Ask Wolves episode #10 | Russell Jones

Russell Jones, Wolves general manager for marketing & commercial growth, was next up on Ask Wolves, handling questions on a variety of topics, including Wolves Esports, Wolves Records and potential redevelopments of Molineux in the future.




Johnny Phillips: Well, Russ, there’s an awful lot going on away from the actual football pitch that’s become hugely important to the club’s growth and the club’s long-term plans, and we are hoping, and fans are hoping, that you can enlighten us a bit on that. Why is brand growth so important to Wolves?

Russell Jones: Well, very recently Deloitte money league came out and we were actually 17th, which is fantastic, to be in that top 20 clubs now in Europe in terms of the Football Money League, but we have aspirations to challenge the top six and, from our perspective, we’re currently a long, long way away from that – 600% away from Tottenham, 1000% away from Manchester United – so we need to do things slightly differently from them in order to catch them, which is why fans are hearing quite a lot about Wolves Records, hearing a lot about Wolves Esports, about Wolves fashion, and these are the ways in which we are trying to be different, so when we can talk to potential commercial partners, we’ve got a different story to the likes of Leeds, Newcastle and Southampton, and it is starting to reap real benefits for us.

JP: There have been a lot of questions on esports, which you mentioned then. Why has that become so important, why is that a route to success?

RJ: Esports is a huge phenomenon at the moment. It’s interesting that not more clubs have really got behind it. We’ve seen huge growth in our fanbase in esports, particularly in China, where we now have six professional teams – one of those, our Honor of Kings team, has actually got over 20 million social followers. Their star player, their goat, actually has more social followers than Raul Jimenez and we are now starting to see some commercial value in that. So, in China, for example, we’d be better known as an esports team rather than a football team. So, for us, it’s an opportunity to engage with a brand new audience, an audience that may not have heard of us before as a football club. So, again, it’s another pillar of our story.

JP: So, in that sense, how can it translate to what’s happening on the football pitch? Where can the tangible benefits to the football team be seen if this growth continues? When will the benefits be seen?

RJ: I think the benefits are already being seen and, certainly, we have marketing partnerships with some of the big publishers, so Fortnite, for example. There are over 350 million registered users of Fortnite, so to have Wolves skins within the game is a huge benefit for us. We were able to turn that into a tangible product of sort of 2,000 replica jerseys, which sold out in 48 hours. So, we are already seeing tangible benefits. Our teams in China, which have over 20 million social followers, are already recording some really good sponsorship revenues, so we are already starting to see those tangible benefits. Again, it’s early days, Johnny, but we’re very happy with how that project has progressed.

JP: And you touched on it before, but some supporters have asked where Wolves lie in the Premier League table of sort of brand growth, and how far behind they are, or ahead of others they are, and can they rise in that table?

RJ: Yeah, look, we’re growing faster than anyone, which again is exciting for us. We’ve got to continue that growth and by having that different story, we believe opens us up to different audiences, whether that’s in music, whether that’s in esports, whether that’s in fashion – quite frankly, audiences that never would have followed us ordinarily as an FC and, anecdotally, I’ve heard stories, particularly through the Fortnite collab that we did, that young fans of other football clubs have just thought our uniform’s cool in the game and have therefore bought that Fortnite shirt, and does that start to plant a little seed of association to the club? Of course it does and, ultimately, everything that we’re doing in these different pillars is to support our core product, which is on the pitch.

JP: Have you got any plans to increase the coverage of the under-23s and under-18s, particularly on social media, to build a profile around them?

RJ: Again, if that’s what our fans want, then that’s certainly something we’ll look at. I believe we are one of the very, very few clubs that have broadcast all of our under-23 games live at the moment. Obviously, that serves a purpose in terms of introducing our fans to young players that are coming through. We’ve also got a player marketing team now, so again there are going to be some of those young lads that aren’t going to make it into our first-team, so to be able to give other scouts, other clubs, the opportunity to see those players and so they’ve got pathways, that’s another very important part of being able to cover those events live. So, to answer your question, Johnny, yeah, if that’s what the fans want, that’s certainly something we’ll look at a little bit more.

JP: And where are the benefits in overseas fans in the wider concept of the club and the supporters here on the ground? The supporters here are the ones putting a lot of money in. What can overseas fans give you on the whole?

