Inside Benfica’s off-field strategy: Record profits, embracing digital and partnering with the 49ers

Inside Benfica’s off-field strategy: Record profits, embracing digital and partnering with the 49ers
“We always have to be faster and smarter than the big clubs,” Benfica Chief Executive Domingos Soares de Oliveira explains after being asked what underpins the club’s strategy for commercial growth.

Whilst Soares de Oliveira is keen to pitch Benfica as a plucky upstart it would be reductive not to class the club a behemoth in their own right. Their trophy cabinet boasts 37 Primeira Liga titles, 26 Taça de Portugal cup wins, as well as two European Cups. They are UEFA Champions League regulars and by no means small fry. However, no amount of rich history can compensate for the wealth gap now separating the Portuguese top flight from Europe’s five biggest leagues in England, Spain, Italy, Germany and France.

The harsh reality and riches of modern soccer are apparent for Soares de Oliveira. They shape his club’s strategic thinking on a daily basis.

“We had more or less the same growth percentage over the last ten years as the big clubs but the starting point is different for them and for us,” he says.

“When you go to the UEFA Champions League, where we have been for the last ten years, and face clubs like Barcelona, Real Madrid and Manchester City, then we know there’s a huge difference.

“But football is a little bit about making up that difference by doing something that is unexpected. So, for us, it’s also about the possibility of making a surprise and also having good results against those clubs at European level.”

Soares de Oliveira’s comments on prioritising uniqueness and innovation are particularly pertinent given Manchester City’s recent ban from UEFA competitions due to financial fair play (FFP) breaches for overvaluing sponsorships. In a world where state-backed clubs are the relative norm in soccer, Benfica’s considered approach is a marked contrast. It is a successful one too.

“This will be most probably in financial terms the best season we’ve had since we existed,” Soares de Oliveira reveals. Added to that, Benfica president Luis Filipe Vieira confirmed last year that they had made their “bank debts residual” while “reducing our liabilities”.

Figures released after SportsPro spoke with Soares de Oliveira show that Benifica secured a net profit of €104.2 million (US$117.6 million) for the first half of the 2019/20 financial year, a whopping 639.8 per cent increase on the same period last season. That is largely down to the sale of Portuguese forward João Félix to Spanish side Atletico Madrid, who paid €126 million (US$142.2 million) for the 20-year-old in July.

However it also continues a trend of strong financial returns, being the sixth consecutive year in which the Primeira Liga club have made a profit in the first six months of activity. Revenues for the period were also up 94.3 per cent to €244.3 million (US$275.8 million) - the club’s best ever financial performance over the six months ending 31st December.

Meanwhile, Benfica’s net debt on 31st December 2019 stood at €45.8 million (US$51.7 million), which the club say has decreased by €189.5 million since June 2016 and is the lowest it has been in recent years.

The latest figures would suggest that Benfica are well on course to surpass their revenue for the 2018/19 financial year, which saw the club bring in more than €300 million (US$338.8 million) for the first time.

Those numbers are in stark contrast to the club’s previously perilous position when Soares de Oliveira arrived. In 2002, former president Joao Antonio De Araujo Vale e Azevedo, who headed up Benfica between 1997 and 2000, was convicted of embezzling US$1 million following negotiations over a player's contract. That prosecution followed years of financial mismanagement which even saw the club’s bank account frozen in 1998.

“People need to know that when the president was elected in 2003, and I was hired 16 years ago, we were almost facing a bankruptcy situation,” Soares de Oliveira continues. “The previous president was in jail so we had a difficult time more than a decade ago and we solved it. So I think this could also work as an example for other clubs facing difficulties.”

This is how innovation became less of a choice and more of a necessity. It is a mantra that still leads the club long after Soares de Oliveira’s appointment.

In the last 12 months alone, Benfica have set a series of commercial milestones in European soccer. Significantly, they becoming the first club in a top-flight European league to accept payments via blockchain, in this case with cryptocurrency provider Utrust. In addition, they are the only Portuguese soccer team to have their own over-the-top (OTT) subscription platform, Benfica Play, which launched in January.

There were also knowledge sharing partnerships struck with the San Francisco 49ers and San Francisco Giants, big players in the National Football League (NFL) and Major League Baseball (MLB) respectively.

“Our view is that content will be a key driver for our future business,” Soares de Oliveira states when discussing Benfica Play. “All of our fans, and even those who are not our fans but like football, are focusing more and more on content that must be seen as unique to them.

“If you’re delivering the same content as the television showed yesterday no one will be ready to pay for it. But if you are delivering an interview, training session, content around players and coaches that is unique, then people will be prepared to pay for it.

“We believe that we will get good results in terms of engaging and retaining our fans, and in terms of revenue.”

Benfica’s strategic tie-ups with the 49ers and Giants also seem smart plays as the club look to the US market for growth, having played a pre-season friendly in the country last July. There are worse teams to tap for business information than two franchises that Forbes gives a combined value of more than US$6 billion.

“Partnering with strong brands in the Americas is extremely important in order to get full recognition,” explains Soares de Oliveira. “We understand soccer is not the first sport in the US and of course Benfica is not the most well-known European brand there. That’s the reason why partnering with such brands is so important.

“At the end of the day, we will need to do more than that because it’s not just about brand. It’s much more about the right strategy to implement into the local market.”

That strategic focus for Benfica remains digital. Despite having the highest percentage of supporters in their own country, Portugal’s population of a little over ten million puts them well outside the top ten in Europe. Having broken down their supporters into five groups, ranging from the diehard fan to casual follower, Soares de Oliveira says utilising smart technology must be a necessity to generate more revenue.

“All clubs will have to have different digital strategies. The biggest change for us in the last two years is coming from the digital side. To give you an example, we have today more than 45,000 season ticket holders - six or seven years ago it was less than 20,000.

“The reason for that is the digital facilities that we introduced. You can buy your ticket with the Benfica app and those with a season ticket can share it with someone else just using their mobile device.

“We are delivering more services. We even stopped selling tickets because there is no more space available in the stadium. The app is an example of additional revenue generated by offering more services to our fans and members.”

There is perhaps no better example of Benfica’s astute strategy than in the transfer market. Their young prospect João Felix stole the headlines last summer when he moved to Atlético for the third highest transfer fee in the history of the game, but the forward’s move was just the latest in As Águias’ rich pickings from player sales.

Other high-profile departures in recent seasons include Raúl Jiménez, Talisca, Ederson, Victor Lindelöf, Nélson Semedo, Gonçalo Guedes and Renato Sanches, to name but a few. They have all helped Benfica pocket north of €500 million (US$539 million) in the last half a decade, which is testament to the annual €10 million (US$10.8 million) the club spend on their youth setup.

“We need to have player trading as part of a business offer. If you receive an offer of more than €100 million it’s impossible not to look at it as something that will make a strong difference by the end of the year in terms of profitability,” Soares de Oliveira admits. 

“We have players we have succeeded in retaining because we’ve been able to increase their salaries but in some other cases it’s impossible. We don’t have the same balance sheet that allows us to compete with the wages paid by the biggest 12 or 13 clubs you have in Europe.”

Player sales remain a standout in Benfica’s ongoing game plan to make up the difference with the likes of the Premier League and LaLiga. However, the club’s operating income without player transfers amounted to €101.9 million (US$115.1 million) in first half of the 2019/20 financial year, which still represents an 8.8 per cent increase on the same period in 2018/19.

One area of disparity in particular that Primeira Liga teams are less able to combat through shrewd player sales and off-field innovation compared to the bigger leagues is broadcast rights. Notably, the Premier League’s TV deal is worth UK£5 billion (US$6.28 billion) domestically and a further UK£4.2 billion (US$5.2 billion) internationally for the 2019 to 2022 cycle. Unlike the English top flight, Benfica and other clubs in Portugal’s elite division have no centralised TV deal, instead opting to sell their own rights.

For Soares de Oliveira, having rights distribution in-house has enabled Benfica to maximise their earnings considering they have no major pay-TV broadcaster on board.

