AC Milan was once a football titan, dominating on the pitch and shaping the beautiful game via fashion and footwork. After a few years of obscurity, it is on a mission to retrieve its cultural credentials. As part of The Drum’s Sports Marketing Deep Dive, we catch up with Casper Stylsvig, its chief revenue officer, who is frank about how he’s rebuilding the Rossoneri. Can this shrewd marketer be the hero the San Siro needs?
The seven-time Champions League winners are back in the tournament for the first time since 2014, having languished in mid-table mediocrity. They last won Serie in 2011. Some of its most hardcore fans weren’t even born then. Stylsvig’s the man tasked with changing that.
His football pedigree has taken him from FC Barcelona to Manchester United and Fulham over the last 15 years. He joined a troubled AC Milan in March 2019. The Dane says: “We control everything outside the pitch, we don’t control the performance on the pitch.”
His mission is to “win football through culture” and “attract a younger audience”. You can’t just rely on on-the-pitch successes anymore, he adds. Thankfully, those have been improving swiftly.
He reflects on “a few seasons of difficulties”. In 2017, Chinese businessman Li Yonghong bought the club from Silvio Berlusconi, media mogul and three-time prime minister whose brow-raising ownership took it to immense highs and subsequent lows. Li’s mission was to make China fall further in love with the club. That didn’t exactly happen. Instead the team lost contact with the businessman and current owners Elliott Management took control of what The Financial Times described as a ‘distressed asset’ – the club was in need of a clear goal and a good assist.
Stylsvig says now the club is “doing the right things for the right reasons” and building the solid foundations of a modern football brand. He’s overseen a huge digital transformation project, and exported the club on to the metaverse via Fortnite. It now manages an esports team called Qlash, hosts virtual gigs, makes waves in the fashion world and has built a media studio to accommodate growing demand from partners.
Stylsvig indicates that the club is finally ready to start delivering on its legacy in the football elite.
Football’s changed since AC Milan was at the top of the game.
Stylsvig says fans consume the sport differently. He recalls his Danish childhood watching the full 90 minutes of not so-glamorous English fixtures like Wimbledon v Crystal Palace. With limited media, that was probably the best thing on TV. In 2021, it may be the worst.
“The younger generation are using several screens when they watch the game – some might favor the highlights, so we shift in how we communicate to these young fans. They want to know everything. It is no longer just about the match.”
As football clubs pick up partners and become attention vehicles, many have expanded their content output to extend the window of engagement between games. Behind-the-scenes prove popular – younger fans “want to know everything, they want to know how professional footballers live their lives, how they train, how they eat, how they relax”.
He calls this strategy “from Monday to match day”, with a goal to be relevant every day. Being in Fortnite, where the target audience is spending a lot of its time, was one approach. “The success we saw in that partnership was just phenomenal.” Even the stadium was filled with Fortnite characters.
And then there was a virtual concert a few months ago to showcase young talent. You’ll see youth crop up a lot, from the outreach to the team building. It aims to have one of the youngest teams in Europe – with the exception of statesmanlike Ibrahimovic, who’s back at the club.
“We’re a forward-thinking club, focusing very much on innovation. It is what brands want and it is what the consumer wants. We’re a football club but we are in the entertainment business. We have to give the consumers what they want or we will become irrelevant.”
Stylsvig on Style
Milan, as one of the world’s fashion capitals, presents an almost unique opportunity to brands. Stylsvig admits AC Milan has a headstart here, maybe only matched by PSG.
“We see there is a huge link between the fashion world and the sports world. Many footballers are highly engaged in fashion, and that makes the brands interested in football.”
Last year AC Milan worked with fashion group Paper Planes on an exclusive collection. The club have only just started pulling on this thread. “It was our first real fashion interaction with Paper Planes and we sold out the line in 48 hours.”
Football, fashion and commerce works – no surprise to anyone who’s been offering a thick wad of notes to their favorite clubs all these years for a jersey. “The rest of the class are still asleep but this is somewhere we will focus a lot going forward.”
Instagram’s where the club sees most of its growth, and it is apparently the app where most of the fans spend their time. TikTok’s becoming increasingly important and Twitch hosts a lot of activity, particularly esports output.
AC Milan’s also pushing on seven Chinese apps, but Stylsvig reminds us that Serie A was being broadcast on CCTV back in the 80s and 90s and that the club’s always been big in China.
It is worth remembering social media growth in football is often anchored to the players, who play a dual role as influencers. AC Milan is no longer a team comprised of world-class superstars – Kaka, Shevchenko, Cafu, Dida, Nesta, Maldini, Gattuso, Van Basten, Pirlo, Inzaghi, Guilt, Weah and, undeniably atop the pile, Ronaldinho are just a few. That’s no accident. “We’re taking a sensible approach here with the players we are signing. Alex Ferguson used to say: ‘No player is bigger than the club.’”
So on the pitch and off it, AC is following this mantra. On social, every player gets a fair amount of exposure. “In player engagement we never use the same person too much. We want to give the same exposure to everyone. We believe when you’re a first team, you’re all on the same level.”
When AC Milan was last prominent players didn’t have so much power. Social media changed that. When Ronaldo moved from Real Madrid to the hated Juventus, he reportedly vacuumed 1 million followers with him and half of the club’s Instagram followers. It’s a risky strategy.
To stand a chance in entertainment and hit steep revenue goals, content is key. It’s cheaper and faster to do this in-house, hence the investment in a new media studio at the start of 2021.
During the pandemic, there was increased demand for content from partners. Meanwhile, when football went silent and stadiums were strictly empty, the club had to find its audience once more online.
“The pandemic fast-tracked us, we needed to be much more digital-savvy.” In a year, it doubled its content output and brought aboard roughly 14 new partners during lockdown. One campaign’s now a widely-distributed TikTok case study.
But when pressed on why a football club like AC Milan should be a brand’s go-to, instead of a content or influencer agency, Stylsvig pauses for thought. “We are consumers but none of us like to be sold to. If you use football as a platform to gain engagement, then you might convince the consumer.”
He adds: “We hope brands buy into our big plans and innovation, and winning people through culture by merging the team with sport, fashion and design.”
The strategy has the club “back to black numbers” and out of the red after “a few difficult years”.
For now, at least, it will remain cost-conscious and do everything it can to drive revenue. It won’t be splashing “silly” money on players anytime soon, but long-time fans will probably be enthused by the stability, and if not that then perhaps the host of new content and Fortnite skins.