a brand you need to talk to everybody, not just football fans.

What exactly did you have to do, say, to increase match day revenues apart from raising the price of tickets?

When you have such talented players on the pitch the demand is so high that you have to create a product that meets this. But if you sell your ticket on a single game basis, the risk you are taking is that you fill the stadium for high-demand games, but not fill it for low demand games. So we create season ticket packages. To see PSG play, you have to be a season ticket holder. It shows your engagement to the club. At the same time we created products to meet with different categories of people.

When we went to the market, we were very humble, we said PSG is thinking about creating new products, and what are you expecting of us? We took the input and changed the mix. When we arrived, the stadium was 46,000 seats and 1600 seats were dedicated to hospitality. Four years later we have a 48,000 seat stadium, and 4500 for hospitality. Now those who buy these seats wouldn’t have bought a normal season ticket. Before we arrived, some of these people would go to London to see a game, now they come to PSG. We created a secondary ticketing platform so if you can’t show up, which is always possible for season-ticket holders—you can resell your ticket on the secondary platform or give your ticket to a kid who can’t afford it. The platform gives you that option as well. We were working hard to have a sold out stadium and that’s what we have succeeded in the last 3 seasons. We are sold out.

There is a passionate debate about how football in Europe is being priced out of reach of ordinary people. There is the English model, where tickets are very expensive; then there’s the German model, where ticket prices are low and stadiums are always full. Which way is PSG headed?

We are very careful with that. The least expensive season ticket is €500, which is approximately €17 per game. To give you an idea, to go and see a movie in the theatre— 3 weeks ago I went to see Star Wars—it cost me €16. Germany is probably cheaper. But in England, I think Arsenal is selling its least expensive season ticket at £1200, that’s almost €1560.

You were in charge of tickets and merchandising for the French Open as well, having worked with the French Tennis Federation for a decade. What lessons did you bring here from it?

It gave me the opportunity to get to know the sports industry better, to travel to a lot of different countries—a lot in the US— to try and understand their marketing strategies, and implement them here. And I found, on my path, a lot of naysayers: “this kind of things work in the US, this won’t work in France, this won’t work in tennis".

I proved that it could work. When I joined football a lot of people say of course it’s working, because you have Ibrahimovic on the pitch. I can tell you that nobody calls you. You have to call customers; you have to fight to get appointments, whether it is to sell hospitality, sponsorships, or retail companies to commercialize your jerseys. And this is what I’ve learnt from my experience in the sports industry: It’s not because you have the best known sporting events—Roland Garros is probably one of the best known tennis events in the world—you have to work hard to get the business right. It’s like an athlete—you have to work hard even if you have the skill, no matter what skills you have. It is exactly the same for us.

Everyone has an Ibrahimovic story. What’s yours?

The last time I had a conversation with Ibrahimovic, we were at a table with a sponsor who had come with his two young girls, probably 3 and 5, very young. The 5 year old came to Ibrahimovic and said, what is your name? He said Zlatan Ibrahimovic. And then she was coming to me to ask me the same, and he said, don’t talk to him, he’s not a player, he’s not important.

Where you a PSG fan growing up?

No. I was born in Lille, and I arrived in Paris when I was 14 as a gymnast at the national institute. I was not interested in football growing up. I didn’t want to work for the sports industry at all. I started gymnastics when I was six and a half and stopped when I was 25, so I knew federations by heart, I knew the way they worked, what the people were like, and I didn’t want to work in the industry. But I stopped my sports career in 1990, went to business school and joined Ernst & Young. There, I was asked to audit the 1998 Fifa World Cup accounts (which was held in France). I also audited Tour de France accounts, etc, and I felt like I wanted to move to the business side of the sports industry.

And now I am in an unique project in the sports industry with PSG, trying to build Rome in three days.

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