Attending the second edition of the Star Sixes at Glasgow’s SSE Hydro at the start of this month, there was everything that fans would expect from a modern-day indoor football tournament. 

Gone were the plastic glass, static boards and high bouncing ball that characterised the ‘Masters Football’ series that ran from 2000 to 2011. Engaging pre-match lighting and music, smoke machines, state-of-the art LEDs and a 4G playing surface had arrived in their place. Competing players lined up to praise the organisation. And, given the buy-in from fans, you’d presume the stakeholders behind the series – a joint venture between Pitch, the Football Champions Tour player agency and individual investors – had put in place a lucrative concept. 

Yet it remains to be seen if the considerable legwork in putting together the London debut in July 2017 and Glasgow follow-up will pay off commercially for rewards to be reaped from a welcome facelift for the six-a-side game. Organisers have yet to return a profit – not uncommon for a start-up venture – and are now looking at a trio of regional tournaments each year to help gain more traction with sponsors and broadcasters alike. 

Having boldly spoken of its intention to establish the StarSixes at London’s O2 in the same vein as the ATP World Tour Finals and NBA Global Games, Pitch served up an inaugural competition peppered with star names from 12 international teams. Rivaldo, Roberto Carlos, Steven Gerrard, Robert Pires and Michael Ballack were just some of the former stars on show. But, having taken stock of an event that carried with it hefty player costs, spanned four days and proved taxing on ageing limbs, changes were made ahead of the competition’s return.

The tournament was halved to six teams, trimmed to three days and regionalised to reduce travel and accommodation costs, but also to entice fans locally. Instead of a dozen teams spanning the globe, the line-up consisted of the ‘home nations’ of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, plus the Republic of Ireland and a Rest of the World outfit. Regional iterations of the ‘main’ tournament were always part of Pitch’s vision, but locally-focused offerings have now become the priority. 

” Lots of the places we spoke to were looking for a smaller, more regional event with a bit more relevance locally “

Neil Bailey, Star Sixes’ chief executive  

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Neil Bailey, Star Sixes’ chief executive, tells Sportcal Insight: “I was really pleased with the first event, a bigger 12-team ‘World Cup’ event. What we found [however] when we tried to sell that internationally is there aren’t that many football cities that can sustain that number of teams. There’s probably only three of four in the world where that sort of format is relevant. Lots of the places we spoke to were looking for a smaller, more regional event with a bit more relevance locally.

“For me, this event in Glasgow was a great way of refining the format. It was more easily understood and easier to deliver because there were less variables. We also used our assets much better as each player played six games, whereas last time teams got knocked out and didn’t appear in the final session. That didn’t make a lot of sense as we were paying players for the duration.”

Breaking down the revenue mix, the Star Sixes generates around 40 per cent of its revenues from ticketing, approximately the same from sponsorship and the remainder from broadcast rights fees. Despite taking place during Glasgow’s notoriously quiet post-‘Hogmanay’ weekend, the spectator numbers remained impressive, helped by Scottish football’s winter break. Over 18,000 tickets were sold across the three days out of a combined total capacity of 21,000. Tickets started at £20 ($25.75) for adults, but rose to £56.75 and hit three figures for premium pitchside seats.

Bailey describes the turnout as a “pretty reasonable return in a new city,” revealing that he had pushed to stage the event in the second week of January. “It’s always a challenge with a new event,” he admits, before adding: “I think we did really well with ticketing sales and the venue was impressed with how it sold, particularly for that first weekend in January.

“It is always difficult to penetrate with your marketing and get the message out there and it took a little while. But now most people in Glasgow have heard about Star Sixes and most that came would want to go again.” Advertising included campaigns on Radio Clyde and Facebook, while press calls were held with various players taking part to ensure local coverage.

Local hero Scotland’s James McFadden takes on two Welsh defenders

Pitch has opted for a title sponsor for both editions thus far, generating six-figure sums from the betting sector. Betsafe put its name to the inaugural competition, followed by Fansbet in Glasgow, and with the latter thought to have committed around £200,000 in its deal. Fansbet achieved all of its key performance indicators by the second day, according to Bailey.

