Senior Innovation Manager – not a typical title in a sports club. Could you briefly describe your role? What activities are you responsible for at VfL Wolfsburg?
Being an innovation manager at VfL is something special because we are a 100% subsidiary of Volkswagen. One of the many benefits that this gives us is that we have a very broad organizational structure in the Association. This is a structure unheard of in many professional football clubs in Germany. We are trying to expand our ecosystem at the club because we realize that football is not everything. We need to focus on the issues that diversify our development. In this way, we focus, among others on on all the news related not only to football, but which have the potential to open a new field for business. Lately it’s NFT, metaverse, start-ups and every other international activity that we run as an association.
According to reports, Bundesliga teams are facing a dramatic drop in revenue due to restrictions caused by the pandemic. Do you think this pressure was an accelerator of innovative digital solutions at the club?
Definitely. I don’t think that’s even an opinion, but rather a fact. This applies not only to us, but probably to every organization in the world, not only in sports. One of our main sales drivers was fans who came to the stadium to watch our matches, people buying goods in our club shop, tickets in our museum. All this went into decline with the pandemic, which certainly forced us to think differently and, above all, to accelerate digital development. During the pandemic, we carried out a project called Digital Asset Consulting. We’ve dug into our social channels and all the digital infrastructure we have at the club. Then we identified our potential in these channels and asked ourselves: how can we monetize our fans from all over the world, how can we activate them and introduce them to our ecosystem, which led to a decent increase in revenue from our online business. It would not have happened so quickly if not for the dynamic situation.
Why does VfL Wolfsburg see innovation as the key to long-term success? How can you define the club’s role in German sports innovation development? Are you one of the pioneers in the market?
You’ve probably heard of VUCA, right? Personally, I’m not a huge fan of the VUCA model itself, but its main message is still true: we live in a world that is constantly changing and many things are happening that no one can predict. For example, a pandemic. Diversity is the only answer that allows us as a company to cope with the future or the situation. We need diversity at the club, which applies not only to the people who live or work here or the players who play here, but also to all business issues – every business model we have, every ecosystem we implement.
We fully understand that in order to solve problems, we must be innovative. We need it, but also open minds and broad horizons. We must be able to react quickly to changes in the world, which is only possible through innovation and continuous development. This is our mindset, thanks to which innovation is not just a slogan or marketing phrase, as it could be for many others, but is essential for survival in today’s world. Yes, we are one of the Bundesliga leaders when it comes to innovation.
Is such an attitude possible thanks to the facilities of your club? How does innovation fit into the company’s culture?
Of course! We have the right people here. I think that’s the gist of it: if you don’t have the right people in your company, you won’t be innovative. I’m not just talking about people like me who try to think very broadly, but also those who try to think narrowly. Because you need both sides. As a team, we have developed a very good way of dialogue. We always try to understand the other person’s position. If you don’t, you will fail no matter how many people like me you have in the company.
Thanks to our affiliation with Volkswagen, we have access to their innovation network. I am in many meetings with them and talk to almost all brands on a regular basis. I spoke to Volkswagen this morning. They too are eager to enter NFT. It is an innovation ecosystem that we have access to that really helps us accelerate our growth.
On what pillars do you base your development strategy? What are the key elements?
Firstly, it is very important that we innovate at the meta level in our club strategy. It seems simple enough, but without the support of management, innovation is almost impossible. Making it a key element of our meta-strategy is a priority for us. Beyond the culture we have, we have basically two departments responsible for innovation. One concerns the sports side, i.e. everything related to our team, women’s and men’s. We are the second department. We focus on things that are not directly related to football, which means we try to take care of those who are not yet fans of our club. We try to reach people who are unfamiliar with VfL or who have no interest in the sport at all. What we do is “trendscouting”. So we have a regular trend report where we look at current trends in the world. Sustainable development seems to be the most important thing at the moment. But there are so many microtrends, e.g. AI, AR or NFT.
Thanks to our trend reporting system, we are always a few steps ahead of all the competition. So we find microtrends and try to turn them into business opportunities. As a result, we became the first esports club in the Bundesliga. In this way, we try to innovate and expand our ecosystem, which is an integral part of our development strategy. How to find new fans and get them to think “Hey, VfL is a cool club” even if they are not sports enthusiasts.