RJ: Well, I think that every fan adds value, and even social followers adds value, so whether it’s from attending here in the stadium which we are today, whether it’s buying retail products, whether it be from our e-commerce or physically in person, or whether that’s simply watching our content, so even looking at something like the Code Red documentary, which we were able to sell into broadcasters – again, unsurprisingly, particularly popular in Mexico – we were also able to sell that to 100 airline entertainment systems. It’s also had 1.5 million views on YouTube – again, unsurprisingly, 80% of those views come from Mexico and every single one of those views has an advertising value for us. So, our fans all around the world can contribute in lots and lots of different ways, not just tangibly here in the stadium.

JP: The Mexican American link obviously comes from Raul Jimenez – do you think if he doesn’t stay at Wolves that is something that can be maintained, or do you think that will go when the player goes?

RJ: I think there’s a bit of both with that. I know that last time we had Ask Wolves, Johnny, I took a little bit of stick because I think the viewers thought that I’d suggested that every one of our social followers was a hardcore fan and the reality is, of course, that’s not the case, but I get to see it first-hand. So, when I travelled over to Mexico, to stand in a bar with 100 other Mexican Wolves fans in their jerseys screaming the team on gives me a certain amount of blinker. But will there still be a Mexican fanbase after Raul? Of course, we still believe that. We understand he’s vitally important to that. I’m very much hoping a legacy comes through, so there’ll be the next Mexican superstar join Wolves in the future and, of course, we’re now looking at sort of first-, second- and third-generation Mexican Americans to again help tell our story in that particular country.

JP: Yeah, I think the Code Red documentary broke new ground in terms of an in-house media production – obviously, something you need to be very proud of – some supporters have asked what’s next, any other documentary plans?

RJ: Yeah, absolutely, we’re really excited about that. I know it was a huge, huge task internally for the team and what a fantastic job they did. I was recently travelling to a conference in Miami and despite the fact I’ve watched that documentary 30 times, I was really pleased to see it on the entertainment system and, even then, got choked up watching it on the plane over to Miami. So, absolutely, that’s something we really want to do more of, and it won’t necessarily just be in football. We are already talking about Wolves Records, the first year of Wolves Records. We’ve got five artists that are currently under contract, and we’d love to tell that story of the first 12 months of the Wolves Records project. So, the answer to that question, Johnny, it’s definitely something that we’re looking at.

JP: And why was Wolves Records launched? Again, that’s come up amongst supporters wanting to know why you’ve branched out into that area?

RJ: First of all, we couldn’t really believe that no other football or sports brand had done it before because it just looks like such a natural fit. You know you’ve got a live venue here, we’ve got sort of 30 million social followers through all of our different channels that we can introduce music to almost immediately, so that really almost was the starting piece. Then, of course, we spoke to Warner Music, they got really excited about the prospect as well, and almost very, very quickly then we came together to work on the project. I think that not only can it be a very, very big revenue opportunity for the football club, but it also gives local talent a platform. There’s so much local talent in Wolverhampton and we’ve been really lucky to see some of that throughout our Louder events but being able to give that local talent a platform, I think we should all be really proud of that.

JP: Yeah, is that an important aspect of it, that the community is being served in a way here beyond football?

RJ: Yeah, it’s a massive part of it, it’s a huge part of it. One of the artists, Reaper, he’s actually providing music over our home kit launch video. We’re really excited to be able to give him that platform; he’s a fantastic guy and incredibly talented artist, so what an amazing opportunity for both him and us to introduce him to a huge audience.

JP: We’ve had a specific question about the shirt sponsorship from ManBetX, is this continuing? And if not, are you looking at another possibility?

RJ: So, this will be the last of the three years of ManBetX’s sponsorship with the club. Huge thanks to them, it’s been a great relationship, but we will be moving on to a new front-of-shirt partner in 22/23 and, of course, news of that will be revealed to fans very soon.

JP: A lot of supporters have said experiences inside other Premier League grounds for fans attending matches are better than Wolves, particularly in terms of the South Bank infrastructure. Do you see that; have you got any thoughts on that one?

RJ: I must admit I’m quite surprised to hear that one, Johnny. We really pride ourselves on the atmosphere that is here in Molineux stadium, whether that’s through the pyros, the live DJs, the light shows. So, I’m actually quite surprised to hear that fans think the atmosphere or the match experience is better elsewhere. I’d perhaps love to pick up with that fan and find out exactly which away grounds he’s talking about, but we continue to work on this with a small focus group of fans, which we call the matchday experience group, and it’s really, really important to us to create a vibrant, buzzing atmosphere here at Molineux.

