Ross Cunningham is St Johnstone’s former Media and Communications Manager and Fife Flyers’ former Media and Community Officer. He speaks to Sports Marketing Scotland about his time at both clubs and gives his thoughts on how both clubs, and both sports they operate in, could better themselves.
Take us through the roles you’ve had in Scottish sport?
After I left university I started my own video production business which led to employment opportunities with both Fife Flyers Ice Hockey Club in Kirkcaldy and St. Johnstone FC up in Perth. I founded both of their YouTube channels and built those up before getting more responsibility with both organisations relating to social media marketing, programme writing, community visits, co-organising events and various other duties.
Before I got involved with Flyers and Saints, I had been volunteering for a couple of seasons at Cowdenbeath, performing a similar role, which I did while studying at Stirling University. The experience I gained at Central Park was invaluable and I would really encourage anyone with an interest in sports journalism or media to volunteer at a local sports club. You’ll get a lot out of it and the club will be grateful for your help.
What was your remit as Media and Comms Manager at St Johnstone?
I was at Saints as a volunteer for the first season, part-time the second season and then full-time for another two before going part-time again for the fifth season as I tried to get a balance between working at Saints and doing more work with the Flyers again.
But when I was installed in September 2014 as a full time employee it was to manage the communications and market the club. Saints had won the Scottish Cup four months before so that was an ideal tool in promoting the club to people in Perth and Perthshire. We had the Scottish Cup at McDiarmid Park until it had to be handed back in March or April time, so it was a big focus of mine and the club to get the trophy out to as many schools as possible so the community could feel like a part of that success story in bringing the Scottish Cup to Perth for the first time ever. I made a video presentation we took round to the schools and it was great to see hundreds of kids in an assembly hall cheering when Steven Anderson and Steven MacLean scored the goals to win it! We handed out flyers to the pupils promoting our kids go free policy at home games, and I would take photos of the kids with the trophy and put on our social media for their parents to like and share.
That was just one example of something early on, but I think over my time there I tried to put a big focus on engaging with kids because if you don’t get someone interested in St. Johnstone as a child then it’s really hard to get them engaged when they’re older. It’s all about making the experience of going to a Saints game not just about the football but about the overall experience. I would arrange for face painters to come to the games, have player or team posters handed out, a play bus appearing outside the Ormond Family Stand, we would do giveaways at matches, have players appearing in the Ormond Stand or the pre-match Super J’s club to do autographs and photos, hold fancy dress competitions, etc.
I also felt an important part of the match day experience was getting a friendly and fun mascot, so I sort of made it my mission to have another one to go alongside Super Saint at home games. We went for a dog as a lot of children would have dogs in the family and I thought calling him Brogan, after the club’s leading goalscorer John Brogan, would be a good way for him to be accepted by older fans.
On the social media side I just tried to get as much engaging and interesting content out there as possible. I love making videos so would do pre and post-match interviews with players, but also did other things like getting kids to interview their favourite players before matches which always got a good reaction. I think as a football club you should always be building towards the next home match and promoting that as much as possible through various means – player video and text interviews, graphics, competitions to like and share a post promoting the match, ‘throwback Thursday’ posts looking back on the last match between the sides, etc. Even just making the cover photo on your Facebook and Twitter accounts an advert for the next match keeps the game and the date in everyone’s minds.
I also organised a couple of big promotional campaigns for matches alongside Megan Moss, with one being the #PaintItBlue campaign which included that (infamous??) video which had combined views of 250,000 through YouTube and on BBC/STV. That was a big success for us as the expected crowd for that match was up 25%.
I was extremely lucky to have a group of volunteers at Saints who helped with the matchday media coverage. They all had a big passion for Saints and most wanted to use the opportunity to gain experience to help in a future journalism career. Like my time at Cowdenbeath, I would recommend it to anyone as a great way to build up experience and make yourself more employable in the future.
I also felt it was important to tie in with Saints’ family club image by having the players visit schools as much as possible and working with local charities – we did a lot of work with CHAS Children’s Hospice in Kinross, and linked up a few times with charities like PKAVS and Scottish Air Ambulance. Doing anything with CHAS was always so humbling for the players and everyone involved, and I was really happy when the club chose them to be this season’s official charity partner.
There were a few other things I was involved in like season ticket campaigns, putting out stories on the club website, liaising with the club community and academy, organising events held at the club, producing DVDs to sell, teaching video skills to school children, putting together videos for presentation nights or shareholder meetings, etc.
What are the main differences and similarities between working in football and ice hockey in Scotland?
It’s not all that different actually. I would say the biggest difference would be the number of office staff working on a typical day. At Saints you would have maybe 12+ people behind the scenes whereas at the Flyers, apart from the rink staff, I might only see Evelyn from the ticket office and Carol the Commercial Manager.