What is the current proportion of VfL Wolfsburg’s international and domestic fans? Which international markets are the most active and which foreign country do you have the most fans from?
We have about 15 percent domestic fans and 85 percent international fans. Our main markets are China and the US, which may seem strange. However, it is important to understand that belonging to a “company” in Germany is not good. At least if you ask the fans here. Fans in Germany don’t like clubs like VfL Wolfsburg or RB Leipzig. In China or the United States, it is exactly the opposite. If the club belongs to a corporation in China or the United States, then you are a solid team. That’s why we’re one of the strongest German teams in China and the US when it comes to public relations and image, which really helps us. This explains the relatively low percentage of fans in the country compared to our international reach.
How do you activate such a large remote fan base? What challenges do you face as you want to monetize this relationship?
This is a question we constantly ask ourselves and is already one of the biggest obstacles we must overcome. We’re very good at engaging our fans. We create a lot of content on social media and we have a lot of social channels that our fans can use while they are away. But how do we introduce them to our ecosystem so that they can truly become part of the club and experience VfL to the fullest? It’s a very difficult question. So far, we have visited with our first team, for example, the United States or China. We play friendly tournaments there. In addition, we have trading partners in both countries. At this point, we believe that the NFT, as well as the metaverse, can be important elements not only to engage, but also to increase interest in our club. This will allow them to be close to the team and our brand, even if they are not in Wolfsburg. So we assume in advance that this may be a solution. Of course, these are new forms of engagement and monetization, but these are only the first steps in a new world for everyone, so it is very demanding and there are many barriers to overcome.
What digital ways of monetization do you envisage besides NFT and metaverse? Do you use, for example, a CRM system or other solutions?
Of course, we have a CRM system, and soon also a BI (Business Intelligence, business analytics) tool. So when it comes to data, we have our own database. However, this is not a level that we would be satisfied with. This is also one of the topics that has been accelerated by the pandemic. We are aware that digital infrastructure, especially when it comes to big data sets, will be essential for us as a club in the future. However, we have not yet reached a level that would ensure significant income from this.
In Germany/Europe, we have a very strict data protection policy. This is one of the biggest obstacles we face. We have a lot of data, but we can’t use it. We’re trying to figure out how to make them more efficient in terms of earnings or getting to know the fans behind this data without violating their personal rights.
You are also the head of the VfL startup program. What is the main goal of this initiative? What were your motivations when you started this project? How can a club become an effective accelerator/incubator for startups?
As I mentioned, we are trying to reach people who are not necessarily fans of VfL, or who are not even familiar with our association and the projects we are involved in. One of them is the startup program. The possibility of reaching a target group that we have not been able to reach so far is very attractive to us. But apart from that, we want to learn and provide new solutions in our club. Like you, I interview colleagues from different departments of the club and ask them: “Okay, what are your needs? What is needed to be successful in the coming years?” They respond and I search for the right startup to meet their needs. It works a bit like a venture client model. We try to be customers of our own partners, our own startups, and we use their solutions to solve problems in the club. In this way, we create a very successful partnership with a startup. It solves the problem and at the same time helps companies become more valuable.
Of course, we also hope that in a few years the startup will gain value with our support, the brand and us as a customer and be able to pay off. This is also one of the goals of the program. We meet so many founders, so many smart and brilliant people who are very flexible and innovative. As a company, we also try to be innovative, but we are very slow compared to a startup and we can learn a lot from our partners. This is a very valuable thing that we can extract from our program.
What ideas are you looking for in this project? How can newly formed company teams add value to the club? Are you problem oriented or more of an ecosystem researcher?
There’s a bit of both. Considering the meta-strategy, we have three areas we are looking at. These three target areas are our ecosystems that we want to develop. It is in them that we look for the needs of our colleagues.
First, we have sustainability and smart devices. Everything related to sustainability is therefore done automatically by us. As a club, we have a huge stadium, but also many other buildings, academies and other infrastructure. Buildings are one of the main drivers of sustainable development, which is why we take a close look at this issue. Secondly, we are interested in anything related to the fan experience, fan engagement and entertainment, such as NFT. The third area is sports science, health and wellness.
