Mark Kelly is the Managing Director of Bristol Sport Ltd and Ashton Gate Ltd, overseeing the 'off the pitch' operations for Bristol City FC, Bristol Bears and Bristol Flyers. With football, rugby and basketball to contend with, Mark's role is busy, complex and thoroughly enjoyable. In this interview, Mark shares details of how his role works for Bristol City FC, including how he manages the operational set-up on matchdays, the development plans for the land adjacent to Ashton Gate and the importance of supporter retention. Having worked within the sports industry for seven years now, Mark has experienced many career highlights and offers useful advice for those individuals hoping to pursue a career in football.
My role is Managing Director of Bristol Sport and Ashton Gate, so as you say, a dual role. The structure was formalised around seven years ago by our owner Stephen Lansdown, around the same time the stadium was redeveloped. The main objective was to take away the day-to-day, off the pitch operations from the clubs, to allow each of our sporting teams (football, rugby and basketball) to fully focus on performance i.e., scouting, player development (academy), medical and training, and matchday performance. Really, the academia of the sporting side. Bristol Sport absorbed the operations: ticketing, merchandise (retail); commercial and hospitality (matchdays and non-matchdays); sponsorship deals; media, and marketing (e.g., season ticket campaigns). Essentially, all of the important operational elements that go on behind the scenes of a professional sports club. This allows the clubs to flourish because they have the ability to concentrate solely on pitch performance. Bristol Sport is the, ‘team behind the team’, who are focused on increasing revenues and growing the brands.
The model is still very unique in the UK; it is more common in America. You often see single ownership across sports in the US, such as American football (NFL), ice hockey, baseball and basketball. Although we are talking about football today, it’s important to mention that our model allows the ability to cross-sell. We have economies of scale and by that, I mean the opportunity to sell football to a rugby fan and vice versa. We have seen great success with that, in regard to our season card sales and merchandise, where a football fan can upgrade to rugby and therefore, have a dual season card. Commercially, it helps all of the clubs to drive sustainability.
The Stadium has also been used to host concerts etc
In terms of Ashton Gate Ltd, which is under the same ownership but a separate company on paper, it is a business to fully concentrate on safety, security and filling the venue when there is no sport on the pitch. Again, we have a team that manages all of those operations all the way through to cleaning, housekeeping and medical.
Pre-covid we had at any given time, around 600 registered employees and a full-time equivalent of around 150. That’s a big organisation. The benefit of the model is that we can hire staff - who may have an ambition to work in football - but who we can educate in rugby and basketball too, so they have a broader knowledge of the sports industry. We don’t push people into one particular sport but instead, we let them grow into all of the sports we manage within the businesses.
Bristol Sport and Ashton Gate are totally focused on results. If you’re working for a football club, they want you to live and breathe their culture; they want you to have the club running through your veins and nothing else. I believe in this too, as I feel it drives pride and focus. If you’re a passionate fan working for the club you support, and therefore invested into what’s happening on the pitch, you can often base your decisions on emotion. That’s fine at times but equally, it can also go too far at times – you need to find a balance. Sometimes, reacting as a fan doesn’t work when you need to see the football club as an operating business. It’s important to manage the rollercoaster that comes with sport and take the emotion out of decisions.
In saying that, we do need to be sensitive to the emotions in all of our sports. For example, football is very different to rugby; it has intense tribal support around it and the legacy that comes with it. You have to factor that into how you operate the business. For example, if you look at our ticketing office, which pre-Covid had nine full-time staff, we made simple changes so that we know which fan we will be answering the phone to i.e., is it a Bristol City fan, a Bristol Bears fan or a Bristol Flyers fan, and therefore, we are able to give each sport its own identity, rather than answering every call as Bristol Sport. All of our staff have kit for each sport too and on a matchday, there will be Bristol City flags and signage everywhere. We become Bristol City on matchdays and that’s really important because we want to highlight the club’s culture and be a part of it.
It is also important to relationship manage all of the stakeholders and, in this context, the senior leadership team at Bristol City. It is the responsibility of Bristol Sport to source commercial revenue and it is therefore right that we should be held to account. It can of course be difficult but we don’t want anyone to feel like we are concentrating our efforts on one particular area – you have to love everyone the same and get the balance right. It’s so important to manage the culture and not lose sight of it. We’ve learnt a lot over the last five years about how to get that balance right.