JP: I think the PA system might have a bit to do with it. Historically, even before your time, Wolves never seemed to have got the PA system right since they redeveloped the ground and I’m going back 20 years or so, when the music or the spoken word doesn’t quite sound right – do you understand that?

RJ: 100 per cent, I really do understand that. I know – again, interestingly, from that group of fans – that quite often on a matchday, I get told it’s really loud here, or it’s really quiet over there, and it is a really, really complicated thing to get right. We work closely with the company that works in the stadium; we get all the dynamics correct on a non-matchday and then on a matchday it can be difficult. But one of the things that was certainly brought to our attention was that difficulty of hearing those interviews at half-time, which again I think is absolutely fair, I’ve experienced that as well. So, we’ve tried to take those interviews on to our big screens, so, again, now at half-time, those interviews we’ll do beforehand and we’ll play them out on the big screens. It’s a fix for now, but we absolutely accept it’s something we need to work hard on.

JP: And the big screens themselves, many supporters feel they possibly are in need of updating or could go altogether and be used for extra seating.

RJ: Yeah, again, I think that’s another part of stadium redevelopment we’ve been talking about. It is an incredibly expensive thing to do, to take those screens and move them onto the roofs, but again it’s one of those projects that’s in the pipeline to get looked at.

JP: And the goal music has come up in a lot of questions. A lot of supporters saying they don’t like it, it sounds a bit tinpot, it maybe sounds as if you’re trying to create something that is not there – where do you stand on goal music?

RJ: Me personally, I stand completely neutral on goal music. I get it too, I see some of that feedback. I think, from our perspective, it’s difficult: it’s football, some fans will love it, some fans won’t like it. I think on a matchday when you see the whole stadium getting up and dancing to the music and then clearly at away games they sing it themselves, that it’s a difficult one for us to interpret. But, again, we’re open-minded to that and, actually, if the majority of fans didn’t want goal music, we’ll stop it. It’s not something we’re precious about; we want what the fans want, we want to create a great atmosphere here. And if that’s something that the majority of fans don’t want to see anymore, then it’s something we can lose.

JP: Yeah, I think it was a tune that got a cult following on the trip to Barcelona, and obviously when you had the empty stadium it really works. But to some degree would you say it could sort of quash the natural sounds that the South Bank in particular make, you know the roar of the crowd disappears when the music is being blasted over the PA systems?

RJ: I think if the fans were trying to sing something else, then maybe that would be the case, but the fans are actually singing that particular song. So, you’re right, we’d never want to introduce music that kind of fought with the fans singing, so it’s one we’ll definitely look at, happily look at.

JP: Are there any stadium redevelopment plans? We’re in front of the Steve Bull Stand now, which is obviously the dated stand here at Molineux – what’s the latest on plans for any sort of redevelopment?

RJ: As Jeff said in Ask Wolves last year, the priority still remains in this order, which is number one: team, number two: training ground, and number three: stadium. But I want to reassure fans that that doesn’t mean to say that we’ve downed tools on the stadium. We understand that actually this is home, this is home of the football club, and we want to keep improving it, we want our supporters to be proud of it, and we especially understand that the Steve Bull needs some work.

JP: Are the club accepting of the fact then that they’re going to lag behind because there’s redevelopments going on at Leicester and Everton, which are comparable sizes to Wolves in terms of ambition, and obviously Wolves are going to fall behind there?

RJ: No, I don’t think that’s the case. Firstly, because that’s not our commercial strategy. As I’ve probably said already, if we just do the same as every other football club, we’re never going to catch that elite six. So, our commercial focus has very much been in extending the club’s story in other areas, so in esports, in music, in fashion. That doesn’t mean to say the stadium is not important, it’s just that the commercial return is much faster in those areas, in terms of being able to grow our story, grow our fanbase, being able to commercialise it, when we sit down with sponsors and are able to tell them a different story, that’s important. Of course, stadium redevelopment is important, but the idea of falling behind Everton or Leicester because we’re not immediately redeveloping our stadium is not something we are concerned about.

JP: Does that make it a sort of feeling that it’s not worth it then, because supporters would obviously look at the Steve Bull and say there’s an opportunity being missed with each year that goes through and they’ve got a stand from the 1970s that they’re sitting in?

