Getting ready for kick-off – the hidden story of Norwich City’s Premier League promotion

Reports | Sport
Carrow Road, Norwich City Football Club.

Norwich City’s stunning victory against champions Manchester City might seem like a fairy- tale result, but success at the club is down to long-term vision and planning. Premier League teams need to have the right personnel to succeed – and Norwich City is demonstrating how the latest workforce management technology allows its business to flourish both on and off the pitch.

On 27 April, Norwich City Football Club secured what all Championship clubs dream of – promotion to the Premier League. One game later, the club won the league outright, finishing the 2018/19 season as champions. After three years in English football’s second tier, the club was returning to take its place at the sport’s top table.

Once the celebrations died down, minds turned to what the club might need to help it succeed in the Premier League the following season. Talk of transfer targets inevitably dominated the debate, with fans excited to see which players would sign for the club over the summer break.

However, for Stuart Cox, Norwich City’s Catering Director, and Faith Jennison, its Business Finance Manager, the focus was on strengthening its squad of casual workers at Carrow Road

– Norwich City’s home ground. After all, it wasn’t just the players who needed to raise their game to meet the standards of the Premier League; the business side of Norwich City also needed to show it could run smoothly at a time when other clubs were struggling to keep pace financially.

The big business of Premier League football

Everyone with a passing interest in football knows that the real money lies in the Premier League. Spanish giants Real Madrid and Barcelona might be the most valuable teams in the world (valued at $4.24bn and $4bn respectively), but the Premier League far outstrips La Liga in financial terms. During the 2017/18 season, the Premier League generated record revenues of £4.8bn – almost a fifth of the total worth of European football – according to a recent report from Deloitte.

It’s no surprise then that clubs are desperate to break into the Premier League. To illustrate this, last season’s bottom-placed side, Huddersfield Town, earnt £96.6m from TV revenue alone – a sum that rose to £150.9m for champions Manchester City. Even the least successful teams in the division share the spoils created by the global demand to see England’s top sides battle it out on TV.

The challenge for everyone else is that there’s a huge financial gulf between Premier League teams and those in the English Football League (EFL). This is exacerbated by the existence of parachute payments given to teams relegated from the Premier League to soften the financial blow of not receiving the same level of remuneration for their televised games. There are even suggestions that these payments can be worth up to five extra points for a team over the course of a season – often the difference between a promotion push and mid-table obscurity. And this is just one example of the financial disparity.

Many Championship clubs go into huge debt – and even risk possible bankruptcy – to finance their push for promotion. Yes, even the ones with wealthy owners. This approach might sound ridiculous when there’s no guarantee of either going up to the Premier League or being able to stay there for more than a season. However, there’s little difference between that and the way start-ups like Uber or We Work make huge losses each year as they position themselves for future gain.

However, even when a club gains promotion, it has to make a huge leap – both in footballing and business terms. And that’s the situation that Norwich City now finds itself in.

Delivering Premier League hospitality for Norwich City fans

On the pitch, Norwich City has already enjoyed a positive start to the new season. Despite a 4- 1 defeat in the league opener against Liverpool (fans might point out that it’s still a better result than Lionel Messi’s Barcelona achieved on their last trip to Anfield), the team has bounced back to record some outstanding results. Chief among these is a game that will live long in the memory for fans – a famous 3-2 home win against Pep Guardiola’s back-to-back champions, Manchester City.

Similarly, behind the scenes, the club has worked hard across previous seasons to futureproof matchday operations at Carrow Road in readiness for the step up – making sure everything meets the raised expectations of home and away fans alike. And, with visits from other big guns like Manchester United and Arsenal all happening by the end of November, there are some huge days ahead for everyone at the club.

Many people associated with the club will have spent the summer focused on transfer speculation and having the right players on the pitch to guarantee Premier League survival. Stuart and Faith, however, have spent it preparing to deliver top-class football and hospitality experiences to roughly 27,000 people – Carrow Road’s capacity is 27,244 – during every home game.

As you might expect, this is a huge undertaking when each matchday rolls around. Just imagine the scene leading up to 3pm on a Saturday afternoon, the oft-romanticised kick-off time. While fans make their way to the ground (or stop off for a pre-match pint along the way), a 1,200- strong team of people across 15 departments at the stadium prepares to make sure that – even if results on the pitch don’t go Norwich City’s way – the club’s off-field activities are a huge success.

Why managing a football club is harder than it might look

There aren’t too many areas of the modern game that have been able to keep pace with the rapid financial development of English football, but the video games industry has arguably managed it better than most (especially if Esports events built around the popular FIFA series are anything to go by). Armchair fans are now able to experience realistic simulations of participating in the game as a dynamic midfield playmaker, the ins and outs of managing a team to success or even taking control of a club as a chairman. One area they’re unlikely to be familiar with though, is matchday operations.

