Business of sport: England's most commercially astute club
13th March 2018
“I want to be a professional club within 5 years.” Bartek Luszcz’s vision for IBB Polonia London is bold. “At the latest,” says Bartek, the chairman of the club, to underline just how serious he is. “I want to have 20 professional players and team members on the books.”
With no professional volleyball league in England, the idea might seem farfetched but anyone who has kept a keen eye on the club will know IBB Polonia are pushing hard to take club volleyball to the next level in this country. From agreeing naming-rights of the team and securing television deals, the club continues to build its commerciality that they hope will give the springboard for Polonia to reach new levels on the court too.
In the our ‘Business of Sport’ series, we’ve been exploring the commerciality of Volleyball. We’ve explored how you can get your team sponsored and how Volleyball England is looking to develop commercial deals for its key events – remember the business articulations for the events are available to download. In this latest piece, we delve into how IBB Polonia have become England’s most commercially astute club and are at the forefront of taking English volleyball to new heights. For Bartek, the journey started over five years ago.
“I first got involved with the club in 2012 when Polonia were in the English Cup Final,” explains Bartek. “I was working as a camera man for Polsat TV at the time and was assigned to the game. I walked in and was amazed that the club had been in existence for 39 years, I’d lived in London for eight years and I’d never heard of it. There were thousands of Polish people living in London, yet the club had no fans and no money. I immediately had thoughts about making it into something bigger.”
Bartek sent an email proposal to the club about getting involved and was soon invited to come on board. His first priority was to address the club’s lack of profile.
“We didn’t go out asking for money,” says Bartek. “We worked on building our image and communications. When we took over, our social media was at 300 likes and now it’s almost 8,000. Sponsors want to reach a large following so we first had to create an image of the club before approaching a sponsor.”
It didn’t take the club long to land that first sponsorship deal, helped by the club’s on court success.
“The first deal we secured was for the 2013 League Final,” reveals Bartek. “It had taken a year but we had worked hard to make it happen. The sponsor was for the kit we wore in the final and we won the title. The next year we attracted another company and we’ve built it up step-by-step. The early commercial deals were for small amounts compared to what we can attract now.”
It sounds easy but the reality is that the Bartek and people behind the scenes at the club have worked hard to develop this commerciality. One of the keys to their success is giving their sponsors value.
“You have to look after your sponsors,” says Bartek. “Take them on your journey and keep them up to date with what you’re doing. We have a newsletter email that we send out. When approaching sponsors, don’t talk about today’s needs. Sell them the big picture, sell them the big dream. Don’t just feel you’re getting money from a sponsor, get them on board with your project and they will want to renew the next year.
“Sponsors will expect publicity too. We give them coverage in the venue, on the kit, in reports, on the website, and on our social media. We post on Facebook directly about the sponsor or use creative ideas to communicate sponsors’ messages to our fans and beyond.”
The pinnacle of the commercial deals saw the club secure a naming-right sponsors for the team with builders’ merchants IBB. “It was coincidence that many of our fans shopped at IBB,” says Bartek. “We spoke to them and they happened to be interested in sponsoring us.”
The new-found levels of coverage and commercialisation are all part of the campaign working towards turning the club professional – a campaign Polonia have named: Volleyball 2.0
“Volleyball 2.0 is about building the sport's events and commercialisation,” explains Bartek. “We want to improve the level of events we put on. When we played in European Competition in the Challenge Cup, we had 1,200 people buying tickets to watch – it was a sell-out at Crystal Palace. There is clearly an appetite for higher level of events and this brings a new presence for sponsors too.”
The growth of IBB Polonia’s fanbase, which has helped them secure more commercial deals, has been remarkable. As well as more social media followers, the team’s matches are well attended with an average of 268 people going to watch each match in London during the 2016/17 season – by far the biggest crowd for any volleyball club in England.
The club encourage supporters to come along and back the club by making each game more of a fan experience. Seating is put out for spectators, there is merchandise available and each match is played in a professional setting with LED advertising boards around the court which has a taraflex floor laid for every game.
It’s not just in the stands where the crowds are growing either. This year saw Polonia agree a landmark deal to have their games shown on Polsat – a Polish TV channel known for world class coverage of volleyball – and streamed online by UniLad. That is testament to how well received this coverage has been was that a recent match was moved to a later start time for television – common in leading sports but a revelation for volleyball.
The club has achieved so much in its development that the dream of becoming a professional team now actually looks possible. Bartek says this could be replicated by other clubs with the right approach and team in place.
“A club should start by working to prove you can do something, before approaching sponsors,” he recommends. “Build your website and social media, being mindful of the image you create. There is always someone who enjoys commercial side of things or who has marketing experience, get these people into the club to help. Don’t rely on the players to do these things, instead it is important to grow the non-playing workforce.
“Then look at other clubs and sports and see what is working for them and see if it will work for you. Don’t be afraid to try things. Get people involved and you’ll be amazed at what you can achieve.”
IBB Polonia London have already achieved much more than many people would have believed was possible – on and off the court. Their foray into Europe last season was a historic moment on the court as Polonia became the first English team to compete in the CEV Challenge Cup and recorded famous victories over FINO Kapsosvar and Draisma Apeldoorn. Domestically, they also were crowned as champions of England for the last two seasons. This season has been more challenging but after a tough start, the London side are well placed to make an assault on the Super 8 Playoffs.
The ultimate dream lingers large though and the vision is to become England’s first professional club.
“We need to have a turnover of £1m a year to be a pro club – we’re nowhere near that at the moment but through better events, more spectators and competing regularly in European competition, we can get there,” says Bartek. “It’s been an amazing and we’re still on that journey.”