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Culture and Commercialisation: The Best Way Forward For Fans, Hands Down

The potential for digital technology to revolutionise how people interact with sport has been brought into sharp focus over the last year, with the pandemic forcing the industry to rethink how they provide the best service they can for fans. A German handball club has an inspiring story of how to reconcile old cultural values with new commercial demands.

01 June 2021 • 3 min read

Photograph: Paul Engel/Unsplash

A small but mighty sports club in Germany is showing the way toward a perfect blend of heritage and modernisation.

The Verein für Leibesübungen (or ‘association for physical exercises’) from the town of Gummersbach – VfL Gummersbach for short – is best known for the success of its handball team. But as the club grapples with reinvention to match 19th century ideals with 21st century demands, the benefits of embracing digital transformation are becoming abundantly clear.

Past and future

Established in 1861, VfL Gummersbach is the oldest and most prestigious handball club in Germany, but it hasn’t been without its difficulties. With serious budget issues threatening its survival, the club has had to face up to the reality of operating as a commercially, as well as culturally, focused organisation.

At the heart of the club’s transformation is collaboration: they are now the centre of an ecosystem that benefits not just them, but the fans, the players and the sponsors.

The non-profit roots of the club mean that its primary goal is (and remains) serving the fans. But with a little help from transformation partner NTT DATA, they have managed to leap forwards in operating as a commercial entity. Technology has been key, as has a collaborative approach to defining how to continue best serving the fans in a new, digital (and socially-distanced) world.

Getting up to speed

For many organisations, the toughest thing to bring in line with transformation goals is culture – processes and operations, in comparison, are easier to mould and manage. Organisational culture is notoriously difficult to direct, whereas process efficiency can be monitored and prompted by KPIs and automated applications. But for VfL Gummersbach, the problem was reversed: their culture was already excellent (everyone was there for the love of the sport), but they weren’t equipped, from a process and technology point of view, to operate as an efficient modern enterprise. They needed a level of ‘professionalisation’, without compromising their values.

Observers have noted that what VfL Gummersbach is doing is “not normal” in handball. But of course, that’s exactly the point.

At the heart of the club’s transformation is collaboration: working with NTT DATA and the club’s other partners, they are now the centre of an ecosystem that benefits not just them, but the fans, the players and the sponsors, all of whom share ideas and knowledge through VfL Gummersbach’s platform.

Going from a non-profit sports club to a 21st century commercial organisation required most of all a shift in process and thinking, in order to understand the opportunities in translating customer needs into digital products and services.

As Yannick Rüter, head of marketing and business development at the club, says “It’s interesting how you can adapt from the sport, and the emotion in our products, and put it on a tech base”. And they’re only at the beginning of their journey.

Connecting through technology

One of the most significant changes that has helped the club has been the introduction of digital tools that allows connection with fans. Previously, the options and channels for interaction between club and audience were extremely limited. Now, in addition to the increased engagement, there is an abundance of data upon which to tailor and improve services on an ongoing basis.

A critical component of the change the club wanted to achieve was that the club’s culture should not be damaged. From the club’s grassroots to its ambitions to be more future-focused, a balance had to be struck; but they understood that their business needed to modernise and become more agile, particularly how the club manages its customer services support.

And the investment in new technologies is also leading to reduced costs, through automating many systems that had previously been manual. The adoption of new technologies also enables the small team that operates the club to be more agile, improving their efficiency exponentially.

A complete overhaul of the club’s CRM was a critical component to create the new modern customer relationships platform the club needed to move forward. This didn’t just mean installing a new back-office system, but understanding the unique aspects of VfL Gummersbach, its history, and, of course, how the club could better support the fans. Collaborative workshops at NTT DATA’s Enso innovation space were instrumental in this.

“Without the fans, we are nothing.”

Like any business, VfL Gummersbach must serve its customers. Except of course that VfL Gummersbach doesn’t want to be like other businesses: they are transforming to become a digital pioneer in sports.

Tradition and history doesn’t pay any invoices.

They are transforming, as Yannick says, “to build a better team, to win titles, and to come back to the first league – that’s really important for us.” First and foremost, the vision is to invest in the team, for the betterment of the club and the experience for fans.

Seeing how the club is embracing digital technology and new ways of connecting with fans and delivering services, observers have noted that what VfL Gummersbach is doing is “not normal” in handball. But of course, that’s exactly the point.

Because, of course, tradition and history doesn’t pay any invoices. The club must continue on its journey to digitally-enabled enterprise agility with commitment and resolve, so it can continue to forge a path for the new era of sports.

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