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Interview: Moving the goalposts: How Powerleague wants to 'change the face' of five-a-side football

Powerleague CEO Rupert Campbell wants to change the five-a-side business to focus on customer service and innovation. He discussed his ambitious targets with Matthew Campelli

by Matthew Campelli | Published in Sports Management Nov Dec 2016 issue 128
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Chief executive Rupert Campbell aims to change the face of the five-a-side industry
Chief executive Rupert Campbell aims to change the face of the five-a-side industry

“I don’t say this lightly,” Powerleague chief executive Rupert Campbell says just a few minutes into our meeting, “we’re here to change the face of five-a-side football.”

According to Campbell, the five-a-side sector has an image problem caused by a lack of imagination around customer service. And it’s this he’s intent on changing.

We meet at Powerleague’s Barnet hub, the first venue to be revamped as part of the company’s £1m refurbishment plan. The rebrand is clearly visible. At the front of the car park looms a giant totem pole with a fierce panther-like creature on the crest. The main building has been turned striking red.

The crest and colour scheme will not be universal across the Powerleague sites; instead, each club will have its own badge of local significance and matching colours. Campbell explains that the panther-like creature is the ‘Beast of Barnet’ – a big cat that became urban legend in the area after ‘sightings’ in the late-1990s.

The unique crest was the brainchild of Powerleague’s brand director, Casper Nelson, who Campbell hired shortly after taking the reins 15 months ago.

“When they first told me about the concept of having 50 different brands I was quite concerned,” Campbell admits. “I’m a traditionalist; I come from a corporate environment and understand that you have one brand and that’s how it works.”

But the idea of creating a club and community feel at each of the sites was too compelling for Campbell to dismiss, particularly in light of insight work the firm had undertaken which revealed that 92 per cent of Powerleague players live within eight miles of the club where they play.

“The guys started to look at the different local areas and how they could create the crests. It’s the players’ football badge. We want them to kiss the badge, and want every local community to be wedded to the badge.”

Explaining the bright red colour scheme, Campbell turns on his heels towards a large Tesco supermarket that the hub overlooks. “You see how that Tesco dominates the landscape from up here? We want people who are in that Tesco car park to think that this Powerleague dominates the landscape from down there.”

Campbell quickly leads the way to the pitch zone, where each pitch has been allocated the name of a famous footballer. As we stand between the Cristiano Ronaldo and Franz Beckenbauer pitches, the CEO explains that the recognisable names help players locate their pitch. He also points to a map and a visible clock, which means matches rarely go over their allotted times.

The addition of a central clock, says Campbell, was referenced as one of the most important things for player satisfaction. Little touches like that, he adds, will differentiate Powerleague from its competitors.

“This is just like any other industry, although in this industry we’re blessed with football,” he says. “But if you’re a company that uses playing surface as its only unique selling point you will lose every time, because there’s somebody that will do it cheaper.

“We’re trying deliver an experience which is enjoyable for families, kids and women. This is a proper service industry, and not just a commodity you can throw away.”

Customer service
As a former Adidas executive Campbell knows all about the importance of brand recognition and customer service, and undertook a “huge amount of insight” when he joined Powerleague in order to shape the organisation’s customer service decisions.

Changing rooms have been completely remodelled to foster an atmosphere of camaraderie, food is served and music is played in the bar area to accommodate families. Air freshener is pumped into the facility so that it doesn’t always smell like “sweaty men”.

And the changes appear to be paying off. Campbell says that since the revamp, the Barnet centre has experienced a “30 per cent upswing in income”, with “record growth in customer feedback”.

The impressive numbers don’t stop there. To improve the customer experience further, Powerleague has relaunched a more interactive website that allows customers to check league positions, book pitches and organise functions such as children’s birthday parties. Since the website’s launch, Powerleague’s sales have surged by 156 per cent, and a new app is due to be rolled out.

Sustaining a high sales volume and high level of customer retention will be the next challenge for the company. While five-a-side football complexes were once a male domain, Powerleague’s new business model aims to attract a much wider section of society.

Campbell says the organisation is working hard to attract more women to the centres, with an initiative called ‘She Scores’, which allows female players to take part in matches for free during off-peak times.

Powerleague has also started offering Soccercise classes – a Football Association-developed aerobic routine based around football skills. Children are being catered for as well, which gives the hubs an even greater family and community feel, says Campbell.

“We do summer camps, we do half term camps, we do Christmas camps. We looked at how we delivered these camps and what we charged, and to me it wasn’t where it should be. So we did a lot of work, we did research and asked parents and we came up with this,” he says.

Powerleague’s F2 Ultimate Skills Soccer Camp teaches children a range of football skills based on the football freestyle ability of Billy Wingrove and Jeremy Lynch, the presenters of London Live show F2.

“We turned a bland kids camp into a camp where you learn different skills on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday,” Campbell explains. “We’ve created that out of nothing and it’s just gone insane.”

Innovation
The programme is “just another example of innovation”. The firm is experimenting with a piece of wearable technology that can be placed on the ankle to log how far players run and provide other match statistics. Pitch-side cameras have also been installed at some centres. The cameras are connected to a red button, which allow goals and gaffes to be shared on social media.

These cameras are sponsored by Gillette, demonstrating Powerleague’s increasing commercial creativity under Campbell’s stewardship. Campbell has already signed a deal with his former employer, Adidas, to launch pop-up stores in centres across the country.

But he stresses that it all comes back to customer service, and points to innovations that he has implemented within Powerleague’s workforce. According to internal insight work, the biggest bugbear for employees was the uniform, which consisted of suits and ties. The formal attire has been shown the door, with staff now wearing smart Adidas tracksuits.

To crystallise his point about the importance of customer service, Campbell reveals that he took every single colleague from the business – from boardroom to bar staff – on a two-day training retreat under Powerleague’s Service Rebooted strategy.

“We taught everyone how to meet and greet customers and interact with them,” he says. “If you go to most centres at peak time you see a receptionist sat at a desk. To move away from that, we gave our people iPads – now they go out and greet our customers.”

Powerleague so far has a customer service score of 53 per cent. Campbell hopes this will rise to 85 per cent once the refurbishment rollout is completed in 2017.

Future ambitions
Rebranding existing sites is only half the battle. Earlier this year, the company revealed plans for 13 new hubs in London, which fits with its new strategy to build in urban environments rather than on the edge of towns.

“We can do car parks or roof tops,” says Campbell. “One, two or ten pitch models. It’s a very flexible approach.”

Next year, Powerleague will begin to advertise its domestic work using a large social media campaign, but Campbell is looking further afield to ensure growth continues. Two sites in Holland – Amsterdam and Utrecht – have been established in the last few years. He explains that the perfect storm of finding a growing five-a-side football culture and “getting a good deal” made Holland the perfect place to expand, but his team is looking for other opportunities on the continent and beyond.

“Watch this space, we might have something to report very soon,” he says with a touch of mischief.

But for now, Campbell’s excitement around Powerleague’s domestic opportunities is palpable.

He concludes: “I thought one of your first questions would be ‘why did you leave Adidas?’, but I think I’ve explained that. There’s a lot of opportunity for everyone that works in our business to change an industry.”

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