How Huddersfield Town aims to reach out to a global corporate audience

Football plays a vital role in supporting the mental health of the nation, according to Ian Birtley, Huddersfield Town’s new commercial director. He spoke to Greg Wright.

Ian Birtley

DURING Huddersfield Town’s headline-grabbing stint in the Premier League, the John Smith’s stadium became a familiar sight to millions of football fans around the world.

The stadium’s passionate, but friendly atmosphere, was praised by pundits and visiting fans and acted as the perfect commercial shop window for a club which had once struggled to gain promotion from the third tier of English football. It set the scene for Town’s bid to become a truly global brand.

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Today, thanks to the pandemic, football takes place in front of tens of thousands of empty seats. Ian Birtley, Huddersfield Town’s new commercial director, knows that fans are the driving force behind any club.

“We look forward to understanding more about the road map and how we can get fans back into the stadium,” he said.

“It’s the question on everyone’s lips. We want to welcome people back but we understand that we must be aware of the health risk. Football, and the matchday rituals associated with it, are so important for people’s mental health.”

Mr Birtley, who started his role earlier this month, has vast experience of the commercial landscape in football, particularly at Sky Bet Championship level.

He previously worked at Derby County for nearly nine years, where he negotiated multiple partnership agreements – including two shirt sponsorship deals with Avon Tyres and Kindred Group.

He also spent 14 months as head of partnerships at Leeds United, adding to his all-round experience in the fields of hospitality, advertising and sponsorship. As commercial director, he will nurture the club’s business-to-business relationships.

“I’d spent a short time out of football and was really excited to join Huddersfield Town after chatting with Mark Devlin (the CEO),” he said.

“Huddersfield Town has a very loyal fan base and strong links with the business community. I want to take that to another level. The generation of revenues through commercial opportunities is so important to the club.”

He acknowledged that it was hugely challenging to start a new role during a pandemic, but he is picking the brains of colleagues who have strong local connections.

He added: “There are a lot of people who have been with the club for a long time and I will use their knowledge and experience as we position ourselves as a commercial entity.

“These are unprecedented times and our local businesses are of paramount importance,” he added. “It’s a solid foundation and I want to build on the good work we have done and elevate this to a national and regional level. Football can play an integral part in business engagement objectives. It’s got to sit with the traditional heritage of the club.”

Huddersfield, who famously won the league three times in a row in the 1920s, can draw on a rich history.

“It’s a century this year since we won the FA Cup and we would like to mark that commercially,’’ he added. “We are still a very saleable brand because we were so recently in the Premier League.

“I use social media to get a feeling for the fans’ thoughts about the club. We will utilise the club’s social media channels to engage with them.

“My role first and foremost is to secure a principal partner for the club for next season. We have to think very strategically as to which sectors are spending money on sport.

“I remember when I was at Derby County the fans were asking. ‘Why can’t we get Rolls Royce and Toyota as the club’s sponsor?’

“We have to be smart and narrow it down to which businesses are relevant. They need to be of a certain scale. Huddersfield Town as a brand has a lot to offer outside of our region.

“There are various emerging trends in the industry. Companies in the betting sector have helped clubs by providing them with much-needed revenues.

“Brands within that space can play an important role in football, but the focus has to be on responsible, sustainable gambling. We also have to be open to the possibility to working with brands in multiple sectors. A lot of sectors are very competitive and firms are looking for a point of differentiation.

“We are working hard to secure a partner and are at the start of that process. I would hope to be in a strong position by the end of the season,” he added.

“We have to remember that we are fishing in the same pond as 92 other clubs.”

Mr Birtley’s first job was as a mobile phone salesman where he gained a deep understanding of the importance of customer service. He then went on to work in insurance, but always dreamed of working in football.

“One day, I was sitting at home and hoping to find a sales position within a football club and spotted a position for a sales executive at Derby County,” he said.

“ I was well schooled at Derby because it made me focus on what people want. My entire career has been about relationship building. The community and foundation arms of the club create a positive platform to work with the brands.”

These relationships will be more important than ever as football takes the first, tentative steps back towards normality.

Ian Birtley who started his role as commercial director in February 2021, arrived at Huddersfield Town with vast experience of the commercial landscape in football, particularly at Sky Bet Championship level.

He had previously worked at Derby County for nearly nine years, during which time he successfully negotiated multiple partnership agreements.

As Town’s commercial director, he will take the strategic lead on the club’s business-to-business relationships, managing the commercial team and driving forward the commercial offering to firms and supporters.

He will also join the club’s senior management team, which reports into the board of directors.

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