Laurent Colette, former Chief Operating Officer of Olympique Marseille, talked with us about his views on the French Ligue 1, and challenges faced by European clubs. His perspective on modern football highlights how competitive the industry is.
By Bruno Ivich
How do you see the development of the French Ligue 1 in terms of revenues, fan attendance and business opportunities around the sport?
There are different factors to assess this question, but the French league for sure is growing with the popularity of foreign investment and other teams around such as Paris Saint Germain. The league is behind other top European leagues like the Premier League from England, where broadcasting rights are so strong globally, which makes them more attractive due to a broad audience. The French league has grown a lot with partners like CBC and a focus on ambition. Regarding fan attendance, Olympique Marseille has around 15 home games sold out in a season. We have focused on having a true spectacle on the pitch, on the stands and making it an unforgettable experience. Our connection with our fans is truly incredible with a magic environment.
It is often mentioned that French clubs strive to get financial balance. What is your view about this topic?
The important goal is to have a sustainable financial situation with balance and to minimize deficits. There was a study done 4 seasons ago that mentioned that 19 out of the 20 clubs in France lost money every year without counting transfer of players, and that if we include transfer of players 17 out of 20 clubs are profitable. In France it is essential to sell players for survival. It is about buying players with lower prices and then selling them for higher prices. This situation makes it more realistic to achieve financial goals.
In your opinion, what are the most important areas to focus on to have a great and successful team in the French league?
Any successful team has to focus on having great players with optimal performance on the pitch. As in any business, in the football industry it is the same, those who are successful are because they have the right administrative and sporting team.
What are the areas for improvement that you see around the sport and the league?
The challenge is to attract young people into the game because the way they consume sports is completely different from previous generations. It might be dangerous because even though young fans follow their team through social media, webs and apps, at some point there is the risk of losing them as fans.There is not an easy solution for this, so teams have to be creative around this topic.
What is your perspective about foreign investment into the sport itself?
Foreign investment is more common every day because football attracts a lot. Capitalist owners sometimes invest into clubs for exposure, recognition, pride and ego. Football is also a spectacle, and new owners want to bring new ideas into their clubs. The sport itself is a platform to grow businesses, and it all depends up to the new owner. It is debatable whether owners invest for further profits or for pride, I guess it is a mix of both.
What is something that you can say about Olympique Marseille, unique about the team that no one else can say? Why?
The passion of Olympique Marseille fans is unique and powerful. In the city there is only 1 team Olympique Marseille. The strong connection between the team and the city makes Olympique more powerful than ever. The popularity of the team has caused other rugby and basketball teams in the city to vanish. Football unites everyone, it is truly amazing, it is a strong social force.
Would it be sustainable as a financial decision to buy the Velodrome stadium from the city of Marseille?
I can’t answer that question. Four years ago the team expanded its agreement with a complete use of the facility for 24 hours a day 7 days a week. Before that, we just had the stadium during match days. Now we can develop further and grow commercially.
How do you see the growth of the French Ligue 1 in the near future? Medium term? Long term?
I see the league and the sport as a more visible spectacle, with more availability and wider reach globally. It all depends on the marketing and optimization of digital efforts. My prediction is that the French Ligue 1 can keep growing and will do.
How would you describe the current situation of the club regarding ownership and profits? Is the club profitable or the owners have to invest money annually?
There is a unique owner Frank McCourt from Boston in the United States. He bought Olympique Marseille in 2016 and is working toward profitability and economic results at some point. The majority of European clubs are not profitable and require continuous investments annually from the owners and its management.
What would you suggest for a well-run club?
A club starts with good results on the field but managing fans expectations. Some teams might not reach top positions because they don’t enjoy the sufficient resources to compete with the best clubs, but they can propose a coherent project, powering new players, displaying an interesting style or growing progressively season by season. Also, I would say that the Academy can be key but making sure there is the right proportion between academy costs and good players development.Then, financial rigor is necessary as profitability is hard to reach so operational costs must be carefully controlled.
What are the main issues to become financially sustainable?
In many European Clubs, the yearly operation with players salaries balanced with traditional revenues (ticketing, sponsorship, TV rights) is often not enough to even reach breakeven. Then comes the importance of selling and buying players, considering that in the top European championships, selling a good player can be 2 to 3 times more than the yearly fee from the main sponsor. In other words, trading players have a major role in financial balance.
What are the next trends in the football business?
Good or bad, traditional drivers remain the leading ones. Players trading, sponsorships, matchday revenues or TV rights still represent the key pillars of the football economy. During the last years, digital activity has provided a new opportunity but not a lot of clubs have managed to get a significant part of their revenues coming from that source. We’ll soon check the potential of NFTs or e-commerce. I would personally add that international development should be more exploited as in many top European Clubs, there is a huge majority of fans outside the team’s home country.
How do you see diversity in leading roles?
I fully support diversity, whatever it is. Football wins if different kinds of people work for it. A woman and I met several of them in my career has absolutely her place in a football club, in whatever position, staff or administration. Also, we now see leading roles from different nationalities in the same entity, which represents a great sum of experience and skills.
What are some pieces of advice you would give to young people wanting to get into the sports industry? Things they should know?
First of all, what shines is not gold. Football is a difficult world, and nothing is easy to reach. There are of course fantastic moments, when a team wins a title but there are also many, many disappointments. I would say for young people that it is important to work hard, to understand the drivers of this universe and to develop the teamwork spirit. Also, the world is becoming more and more digital, football as well. So, the more you know or you express curiosity towards it, the best it would be if you plan to work in sports marketing.