If I look back on where we came from, when we redeveloped the stadium, the first phase was completed in late 2014. Before this time, the stadium was archaic. The fans’ experience would start at 2.50pm or 2.55pm, with everybody queuing at the old-fashioned turnstiles 10 minutes before kick-off. You couldn’t really get a drink; it was just a really old stadium. What we wanted to do was create an event, a matchday experience which would ultimately create new habits for fans too. We started with our hospitality areas, putting in big spaces and we now cater for 2,500-3,000 fans every game. We also wanted those supporters in general admission to have the same high-quality experience but at the same time, make it different so it didn’t fall into the category of the ‘prawn sandwich brigade’. We built a sports bar, which at the time, had the largest pub screen in the UK. It means the fans can come in two hours before the game, watch the early kick-off match and be able to stay after the game, and watch the late kick-off match too. There’s a pizzeria in there, a restaurant and lots of concessions for retail and food and beverage. All of the catering is managed in-house and we engage directly with local suppliers. Our pies are from Devon, the brewery we use is 10 miles down the road…we really want to ensure we engage with the local community when it comes to our supplies and products. We also have a big fan village outside. It was a bit of a slow start because football fans love habits. They love meeting the same mates, in the same corner and be able to sit in the same seats. We’ve been able to change that into a different experience and I am proud to see we have created a matchday event for the fans.
The stadium is currently being used as a vaccination centre too. It’s a multi-use stadium and that’s what’s great about it.
Yes, we’ve acquired the land adjacent to Ashton Gate, which is a mix of brownfield site, old offices… and it’s parallel to the stadium so it’s perfect for us. If I look at non-sporting factors, Bristol has never had an arena within the centre of the city; it’s never had event space to hold over 1500-1600 people. There is a need in Bristol for two things: one is an 18,000-seater arena, which is being developed in North Bristol, and the other is a 4,000-capacity venue which is part of our development plans. We had the idea in our mind, not just from a commercial perspective, but also to bring the basketball team (Flyers) into Ashton Gate, as they currently play at a university off campus.
The first phase is to build a sports and convention centre, which will be the home of Bristol Flyers, but also, hopefully, a dynamic event centre, which will include a 250-bedroom branded hotel along with a mixture of accommodation, offices and retail. A key objective is to engage the community, with a big focus on sport and employment. South Bristol has traditionally been perceived as a deprived area of the city and we really want to invest in the area, increase community engagement, create more jobs, and leave a legacy for the Lansdown family. It will be a new community hub, called the Sporting Quarter, and wellbeing and mindfulness are key. We are putting in outdoor gyms and linking it to two parks and there will be a focus on cycling too. It’s exciting. Final planning goes in next month and we are hoping to open phase one in late 2023.
We have just carried out a wellness week for employees across the group and it’s so important to bring attention to those areas, encourage employees to step away from their screen and go for a walk. I think people will need their office to be a sanctuary from their home once normality is back because everyone has been stuck at home for so long. I actually want to redesign our office to be a more relaxed environment so that, when employees come into the office, it’s not just seen as a place where you sit at your screen, it’s a sanctuary away from all the time you spent working in your kitchen or your bedroom. I want to work on that over the next 6-7 weeks and really get the space right for everyone; the biggest investment is in people.
It was humbling. When we first closed in March-April 2020, we had all of our staff on board; our kitchens were fully stocked; furlough hadn’t really kicked off… We had a senior management meeting, which at the time, was when we thought football was only not going to be played for just three weeks. We all thought, ‘What do we do for three weeks? That’s huge!’ But we have a number of affiliated charities: the Robins Foundation, the Bears Foundation and the Bristol Sport Foundation, who all carry out a lot of fantastic charity work. One of my colleagues at the Robins Foundation, said that there were going to be children in South Bristol who wouldn’t eat during the Easter break because schools were closed and there would be no investment to provide for those children during the holidays. That wasn’t acceptable to us and our stadium was set up with the facilities and the food to put together packages. We planned to deliver the food packages, for two weeks, to those who had been identified as high-risk children.
