The surroundings are not as glamorous as you might expect for the Commercial Director of a Championship football club. Standing outside the main entrance of the club on my arrival, I was surprised by a tap on the shoulder from behind me and even more so when I was led to the portacabin in permanent situ across the staff car-park.
This is the man responsible for generating every penny of revenue for the football club (excluding transfer fees), yet at the back of a compact but bustling commercial headquarters is Kevin Smith’s working home, an office barely bigger than a dugout, but serving its purpose as he surveys the desks and telephones of a busy team of willing and committed fans.
And that’s what they are, fans. In this office the majority of employees were season-ticket holders before they got their jobs. Or they were club legends. Scott Murray is a constant presence, breezing in and out, constantly on his mobile phone as his ongoing dedication to his adopted club continues apace.
The Commercial Director is different however. On the wall are the predictable items of football memorabilia, although sadly they are not yet in the red and white of the Robins. A signed Birmingham City Carling Cup Final shirt gestures towards the high point of his time at the other BCFC, whilst a Matt le Tissier signed Southampton shirt must be the ultimate big-game prize for this Saints fan.
As we walked through the office (this was 1pm on the day of the Leeds match) there was a tangible sense of excitement that a big match-day brings. The overnight freeze had led to a large-scale postponement of local football matches so the ticket office phone-lines had been buzzing all morning with fans wanting to guarantee their place. One of the team reveals she’s turned down ticket requests by a Stag party from Leeds. Understandably, not every penny is critical it seems. The best estimate is that the crowd will be the second-highest of the season at between 15,200 and 15,300 (at 15,257 it was almost exactly midway). There was a sense that this was a team in every sense of the word.
When you consider the club has accumulated losses of nigh on £30m over the past three years, it is clear Kevin and his team play a critical role, buteven for a football fan, is this just another commercial job, largely detached from the goings on of the football side?
"All staff are actively encouraged to be on Twitter, but there’s a very clear policy across the club, be it staff or players and that’s very important. QPR have found that out to their cost with Mr.Barton.
The official account is exactly that. A few people have access but usage policy is clear. However we want to dispel secrecy – Scotty Murray is great for it as he has so many followers and if there’s an important message he can get it out there but critically we don’t want to be pushy. It’s important to use for changes to kick-off times, pitch inspections and that sort of thing and it can’t be too commercial.
“In the old days it was very simple. Put a message on the website and people would pick it up from there”.
I chuckled to myself at this. Kevin is very much part of a new breed of commercial people (and a similar age to myself) to whom a basic website is ‘the good old days’, just old hat, and the exciting modern world has so many more opportunities.
Bearing in mind the best players ultimately would have more Twitter followers than anyone else at the club, surely it would make sense for the club to encourage all the playing staff to partake, allowing messages to spread more widely and more quickly. Interestingly, as the man who would potentially have most to gain, Kevin disagrees.
“It’s an interesting one. I follow a lot of footballers and their lives aren’t particularly interesting! They get up, they train, they go to Nando’s, they go home and watch football and go to bed. If we had 30 players all saying the same thing it would get very boring, very quickly.
With regard the rest of the players I’d hate it to all become faceless, corporate messaging where they’re told what to write. There’s a thin line between forcing and pushing it too far and losing followers.
At the moment it’s relatively free for those that are on Twitter although there are obviously restrictions on things like controversy, confidentiality, team selection – that sort of thing. The last thing anyone would want is a total Twitter black-out.
This is something that was until recently the case at Leeds, where Simon Grayson had banned all use. Tellingly, within hours of his recent sacking, a number of players were immediately active again – indicating that the exercise is one restriction too far. Kevin understands what Grayson was trying to do, but feels it’s a narrow line of thinking.
“Grayson was ultimately managing risk – that’s all it is. He chose to manage his risks in that way. Here at City everyone is clear what Derek (McInnes) expects, and that’s not just on Twitter, it’s general behaviour. We’re all club ambassadors and of we do anything to harm the club’s reputation we’d expect to be disciplined. If someone wearing a club tie in the car-park is rude to someone, that’s no different to writing something you shouldn’t on Twitter.”
With all of the immediate channels for comment such as forums and Twitter, I asked Kevin if he felt this had influenced the instant success requirement often seen in modern football?
“Possibly. I know from my experiences from when I was at Saints in 2005 and we got relegated, the Commercial Director spent half his time on the forums. We all advised him to be careful as there are some very passionate people on there but also many who can claim to be hard-core fans but might not be.
I prefer to operate like this (face-to-face). If someone wants to chat about something, or feels like we’ve made a mistake, feel free to come and have a chat. It’s a far more productive way of managing things. Unfortunately few actually do and it’s easy to be a keyboard warrior, tapping away at midnight and being confrontational.
Forums must remain independent, but if well controlled can aid the club’s view on things as they provide a great snapshot as to the feeling out there, and we can all learn from that - as long as you don’t try and run the club based on forums or Twitter. I read, but don’t contribute – I don’t want to get drawn into arguments.”
Whilst touching on the subject of learning, our opponents on the day of the interview, Leeds United, are facing huge discontent at their season-ticket renewal prices and fans are staying away. So are there lessons to learn with this situation and just how difficult is it to set the right price?
“Almost impossible! Partly because our product changes all the time. The product we have to offer now is a different one to the one we had in January after our good run and a difference again to the one we had in October when we were bottom of the league and manager-less.
Does that mean had we put them on sale five months ago the prices should have been set lower than they would be now? No, it’s not as simple as that as all the other outgoings are the same. Our revenue targets are the same.
What the club has to do is always try to make the right decisions for the right reasons. You can’t make your decisions just based on cashflow, people just aren’t willing to part with the cash so easily any more. We try to get as much information and feedback as we can and make the best call for everyone at the right time, and not just because we did it that way last year.”
One thing that has often struck me is the lack of focus on the club's history by and large. It’s been thirty years since the Ashton Gate Eight tore up their contracts and helped the club survive and the lack of promotion of these events clearly rankles with Kevin.
“We’ve got a lot of history and heritage but you're right, we don’t do enough with it. Steps are being taken to address this and the whole club is keen to embrace its past. We’re setting up a Former Player’s Association, which Scotty (Murray) will chair. We’re not in a position as yet to have all of the Ashton Gate Eight here as the relationship between the club has with one or two isn’t great. We’re all working hard to correct that and hope to be in a position soon to have a proper and deserved celebration.
We’ve got to use our past to mould our future. People get hooked on football because of moments. Those moments in time, whatever they are, give fans goosebumps and our job is to get association back to those memories.
The current crop of players struggle to gain the same affinity as those before, fans feel they can’t relate to the driver of the white Bentley GT whizzing out of the car-park, yet Twitter proves that these guys are just normal blokes. They get up, enjoy eating and watching sport– they like having banter with their mates.
We’re very, very open to using the history of the football club, trying to recreate that passion and link to glorious days gone by."
And finally, I just had to ask Kevin how he felt, as a lifelong Southampton fan, when City did the double over his beloved Saints this season.
“Ha ha! I’ll show you a text my Mum sent me after the game at St.Mary’s – it sums it up for me.
I think the key thing is that if Saints win I’m happy for half an hour on a Saturday night. When City win we’re all buzzing for the whole week so it makes a real difference to the job.