Norwich City’s matchday functions take a huge amount of organisation. Simply put, there are so many different people doing different jobs – from the pitch-side stewards to the chefs and waiters cooking and serving high-end dinner service at Delia’s Restaurant and Bar (the only restaurant in the country owned by the club’s famous majority shareholder Delia Smith). Altogether, managing these areas is not unlike the thought that goes into the tactical systems in play on the pitch – but on a much larger scale.

Debating 4-3-3 vs 4-5-1 might seem simple in theory, but a lot of work goes into making sure every player knows where they need to be and what their job is in any given formation. It’s the same for the club’s operations managers when managing a huge team of employees (many of whom are casual workers and not in fixed, salaried roles). Imagine the precision involved in preparing them for short but intense bursts of business as fans flock to the ground’s concessions stands and bars pre-game, at half time and after the final whistle (bearing in mind that FA rules on drinking alcohol during games restrict sales to these three key times).

Forget selecting your first XI; how do you know that every worker is exactly where you need them to be, when you need them to be there? For Stuart and Faith, this is where technology has made a huge difference to how everything runs – and the impact on the business as a result.

Improving the business behind the football with technology

When it comes to managing its workforce, previous seasons had seen Norwich City rely on manual processes to look after functions like payroll, rotas and matchday deployments. This meant picking through an array of spreadsheets, with multiple departments employing different processes – offering the club little to no central oversight of its operations. Adding to the problem was a lack of confidence in the accuracy of the data. This necessitated a checking process that, naturally, reduced productivity and still offered no guarantee of spotting every error.

Under such a system, it was easy for individuals to fall through the gaps. And, in terms of organising casual workers who are only going to be there when they know they have assigned hours on the rota, this can have a disastrous impact on matchday operations if you get it wrong. Too few food and beverage workers will mean longer queues for fans and shorter receipts for the club. Worse still, too few stewards for the number of tickets sold to a game would mean the club being unable to open the ground under FA health and safety rules.

The club realised it needed a better way to manage its operations and casual workforce, so it brought in a key new signing – a dedicated Workforce Management Solution, supplied by technology company Humanforce. Alongside the central management system to be used by people like Stuart and Faith, the software came with an app for club employees to download on their phones. This app has completely changed the way that the club functions during home games.

For instance, simple and flexible rostering has had a major impact on matchday, making sure everyone knows where they need to be (and when). Real-time reporting has allowed departments to make business-critical changes as and when they’re needed – bringing extra people onto busy areas then reassigning them as soon as the rush dies down. A live attendance screen gives the team complete visibility and control to make snap decisions and changes as things happen.

Beyond managing home games at Carrow Road, the workforce management software has improved the way Norwich City runs as a business – introducing a greater level of consistency across departments. “We found that the catering department really took well to the technology,” says Faith, adding that each department has used the system in different ways. “So, the catering team really benefit from the foresight and control Humanforce brings, while other departments like retail have really benefited from rostering and availability. And, overall, the heads of department now have accurate visibility over their costing and forecasting.”

The new Workforce Management Solution has also created a better working environment for the club’s casual workers. Apart from reducing the stress of matchday, the software has given them much more control over their availability and annual leave. All-in all, the technology has been such a success that Norwich City is using it as the foundation for a club-wide casual worker policy and is already looking to bring its full-time salaried staff onto the system as well.

Building a lasting model for Premier League success

The changes that Stuart and Faith have made behind the scenes might not sound huge in the bigger picture of the club, but they are important to the overall structure of the club’s finances. For starters, they show how operations should be run at a major sporting venue – setting an example for other clubs to follow. The changes also highlight the club’s desire to get the business side of football right.

Norwich City knows it can’t spend money on the same level as clubs like Manchester City or Chelsea, even with the added TV revenue from the Premier League. And, as sad as the news has been, the recent expulsion of Bury FC from the EFL (not to mention the similar struggles seen at Bolton Wanderers) must be a warning to other clubs to make sure their business models are viable in the long term. This is where people like Stuart and Faith show their worth.

The introduction of video assistant referees (VAR) to the Premier League this season might still be proving controversial, but the team at Norwich City has no regrets about implementing its own technology. Regardless of what happens to offside calls and potential penalty situations with VAR, the club is more than confident that its Workforce Management Solution helps it make the right decisions off the pitch.

Now, if only there were some software that venues like Carrow Road could bring in to make sure everything goes right on the grand stage itself…

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