RJ: I think as we stand here now, we have a nine-stage plan to redevelop this stand, which, again, I’m quite happy to share with supporters in terms of what that looks like. So, you can probably see here that the lower tier is some considerable distance away from the pitch. We’re quite lucky and fortunate this is built in two complete sections, which is the lower section and the upper section, so we can demolish the lower section, we can actually reprofile it up to the second LED, which would bring the lower tier much, much closer to the pitch. That enables just over 1,100 seats on top of what we have already, that enables us to move our away fans, which I know, again, is one of those things that the club have been looking to do for quite a while. That would also mean that we’d have to redevelop our hospitality facilities on that second tier, which we would do as part of that development. There’s a void space out the back where we can build a restaurant and also because of that reprofiling, it enables us to increase the size of the concourse on both the lower and the upper tier – we’d actually be doubling the space of that concourse. And then aesthetics as well, of course. So, the plate glass which is on the outside of the Steve Bull would be sort of illegal today in terms of health and safety, in terms of building a new stadium, so we’d look to change those aesthetics much closer to the Stan Cullis Stand. That investment, Johnny, is about £16 million; with funding, it’s closer then to 20, with a sort of 14-, 15-year payback. So, it is a considerable investment, it’s also a long payback, so again these are commercial factors that we have to consider. But is it something that we want to do? Of course. We are very aware that we’re leaving sort of opportunities financially on the table by not investing in this stand.

JP: Okay. A few more questions concerning the matchday experience. Wi-Fi – a lot of fans said it’s just not good enough – any plans to upgrade it?

RJ: Again, there’s always plans, we’re always looking at Wi-Fi. So, if you’re inside the stadium bowl, currently there is Wi-Fi. There’s not Wi-Fi external to the bowl and I suppose there’s always that slight catch-22 for us, in terms of whether we really want fans glued to their mobile or we want them enjoying the match experience. And, also, it’s not a cheap thing to do; it’s actually quite a complicated thing to do to be able to offer people that really, really top service. If 1,000 people start to stream Netflix on their phones during a game, that’s going to cause some pretty high volume on our broadband. So, yes, Wi-Fi is something we are looking to do. I’m sure we’ll be locking it in to certain opportunities within the stadium, so whether that’s ordering food from your seat, whether that’s video replays to your seat, as opposed to opening it up so fans in the stadium can watch another game on Sky Sports!

JP: That would be suggesting the game on the pitch isn’t the best, so maybe we shouldn’t go there on that one! The fan park has obviously opened up possibilities and a lot of supporters enjoy engaging with it – have you got any plans to upgrade it, offer better food choices, music, entertainment, and make it more of a focal point?

RJ: Yeah definitely. So, we’re currently in planning permission to actually build a permanent fan zone. So, again, it’s been super, super popular for us; it’s great to see fans enjoying that space. The permanent application is in currently with the council and our idea is that becomes a location not just for matchdays, but it also becomes an opportunity and a space for us to use on a non-matchday, whether that’s almost an open-air cinema or a place to host concerts, again on a small scale, or whether some of our partners can use it, for example the university on one of their open days. So yeah, that’s in planning and fingers crossed we can get that through and set up for the start of next year.

JP: And that would be important wouldn’t it, because I think a lot of fans are saying that Wolves needs to become a venue that can be used, or parts of Wolves can be a venue that can be used, away from the matchday in terms of gaining revenue. Do you see that as a reasonable stream of income?

RJ: I don’t think it will reinvent our world that, but Molineux in terms of use as a facility outside of matchdays is incredibly important. We touched on the Steve Bull Stand earlier and that reprofiling of the lower stand, now one of the issues we have is that we don’t have big enough exit points to host concerts with a standing capacity. That’s a problem, because the biggest and the best acts in the world want that sort of roaring atmosphere on the pitch, with everyone standing and therefore we are not currently able to host those concerts, but by reprofiling the lower stand, we’d be able to build a section which will be completely removable, which again ticks a box for now making us a venue that’s open for huge music concerts.

JP: And are those plans on hold or are they genuinely being explored?

RJ: Absolutely, genuinely being explored. We really want this stadium to be as good as it possibly can be. This summer’s really tricky because we’re hosting three England internationals, which we are also incredibly proud of, and then, of course, we’ve got the World Cup happening in winter, which means that opportunity to redevelop this summer is really short. But earlier on, a month or so ago, I was sitting in a Euro 2028 bid meeting with Wolverhampton City Council, which would give Wolverhampton the opportunity to apply to be one of the host cities for that championship. What an incredible opportunity for the club and the city, and of course making sure our facilities are ready and improved for that date and before is something that’s very, very important to us.