NFT is a big change, only in one year this project reached very high amplitudes. What do you think of it as a monetization tool and where is VfL Wolfsburg currently in the adaptation process when it comes to the NFT and metaverse?
That’s a good question. Two weeks ago I was at a trade show where there were speakers from the United States who claim to be the heads of NFT in the future. They told us they didn’t know what was going to happen here. They are experts in blockchain, NFT and the metaverse, but they do not know what the future holds. We as a club are also at this stage.
This is a new emerging market for all of us. Like any new market, this one will soon crash. We are fully aware of this. It will happen either this year or possibly next year. I think in situations like this it’s really important to know who your strategic partners are.
If you ask me what NFT is for our club, we think in three directions: collectible, gamification and utility. Collectibles, because people have always liked to collect things. Just because it’s digital and you don’t have a Panini album here doesn’t change anything. The collectible aspect is therefore undeniable. The second area is entertainment. People like to play games and have the opportunity to participate in competitions. That’s why football is such a great game on a global scale. That’s why we believe that everything related to fantasy games will survive and develop. The third direction is usability, because NFT must carry some value. It is not enough that you have an NFT that indicates that a particular digital object is in your possession. You also need to make sure that it generates a benefit not only in the digital world, but also in the physical world. I will give only one example. We joined forces with an NFT startup called The Football Company, for which the element of gamification is important. So you can go to the application and, for example, choose a match between Wolfsburg and Bayern Munich. You can then choose the players you think will perform well and introduce them to your first team. Then you just wait and watch the game progress and see how your team scores points for you. If you buy NFT on the platform, let’s say you buy our club shirt (some of our shirts are “useful”) e.g. you get 30 percent more points than anyone else without that NFT even though they have the same formation and the same squad. These are the digital benefits.
The next step will be to bring digital NFT tools into the real world. For example, if you buy our club shirt as NFT, with this and only this NFT, you can, for example, have a personal conversation or meeting with one of our players. In this way, you are able to transfer digital benefits to the real world and monetize them. These are the three pillars in which I believe when we talk about NFT. We also look for such values in our partnerships, because we believe that they will survive the aforementioned crash.
What about the metaverse? What is your strategy?
We think this is an opportunity and we believe it will be a decentralized system, so there will be many metaverses. We believe that as a company or any other part of the economy, you have to ask yourself who will be my customer in five, ten or fifteen years. The answer is: it will probably be somewhere in the metaverse. They will likely be raised with NFT and blockchain technology by their side. If you don’t notice this in time, you will lose fans in the future. We believe that this is a great opportunity for us to be in front of this huge audience and introduce ourselves to them. Imagine you are a 14, 15 or 16 year old man, you enter the metaverse and find VfL Wolfsburg. That’s why we need to try to enter well into the metaverse and provide content that can only be found there and nowhere else to elevate the exclusivity of this place and the desire to join it.
Where do you see the club in three years? What would your role be in this future?
I think we need to be a football entertainment platform in 360 degrees. This is what I believe and as an association we must be able to achieve this. When I say 360 degrees, I don’t necessarily mean that we have to play all kinds of sports at our club, but we have to be able to find our way around different topics. People won’t just be like, “Hey, how was your last game? How did it go with Bayern Munich?” But they will ask, “What is your goal or opinion on sustainability and diversity? What is your goal in putting people first and socializing? What do you think about the metaverse or esports?” They want topics they can relate to. This is what I mean when I talk about the 360-degree platform.
As for my personal role, I would like to do storytelling. To be a man who, standing alongside the whole team, will be able to tell the stories that make up VfL. Stories that deliver results.
By the way, we have one of the strongest women’s teams in the world. We have a vision that everyone should have access to football. Especially in our world, women don’t have it yet.
In the US, one of our go-to strategies is to support women who play sports. That’s why we created StrongHER, which is basically a unique program on a global scale to support every young girl who can’t afford football. We help, for example, with paid training camps, but also football education. We have created a program consisting of three parts. One is coaching, the other is mentoring, and the third is education. We give it to the girls for free because we believe football can change our society. What we do in this direction matters. This makes people fans of our brand. Not because we want to make money, but because we want to make a difference and tell an important story. It always has to come first. If you want to make money first, it won’t work. Nobody believes you. You must have it in your heart. If you don’t have it, you’re not authentic.