However, signing up partners beneath the title sponsor remains a challenge. An asking price of £50,000 dissuaded companies already active in backing football north of the border, leaving largely contra deals to be struck. Hummel came on board as a kit supplier, while G-Form, the shin pad manufacturer, and Clear Channel, the out-of-home advertising company, were also partners. Deals were struck with Gatorade and Strathmore to provide energy drinks and water.

The prospects of improved sponsorship do appear greater for
the next Star Sixes, though, as Bailey explains.

 A lot of sponsors’ activations have happened around the World Cup and there aren’t lots of people with a load of money  

“Coming off the back of a World Cup year made quite a big difference in Q4 for sponsorship revenues,” he notes. “A lot of sponsors’ activations have happened around the World Cup and there aren’t lots of people with a load of money. Now we’re looking at a year where there isn’t a major European Championships or World Cup this summer.”

Following broadcast distribution secured by Pitch in 120 territories for the 2017 Star Sixes, the tournament’s footprint was never going to match that level when it returned in Glasgow, given the regional focus and fewer international stars. Nevertheless, the presence of the Rest of the World side helped to persuade broadcasters in the likes of France, Italy, Israel, the Middle East and North Africa, Scandinavia and Spain to acquire rights to show either live or highlights coverage. 

Originally, France were to be included alongside the teams from the British Isles, but their substitution by a Rest of the World select (including France’s Pires, Denmark’s Martin Jørgensen, the Netherlands’ Ronald de Boer and Pierre van Hooijdonk, plus Spain’s Gaizka Mendieta) helped push some international deals over the line. Bailey observes: “Part of the thinking of the Rest of the World team was to give it a bit more scope than the original plan to have the holders France [there]. We did that to try and open up some markets and we had deals in quite a lot of territories.”

Domestically, there was wall-to-wall programming on Sky, and strong engagement on social media platforms, including 210,000 views to date for England against the Rest of the World on the Sky Sports Football YouTube channel. Unlike many exhibition tournaments or testimonials, the retired players appeared fired up and combative, with a confrontation between England’s Michael Owen and Ireland’s Jason McAteer having generated a further 112,000 views for Sky on YouTube. Tournament organisers themselves drove sizeable social media traffic, including 112,000 views for hosts Scotland’s 4-1 win over England, a fixture that generated an atmosphere more akin to the top-flight 11-a-side game.

In terms of event presentation, there were aspects that
divided opinion as Pitch strove to differentiate itself from run-of-the-mill kickabouts
that often feature retired players lethargically going through the motions in
front of a passive crowd. Playing upbeat music throughout the games to avoid
embarrassing silences tops the list of divisive issues.

Bailey explains: “We’re always looking to improve the format and the experience. Music during the games seems to be one that divides opinion. We didn’t do it in London and we found that in the arena at the beginning of sessions it can be pretty quiet. It’s really hard then to generate an atmosphere, if you start off with the echoey shouts of players, as it has a bit of a school gym feel to it.

“We put it in and we kept an eye on it. It will be something we keep under review. Personally I thought it worked quite well and helped build the atmosphere when it got up and helped to hide the lack of atmosphere when it was a bit quiet.

“One of the things we’re trying to do is differentiate ourselves as an experience. I don’t want it to be like when you go and watch a testimonial or a charity match. And one of the ways we can do that is with the music.”

Audience engagement between games was prevalent with activities ranging from dizzy football to player interviews, T-shirt cannons and selfie stations. Title sponsor Fansbet was particularly active, producing various player content to push out on social media. Yet, the music during the 25-minute games did, at times, hold back a Glasgow crowd well versed in getting involved at recent major events characterised by innovative sports presentation. A preventative measure for sure, but one that seemed to cause children to switch off a little, especially given it was the heroes of their parents – and not theirs – taking part.