JP: In Ask Wolves last year, the topic of interest rates was raised by Jeff as one of the reasons why the club wasn’t too keen on exploring mass development. Is that still an issue?

RJ: It is. Again, having looked at some of the feedback afterwards from fans, and there were question marks around the fact that surely interest rates are the lowest they’ve ever been, and I think the interpretation was probably that residential interest rates are the lowest they’ve ever been, but unfortunately the reality is that a football stadium is really high-risk. If Wolves, for whatever reason, don’t play in this stadium, then suddenly this becomes an incredibly expensive stadium to maintain, which generates no revenue and, as a result of that, banks are not as keen to lend to football club stadium redevelopment projects as they of course would be to residential mortgages. So, we’re working hard, looking at private equity. Of course, we’re looking at government funding as well with the council, but interest rates are significant, and I talked about the 16 million investment that is required on the Steve Bull. As you know as a huge Wolves fan, there’s nothing that would give me more pride than to see the South Bank redeveloped, sort of double its size, which would go from 5 to 10,000, which again is part of our plans, but that’s a £30 million investment, and of course what comes with that is a significant interest from funding. So, in answer to your question, is it still an issue? It’s something again we’re working at, because we need to try to find the best possible interest rates to be able to support that finance that’s required.

JP: Staying with finance, one supporter has asked about the cryptocoin and whether or not Wolves could launch one?

RJ: Yeah, again, I think we are in this really modern world now and I think NFTs, fan tokens, it’s something that needs to be part of our strategy. Certainly, I remember probably 10 years ago now speaking to PlayStation Home about the idea of us putting virtual football kits into their home screen and I thought they were crazy, I was like no one is going to buy virtual football jerseys. But here we are in 2022, and I know in 2021 Fortnite did 4.3 billion in in-game purchases. FIFA 21 actually took 1.6 billion in Ultimate Team packs. So, in the old days, when me and you would probably be going to the newsagents and buying a pack of Panini stickers and hoping we were going to get Andy Mutch and Steve Bull in there, or if we were dead lucky a shiny Wolves badge, the reality is that kids these days are actually using their pocket money to buy in-game items, so therefore that generation are absolutely interested in NFTs, in fan tokens, and we need to be very mindful of that and building our strategy around it. But the key for us is doing our due diligence and making sure that any company that we are working with are truly in it to benefit both our fans – those that choose to invest in the product – and also to investors. That’s really important to us to get it right.

JP: We’ve seen a lot of football clubs engage with NFTs, but there are certain negatives attached to that and you’ve mentioned the benefits for fans and there is a sense that maybe fans don’t always benefit from NFTs. Is it something that Wolves are looking at?

RJ: Yeah, Wolves are absolutely looking at it. I think NFTs are something that, as I say, that Gen Z audience understands probably far better than we do, but it’s a product that there’s a market for currently and therefore, as the head of commercial growth of the football club, I have to be really open-minded to that.

JP: Would you be keen, though, to protect supporters from any big risks on something like that?

RJ: Of course, and that’s really why we’d go through a very, very strict due diligence process because we absolutely want to make sure that we can support and we can protect supporters wherever we can. Of course, ultimately, it’s an investment and those supporters choosing to invest in crypto one hopes would make their own judgement on the risks, but, of course, as a club we’d do everything we could as well.

JP: And one final one, Russ, membership plans, anything new on that front? Obviously, the membership is big here at Wolves and there’s a lot of people who are members and not season-ticket holders, is there anything you can update us on that?

RJ: I think our plans for membership remain similar to previous years. We had a great season last year; I know that we made a few changes, again predominantly following Ask Wolves where fans were asking us about, and getting frustrated by, the fact they were paying their membership but still couldn’t access to tickets, so we made some changes. Last year, we introduced Membership Plus to try to still reward that loyalty of members that had come to every game, but also open up a pool of tickets to any member to be able to come to Molineux, and that’s proved really, really successful and we’re certainly going to continue to follow that journey because we want people to be able to experience this stadium and be able to come here to that really buzzing match atmosphere.

All 11 instalments of Ask Wolves series two are now live in video, written and audio format and can be found by clicking on the links below: