Ipswich CEO Mark Ashton: “We are building the aircraft while we are flying”

In April 2021 Ipswich Town FC was taken over by Gamechanger 20 Ltd, a newly founded company of which 90% are owned by a US investment fund called ORG, co-founded by Edward Schwartz, who is also OGRs representative at Ipswich Town. ORG again manages funds on behalf of a major US pension fund – the Arizona Public Safety Personnel Retirement System (PSPRS), whose representative at the club is Chief Investment Officer Mark Steed. The Three Lions fund with Brett Johnson, Berke Bakay, and Mark Detmer own another 5% and the remaining 5% belong to the previous owner of Ipswich Town, Marcus Evans. In June 2021 Mark Ashton joined the club as new CEO. We spoke to him about how he wants to lead the club into a new era.

This article was initially published in the FBIN Magazine 26.
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You joined Ipswich Town a few weeks after the announcement of the overtake. Were you in contact from the start, or how did it all begin?

Mark Ashton: Around four or five years ago, I was in the US, presenting to the United Soccer League on English football, transfer markets, and how to run English clubs. At that point, I met three of our investors – Brett Johnson, Berke Bakay, and Mark Detmer, and we always stayed in touch. They had a continual desire to own an English football club. They always said, “If we ever get to that stage, we’d like you to be involved and run it for us”.  Then when they got close to completing the deal at Ipswich, they called me and said, “Look, we want to do this deal. We think you’re perfect to come in and run it. Would you do it?”.

It was difficult because I was very happy at Bristol City and as a board director at the English Football League (EFL). But I thought it was an opportunity that I didn’t want to miss because I’m a builder and enjoy building things from the bottom to the top. So that’s how I met them. They then introduced me to the other investors in the US, and I joined on June 1st. I’ve got one, two more gray hairs since June, if you noticed.

What was the main driver for leaving a decent Championship club for an entirely new and probably more challenging project?

Many of my colleagues asked if I was really sure about doing this. I was building a stadium, a training ground, having a really good relationship with the owner of Bristol City. For this, I also had to leave the ELF board. Yet, when I looked at Ipswich, I saw a club that had deteriorated probably over 10 years but has an amazing fan base and incredible history and tradition. The more I learn about Ipswich, the more I’m surprised and shocked at how big our fan base can be. We’ve already had crowds of 29,000 fans here this season. 7,000 fans traveled to MK Dons. Our average attendance was around 22,000, and we got nearly 14,000 season ticket holders. And we haven’t even really got started. So, the opportunity was so unique.

Additionally, I like working with the PSPRS and ORG, the funders, because this is regulated money or good clean money. This means that you have to build the business in a correct and proper fashion. You must have a plan and execute that plan with them. We had an amazing owner of Bristol City who continually funds the football club properly. And I like the fact that the guys in the US wanted to do the same here. They don’t just want to buy success. They want to build success. So they want to redevelop the club in all areas, facilities, training ground, community, commercial. I believe it’s a unique opportunity in English football right now to work with good logical people who want to do something for the long term. And that just really lit a fire in me and really excited me.

Mark Ashton
Ispwich Town FC

So, the ultimate goal is creating a sustainable football club?

If you ask any football club, they will say that they want not just sporting success but also to build a sustainable business. For us, we have a specific way of doing that. First, it is building infrastructure that can drive revenues. Also, when we first joined the club, there was very little IT infrastructure, no data, no CRM, no marketing, no physical plan on how to build the fan base. The club hadn’t had a community trust for 10 years. And yet, within seven months of being here, we’ve got an average attendance of 22,000 fans.

Retail numbers this year will be a record that has increased 100% compared to last year. We’ve also got a unique partnership with Ed Sheeran, which gives us global exposure. Interestingly, when you look at the location of Ipswich, there are actually no competitors. Norwich is two hours away. We have 750,000 people in Suffolk and probably a wider 2 million if you go into Essex. With sensible proactive marketing and a team progressing on the pitch, I think we can definitely create something special.