England play role of pantomime villain by lifting the Fansbet Star Sixes in Glasgow

Venue layout was another topic that prompted debate. The positioning of the main fixed camera, combined with an empty pitchside space occupied only by ball boys or accredited officials, gave television viewers the (incorrect) impression of a sparsely-populated arena. Attempts to seat fans directly beside the action had been thwarted, according to Bailey. He explains: “We did look at putting deck chairs or (NBA-style) VIP seating around the pitch. The difficulty is it raises some security issues and sightline issues if you’re putting in two or three rows of deck-chair style seating. We did look at that and we would have liked to have filled those spaces but it makes it quite a complicated event to deliver and you probably open yourselves up to more complaints than thank-yous.”

Sponsorship activations, one including a car being placed pitchside and another installing teqball tables to showcase the nascent sport, were under discussion, but the deals were not closed, leaving the space “looking a bit empty,” as Bailey concedes. These are minor quibbles that fans in attendance will doubtless have not even considered, but the forensic detail with which the event is prepared leaves you in no doubt that Pitch will be reviewing them.

With the action on the synthetic grass deemed a success, an 86-per-cent venue occupancy rate (during a traditionally quiet weekend) and the event’s reputation enhanced among players, there would certainly appear to be a long-term future for the Star Sixes. But how do you offset the weighty investment in playing talent and venue presentation to translate that goodwill into a profit? Profitability remains “in the pipeline,” according to Bailey.

He says: “What we’ve created is a really viable and strong short-form version of 11-a-side football and we’ve demonstrated that there are windows within the football calendar where these events can be successful. And we’ve modernised it so it appeals to demographics that football is struggling to reach, and this format is far more socially and digitally accessible than top-flight football.”

Pitch is now looking at these windows, particularly the October and November international breaks when many of the players don’t have television punditry duties, as it seeks to establish between two and three regional events per year, likely in Europe, Asia and the Americas. Replicating the international galaxy of stars from London’s bow 18 months ago is not economically viable for an event further afield, however.

Reducing the numbers of players and selecting local players without big travel costs makes eminent sense and does change the P&L a little bit  

The Star Sixes chief continues: “We looked at doing an event in Australia but by the time you’ve done business-class flights for 120 players, you’ve got a steep revenue climb to make. And the same when we looked at events in Tokyo, Dubai and Hong Kong. So reducing the numbers of players and selecting local players without big travel costs makes eminent sense and does change the P&L a little bit.

“This format [in Glasgow] was much more digestible. I don’t think we lost a lot by reducing the number of teams. Even if you do that and your six teams included Brazil, France, Italy, Germany and England then you’ve got quite an interesting tournament there with global appeal.”

Youth and women’s Star Sixes games are also under consideration, as Pitch looks to develop the brand: not as standalone tournaments but potentially as matches bolted on to the main competition, so that the pitch, lighting and broadcast production costs remain in check. Locally, Scotland’s SPFL itself looked at a youth sixes tournament as a throwback to Glasgow’s popular Tennent’s Sixes clubs tournament that ran from 1984 to 1993 (but was ultimately derailed by the dearth of first-team players). Nonetheless, it is the former star players that are the draw, enticing the demographic of 25 to 49 year olds and their children.

Six-a-side tournaments for retired players are, of course, not a uniquely British phenomenon and a string of tournaments have surfaced around the world, such as Berlin’s AOK Traditionsmasters played every year since 2010. The Masters name also survived as matches featuring representative Arsenal and Liverpool sides came to Singapore.

There is competition to drive profits from the concept and
Pitch has certainly managed to trim some of the overheads that were associated
with a London event for which not many other cities would make commercially
suitable hosts. 120 players contesting games of up to 30 minutes and pulling up
injured after four days of competition did seem like overkill, but lessons were
learned. More will be taken from Glasgow, as Pitch and Football Champions Tour
seek to drive economies of scale by establishing a property that resonates with
fans, sponsors and broadcasters during targeted slots in the calendar.