“Five years ago in Portugal, the contract for TV rights was €7.5 million a year. Today, we have more than €40 million. We decided to put our own matches on our TV channel, Benfica TV. We also bought English Premier League rights, we bought Ligue 1 rights and we launched Benfica TV as a subscription channel for €10.

“We reached at the time close to 350,000 subscribers which helped us to show the value of those TV rights were much higher than what we were getting,” he says, before mentioning the figure is still dwarfed by other continental leagues.

“The club who finish last in the Premier League will get three times more than us and the club who finish last in LaLiga will get the same amount of money we’re getting. This is the reality, this is the market.

“Other clubs in big European leagues have so much money coming in from TV rights they don’t have to spend as much time thinking about other sources of revenue.”

That point is supported by KPMG’s latest European Champions Report. The study highlighted that while operating revenues for elite European soccer clubs continue to grow, it is primarily down to increased broadcasting revenues, which are benefiting in part from the new, more remunerative Champions League distribution cycle.

While the massive €564 million (US$608 million) annual increase to €1.976 billion (US$2.132 billion) will have been welcomed by Benfica, they know an overreliance on a single income stream for a club in their position would be irresponsible.

“The amount of money we’re getting there is so low we have to generate revenues everywhere,” continues Soares de Oliveira. “We’ve been described as the right club in the wrong country. That’s nothing against Portugal, but it’s so small that if our strategies were implemented in a different country like Spain or England then the results would be fantastic.”

That careful planning seems all the more justified given the uncertainty over what guise the Champions League will take over the new decade. The much-maligned proposals for a new closed off promotion and relegation structure may be on the backburner, for now at least, but they continue to pose a very real threat for teams from smaller leagues as Europe’s heavy hitters seek a monopoly on a major revenue source.

“The reality is that those very big clubs want to generate more money no matter what,” Soares de Oliveira believes. “I was part of the European Club Association (ECA) board until last year and had discussions over the Champions League.

“A super league without promotion and relegation, a closed competition, would destroy the spirit of football, the culture. Our culture is built on promotion and relegation, so I had discussions trying to stop it even if Benfica was one of the clubs that could play in the new super league.”

Clubs, especially those who view the Champions League as a commercial cornerstone, rarely warm to compromise when it comes to income. Yet, Soares de Oliveira reckons a solution of sorts can be reached. Inevitably, more games look to be the answer.

“The group phase would go from six matches to 14. I think this is positive for those clubs that were trying to launch the super league,” he says, before noting that such an approach may not necessarily be in everyone’s interests.

“The negative side is that this will generate so much additional revenue that the imbalance existing between international leagues will be bigger than it is today.

“People have discussed the calendar, and I don’t think the calendar is a big problem, but there will be impact on the number of matches you can do at national level. Maybe the leagues will have to be reduced with the number of clubs going from 18 to 20 for example.”

Soares de Oliveira adds that leagues’ domestic cups may have to “disappear” to free up the space needed for those extra games. A recent example would be France’s Coupe de la Ligue, which will be scrapped from next season due to fixture pile-up and a lack of broadcast interest.

As hard as it is to see French champions Paris Saint-Germain complaining about an extra bit of breathing space in their already rammed schedule, the decision arguably exemplifies the unabating allure of top continental competitions compared to historical national trophies. It is also a far cry from Soares de Oliveira’s hopes for maintaining the culture of the sport.

“That is the price we may have to accept if we want to stop the super league from happening,” he concedes.

Benfica’s wider vision for soccer’s future may well be one at odds with Europe’s other domestic heavyweights. A first European trophy since 1962 could also still be some way off, though Soares de Oliveira believes it is “not impossible.” But as more clubs adopt a win at all costs mentality, the 59-year-old maintains staying true to their own strategies will see Benfica continue to prosper on and off the pitch.

“We have to anticipate what’s going to be the trend of the market for the coming years and be quicker in terms of implementing our strategies. Digital will play a very important role but there might be other areas we can’t foresee right now, but we have to always be looking.”

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