You mentioned that many things weren’t implemented when you first came in (CRM, data, IT infrastructure, etc.). But what exactly was the first thing you did at the start? 

For me, there were two things. One, I had to do a lot of listening. Whether they were staff, players, coaches, commercial stakeholders, or partners, I had to sit down and listen to them because it was a good education for me. Then, practically, the first thing we had to do was clean. The stadium was dirty. Even on the first day when I had my press conference, I couldn’t sit in the seat because they were dirty and uncomfortable. 

So, we embarked on a cleaning program to bring the stadium back to a respectful state of life. And we are still working on these two projects until now, listening to the people and cleaning. I’ve been in the football industry for more than 30 years, but I don’t know Ipswich that well, so it’s important to learn. The former chairman and directors, former players who have spent all the time with me, educated me about how Ipswich works, where the club’s gone wrong, and what this community is looking for. 

Regarding the cleaning, I always tell everyone at the club that we won’t be trusted to do the big things if we can’t do the basics. If we can’t pick up the litter, clean the seats, or fix the toilets to ensure that the stadium is presentable, we’re never going to do the big transfers or commercial deals. We have to be world-class at doing the basics first.

Did you get any specific goals to achieve from the ownership group?

There was no such thing as you’ve got to be in the Championship by this time or in the Premier League. Instead, I was asked to develop a specific plan for how we are going to build the Club.

Things like how are we going to progress off the pitch? How are we going to impact the community? How are we going to reignite the fan base? How are we going to build the revenue streams? How are we going to build the playing side? How will we build performance recruitment analysis, and ultimately, when do we decide to change the manager? My task is to go and find a manager who fits with the philosophy of the ownership group and take the Club forward.

Another thing is that we’re trying to create a learning environment. I don’t know it all. The manager doesn’t know it all. No individual knows it all. So, we are building relationships with other businesses, clubs, or sports organizations, where every day, our main focus is to learn. And I think we have a manager who’s a genuine learner and educator. And that’s important to the ownership group.

So, are you still in the process of developing a long-term strategy, or do you have one already?

I have my personal model of how the football clubs should work, but that model has to bend and flex to fit Ipswich. So, we have a real core plan, and the only way I can describe it is like we’re building the aircraft while we are flying. We don’t have time to stop playing games, selling tickets, or not to be active in the community. We can’t take a season off. We have to build this whilst we’re on the journey, but we have a very clear sense of direction.

When I joined in June, most of my time was spent in the football department. Now we got Kieran McKenna and his coaching staff or Andy Rolls, who worked at Arsenal for performance management. So, I have few people who are, in my opinion, world-class and set very high standards on the sporting side. Now I can move my focus more to the business side.

What are the current high-priority projects of Ipswich?

As I said, the football department is done, and we are currently restructuring the club’s business side. There are probably several projects, but one priority is the IT infrastructure which we’ve spent over half a million on. We are putting in a new stadium entry digital system and upgrading concourse catering and beverage outlets. New digital advertising will also appear on our pitch. Our corporate facilities will also be upgraded in which we just bought a large piece of land behind our North Stand. The goal is to develop revenue streams to support the club, and all of that won’t be done this summer but over the next 12-18 months.

Could you share more details on the digitalization strategies?

We have to move into a digital age. We have a sponsorship with Ed Sheeran, an amazing football club supporter, and if you go on Ed Sheeran tweets, we get endless coverage. We need to maximize that from a brand perspective. The stadium will be more digitalized with digital advertising boards, big screens. We are going to launch Ipswich Town TV, in which we are going to bring more of the streaming in-house. We will have our own commentary team, which will give us opportunities to commercialize the digital platforms. There’ll be big changes and enhancements for our website and all digital channels. So, there will be big infrastructure projects for a solid foundation for the next 10-15 years. Still, I keep saying this to the funds that we’re still behind because there has been no infrastructure development for the last 10 years. We need to bring ourselves up to speed and get ahead of the curve as quickly as possible.

