Every season of the last decade, Atletico managed to compete with Real Madrid and Barcelona in La Liga, and clubs like Manchester United, Chelsea, and Bayern in the Champions League – with much less budget than any of those competitors. But not only their performance on the pitch was extraordinary, but Atletico also worked hard on their brand. For a long time, the club has been using a different strategy than the other big football clubs. And they had to. Is there still room for more glitz and glamour when there are already the “Galacticos” in the same city? But it seems that Atletico is no longer satisfied with just being a local brand and changing the strategy – to compete with the big clubs also in terms of earning big money.
If you compare the two big football clubs in Madrid, you see two clubs with completely contrasting identities and fates. Real Madrid, the self-proclaimed “Galacticos” play in an elegant white and try to get the world’s best players into the Bernabeu. The stadium is in the wealthy Chamartin Neighborhood. And so are their fans. Real is the club of the establishment. On the contrary, Atletico s former stadium stood in the less glamorous district of Arganzuela. It’s the club of the working class. We see the passionate fighter in red and white stripes, always on fire when on the football field. And in contrast to “The Galacticos”, Atletico has the nickname “Los Colchoneros” – the mattresses (or mattress-makers). One common theory for this name is that the team bought some cheap leftover bed sheets for their jerseys – which had the red and white striped pattern. You can also see the difference between the clubs in the way they celebrated their 100-year anniversaries: Real Madrid celebrated in grand style. They visited the United Nations, the Pope, and the King of Spain! They invited the FIFA World Eleven. And they demanded a ban for football games for that day to make sure everyone would respect the birthday of the “biggest football club in the world.” Atletico s celebration went like this: Fans made a giant Paella, carried the world’s biggest flag to Calderon, and tragically lost their game there.
The best period in Atleticos history was in the 70s. Between 61 and 80, they won La Liga four times. But this success coincided with the domination by Real Madrid. During the same period, Real Madrid ruled La Liga, winning the competition fourteen times. This inequality led both clubs on different paths. Atletico won the title once more but then relegated into the Segunda Division. What was remarkable about that: the fans. They became all the more supportive, the worse Atletico was doing. When they didn’t make it back into the top league after one year in the second division, the club sold more tickets than ever before. A 2007 study stated that the Atletico brand invoked an exceptional empathy among fans that had taken on an almost mystic status in football fandom. A popular football commentator even said: It’s almost a masochism, like an Easter procession, flogging themselves. “Football in (Real) Madrid is good fun, but it only works for Madrid Fans when they win, and it only works for Atletico Fans when they nearly win.”
And yet Atletico is historically Spain s third most successful club. Some are irritated by the way the fans of Atletico live out their role as underdogs. But what’s interesting about this: The image of the underdog even affects the purchasing behavior of the fans. A Spanish branding company even suggested that Atletico fans would prefer to buy underdog brands. Instead of Gin with Fanta, they would choose Gin with Kas, a cheaper soft drink. And they’d feel better with a Sharp TV than with a Samsung or LG. Atletico is a local great, has immense potential for identification, is close to the Spanish fan. But in a more and more competitive and globalized football landscape, local fans alone are not enough to survive on the highest level. Clubs compete for fans around the world. And the reasons for that are obvious: the merchandising industry generates over 3 billion Dollars annually.
In Europe alone, forty-four million fans own a football scarf or jersey. That’s almost the entire population of Spain. When Real toured Asia the first time, it sold 210,000 jerseys in only 17 days. The head of marketing for Real Madrid once said: “Eventually you may get just six global brand leaders. People will support a local side and one of the world’s big six. We have to position ourselves for that.” And they did. Almost 70 percent of the visitors on Real Madrid’s website came from abroad, whereas atleticomadrid.es not even had 30 percent foreign visitors. However, Atletico managed to climb the list of the most valuable clubs as well. Their goal: To keep up with the biggest clubs and reach an international target group. But can the underdog image of Atletico sell as well on a global scale as the winner-images of Manchester United, Barcelona, and Bayern?
Football consumers are said to be the most passionate buyers in the world. In Spain, more than half of the people call themselves football fans. According to a study, 60 percent of Spanish fans plan their life around the next football game. 69 percent perform a superstitious ritual to help their team win, and 70 percent claimed they love watching football more than they love sex. Some fans believe that they have a part in the performance of the team on the field. The so-called Super supporters. They invest a lot of time watching games, reading articles, or clicking YouTube videos with the name of their team. They spend much money buying Merch, tickets, or pay-TV. These super supporters are not included in the traditional economic models, because they act irrationally. They don’t change the team in times of failure and put up with high ticket prices. For this group, Atletico’s fans are an excellent example. Fernando Torres, the former Atletico captain, described these super-supporters in his own words: “Atletico belongs to its fans, to the city; Madrid is the whole world’s team. Atletico belongs to people who have a special attachment to the club. Our fans are prisoners of a feeling, Madrid s fans are prisoners of results and if the results don t follow, nor do they.”
But there aren’t just super-supporters out there but also the so-called bandwagon supporters. People who call themselves fans when their team is winning but are also likely to root for a more successful club when their own team isn’t doing so well anymore. You find those bandwagon supporters most frequently among the fans from other countries. But exactly they are the ones who are necessary to achieve higher earnings from TV and Merch-Sales. Usually, those two types of fans – super-supporter and bandwagon-supporter – are easy to combine within a marketing strategy. But Atletico has had to face two crucial challenges. On the one hand: The money. Buying costly players like Zidane, Beckham, or Cristiano Ronaldo was financially impossible. On the other hand – and not less important those players wouldn’t have fit the self-image of the Atletico fans, nor the image of the club. A transfer might have even upset the super-supporters. To dodge those problems elegantly, Atletico now tries to do a little both ways to achieve an incremental change.
Not to change from a local to the biggest club in the world in one day. But slowly opening to an international audience and getting rid of the image of being only second or third behind Real and Barca. And when there are big names on the transfer market that fit into the image of the passionate fighter, fans may spend a little more money and become more ambitious. That might have been a reason to bring back Diego Costa from Chelsea for a very high price. Through a deal with Sportfive, Atletico hopes to reach new fans in China and North America. A view at the Canadian Premier League shows that a special focus is on North America, as Atletico acquired the club from the capital Ottawa in 2020. North America is regarding the soccer sector a powerful growing market and the Canadian Premier League is still very young. So the purchase was probably not that expensive but promises a high potential.
Atletico intentionally chose the capital of Canada and followed the strategy of the Big City Clubs we
explain that strategy in our video about Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The strategy of the Canadian Premier League is to concentrate on Canadian Players most of all and thereby strengthen the local football
culture. This approach is similar to the one at the flagship brand of Atletico. The recognition value is high. Like the ones of Atletico Madrid, the colors of Atletico Ottawa are red, white, and blue. The club of the passionate fighter from Spain is expanding. But will their local underdog image work as a unique selling point or prevent them from succeeding on the global market?