The scheme continued past two weeks, all the way into August in fact. The need was so high that we just kept doing it. The award was partly because of that scheme, as well as the stadium being used as a vaccination centre. But that’s interesting because we don’t really do anything for that; it’s all the hard work of the NHS and volunteers. We offered the stadium space to the NHS; they came round to look at it and have since taken everything from there. It’s incredible to see though, the operational set-up and the relief on the faces of those who have been vaccinated, like their life is starting again. It’s very humbling to sit back and be able to see that. I think we will look back on this in 10-15 years’ time and find the situation surreal, in disbelief that we lived through this.
If I reflect on the seven years I’ve had in sport, I would say people management and stakeholder management are the most important, along with your self-awareness within that. Having the awareness to manage different, sometimes difficult personalities, to know when not to be affected by it but equally, to know when to challenge it.
The ability to adapt is also important. We’ve all been there where we think we’re on the cusp of winning a game and have a sales plan in place, only to lose the game and have to very quickly change strategy.
Also, the ability to bring other experiences from different industries into sport is important too because at times, I think just having experience in one industry isn’t always a strength and actually, some real successes have been because people have brought in other skills and experience from different industries.
I love the passion in football at all levels. If I’m in the boardroom on a matchday, I like studying people and watching the passion from the players on the pitch, all the way up to the CEO and the Chairman. They’re almost kicking the ball alongside the players. It’s amazing to see because it shows it’s not a job, it’s a lifestyle. People working at executive level are under severe amounts of pressure and it’s difficult to manage the rollercoaster. But, they have so much passion for what they do; it comes from a good place and that’s incredible to see.
Opening the stadium was a highlight because we had so many things go against us: we were delayed on handover, the SAG (Safety Advisory Group) signed us off at 9pm on a Friday; we had a game the next day at 3pm and we still had to train all of the staff… it was nearly a disaster but we got through it! Seeing the look on the faces of the fans was brilliant too.
Ashton Gate Stadium (Source: Bristol Sport)
Also, Bristol Sport has invested a lot in supporter retention of our 7 to 13-year-olds and that has been a highlight for me, seeing a 13-year-old supporter’s journey each year and then suddenly, they are 18 years old and getting their adult season card. We are currently running a TikTok campaign in which we are giving Bristol City kits away to any under 12 who sends us a video of them showcasing their football skills. We have had a brilliant reaction from parents and coaches and it’s given them a reason to kick a ball after the postponement of grassroots football. We know we are going to need to work hard to reengage with our supporters over the next 12 months.
Lastly, seeing the stadium grow in the community has been great; the enjoyment it brings to the city is amazing.
There are a lot of highlights though and they certainly outweigh the low points.
Just go for it. There is so much you can learn from football. If you’re a graduate or apprentice, I would say, get to know every aspect of a football club. I think the future of football is going to change aggressively and have a real digital focus. Will the future football fan feel as passionate about their season ticket as the current 40-year-olds do? Anybody coming in needs to have a broad mind as to what the future holds, what you can personally add to the industry over the next 10-15 years.
If you’re 17-19 years old, spend time working around each area of the club. Do a stint in commercial, a stint in marketing, a stint in media…and know your fans too, as it’s their club and their journey. Also, understand the training ground culture and what happens away from the office. It all interlinks; you are all one team so understanding what goes on there is important.
That’s a difficult question as I don’t know. If I look back on the last seven or eight years, I wouldn’t have thought I would have evolved as much as I have, especially given my background in hotel redevelopment. The idea was for me to move to Ashton Gate, set it up, develop it and move on. But I became part of the culture. I would like to think we will continue to develop the venue, so the stadium, the training ground and the arena. Eventually becoming a big player in the UK, hosting Premier League football, Premiership rugby and top-flight basketball. I hope I can be a part of that journey.
Interviewer: Sascha Gustard-Brown
Sascha is highly experienced within the area of Supporter Engagement, having held the positions of Head of Supporter Engagement at Luton Town Football Club and Supporter Liaison Officer at West Ham United. She is currently working on small supporter engagement projects in sport and freelance writing in football.