How would you catch up with other clubs or try to bypass them in some aspects?

I think we have the opportunity to be trailblazers in some areas. There are areas we only need to catch up on. One of the differences with this football club is its size of both the English and international fan base. Once we have these platforms in place, I believe we can start to build revenue streams. Once we can provide better communication with our supporters in the UK and abroad, we can attract different types of sponsors and commercial partners. It’s also important to take care of local partners because they’ve been with us for a long time. If we do what we’ve always done, we will get the same outcome. We have to change the way we operate to get a different result.

You said Ipswich is something different in your 30 years in the football industry. Could you elaborate?

I’ve never known a town so passionate about its football club. And I think because it is a single-club county. I was at West Bromwich Albion for 16 years, and we had Aston Villa, Birmingham City FC, Wallsall within a seven to eight-mile radius. So, you would bump into Wolves, Villa, Birmingham fans. You will have the rugby at Bristol, Bristol City, Bristol Rovers. Here at Ipswich Town, it will only be Ipswich everywhere you turn.

I’ll give you a quick story weeks ago. We played Cheltenham in an evening game at home and drew 0:0. In the morning, I was driving to work and was talking to my wife on the speakerphone. Then I pulled up in the inside lane at the traffic lights. This double-decker bus pulled up by my side, and I thought the driver was waving his arm at me. At that moment, I thought I was in the wrong lane, the bus line, and was about to roll my car’s window down to apologize. The driver opened the doors of the filled bus, leaned across, and said: “Mr. Ashton, up the Town, up the Town!”. The whole bus started cheering. You can get that if you are the player or the manager, but not as the CEO. 

So, you see it everywhere in the town. People here are so desperate for success, and they care passionately about their football club. They care how the club is presented and how it is built. I don’t think I’ve experienced such a passion for a club like here. Last week, we had the 40th anniversary of the UEFA Cup win. At the dinner, we had these fantastic players – Alan Brazil, Terry Butcher and John Walk who wanted to spend time with me and tell me about the club. I’ve never quite experienced this intensity. So, we’d better win games; otherwise, I’m in big trouble.

What are the club’s current size and its average revenue?

From a revenue perspective, we have incredibly been a mid-table League One club nearly all season, with 14,000 season ticket holders.

Regarding the retail revenue, even in the Premier League, it is usually only about 1.3 to 1.4 million pounds. This season we will break through 2 million. We’ll go beyond because we’re taking a proactive approach to sell. We’ve got the relationship with Ed Sheeran, you know, 14,000 season tickets in League One is massive, but it’s not our average occupancy over the past 10 years. It has been only around 56%. We need to work towards a 98% occupancy, and we want to push towards an average attendance of about 28,000, not 22,000 fans. Interestingly, we had the biggest away attendance, including the Championship and any EFL club this season. 7.000 fans, three hours down the road to MK Dons supporting us. We even had more fans than they had in their stadium.

With marketing, more community engagement, and developing the next generation of supporters, we can grow a fan base. That brings us to 28,000. In doing that, ticketing, retail, and hospitality revenue will increase. But that’s why you can’t just build the first team. You have to do everything, especially the infrastructure, for the long term. And that again, really, really excites me.

You mentioned Ed Sheeran a couple of times; it’s certainly something special. What was the story behind it?

I can’t take credit for this. Ed is a lifelong Ipswich Town fan, but I think the story is when he saw we had a gambling company or a betting company on our shirts and thought that didn’t seem right. So he wanted to get involved and sponsored his tour on our shirt. He’s a fan and wants to support and give to his local football club. I had the privilege of meeting him a couple of weeks ago, and he’s extremely passionate about the football club. And we can’t thank him enough for his engagement.


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