Ice hockey is a little different because the players train later in the day usually and there’s a home match every weekend, whereas Saints might only play one home game a month sometimes.
What I would say though is that an important advantage any pro ice hockey team will have over a pro football team is that almost all of the ice hockey players will live in the town or city where the club is based. Apart from one player, all of the Fife Flyers players live in Kirkcaldy (or the neighbouring town of Glenrothes) so it’s easy to get access to the players for videos, photos, PR events, school or charity visits, fundraising nights, etc. Flyers do at least two school visits a week and help out some nights at the junior development training sessions. They also have that presence in the town where fans see them out and about at the beach, in the super market, etc, and can speak to them. Having that constant local presence is a huge advantage.
The growth in popularity of ice hockey in Scotland has been one of the most positive sports stories in recent times, what has led to it?
It’s down to a lot of factors but the two main ones have to be the re-emergence of the Fife Flyers as one of the UK’s top clubs following Fife’s admission to the Elite League (the UK’s top ice hockey league) in 2011, and the rise of Braehead Clan since its formation in 2010. With the Elite League getting bigger and bigger each year the owner of Nottingham Panthers, Neil Black, decided to tap in to the Scottish market by forming the Clan and basing them next to Glasgow. There have been a few good ice hockey clubs in the west of Scotland in the past so I think that part of the country just needed someone to take it to the next level by having an arena team. And it’s really paid off for them.
Fife then made the decision to join the Elite League after a member-club called Newcastle Vipers folded. There is no relegation or promotion in the Elite League so it almost seemed like it was destiny when that spot opened up for Fife to replace Newcastle. Fans flooded back to see the Flyers playing in the top league once again. I can even remember reading former Raith Rovers manager Ray McKinnon interviews in the Fife Free Press where he was complaining sports fans in Kirkcaldy were choosing the Flyers over the Rovers. At the same time Clan were getting strong crowds and I think a big thing for them was attracting an NHL star, Drew Miller, to play for them during the NHL’s lockout which brought them even more media attention.
Since Fife and Braehead have been in the same league the rivalry has grown and grown. They are Scotland’s two biggest ice hockey clubs and it’s always a great game when the sides clash. Apart from Dundee Stars sometimes coming into it, the battle for the conference (which decides the best team in Scotland) is almost always been between Fife and Braehead. So the games always have that bit more about them. The rivalry really went up a level in seasons 2013/14 and 2014/15 when Fife’s Matt Nickerson would regularly get in hockey fights with a number of Clan players like Chris Frank, Kevin Bergin and Zach Fitzgerald. From there it’s been all about the hockey and thankfully this season Fife have had the upper hand over Braehead, beating them seven times out of eight and going on to win the conference.
What would you say needs to be planned to capitalise on Flyers’ Gardiner Conference success this season?
The club are working hard to capitalise on the conference success. There was a trophy presentation and there is an opportunity for supporters to have their photo taken with it too. The club will be able to sell merchandise promoting the achievement, and will be able to promote the club for the rest of the season and next season as being officially Scotland’s number one ice hockey club. Kirsty Longmuir from the club was on BBC Radio Scotland promoting the conference win during an interview, so like the Saints Scottish Cup win, it’s a great tool to have when promoting the club.
It’s important to say as well that the season isn’t over yet and there’s still a couple of other trophies to play for, so hopefully winning the Gardiner Conference will encourage more supporters to come out to see some of the remaining games this season.
Next season is the club’s 80th season – Fife are the UK’s oldest professional ice hockey club – so the club will be shouting that and that they are conference winners from the rooftops during the summer when next season is just around the corner.
What needs to happen to grow ice hockey in Scotland even further?
The single biggest thing that would help grow ice hockey in Scotland is media coverage. It hardly gets any in comparison to football or other sports. And I think once people go they get hooked so it’s just getting them through the door the first time.
If you haven’t been to see a Flyers game before you might expect it to be played by amateur players in front of a couple of hundred people, but these are full-time professionals playing in from of thousands of fans. This season Fife has a player called Peter LeBlanc who has iced in the NHL before, and we have a number of players who have played in the AHL (American Hockey League, just below the NHL) and other big leagues like the ECHL, so it’s a really high standard of ice hockey.
Once that message gets out to enough people then the sport will grow. It’s such a great sport to watch it deserves to get more coverage than it currently receives. There are so many dynamics to the game that make it more exciting, and your average ice hockey game is more exciting than your average football game. For example a football match can sometimes be a dull 0-0 draw with very few shots on goal and no real talking points. However, ice hockey is on such a small ice pad compared to the size of a football pitch and the players move a lot faster because they are on skates so it makes it very end to end with a lot of action in front of goal. The ‘powerplay’ is a great dynamic to get a game to open up and spark some life into it if it takes a wee while to get going (A power play is when one team has an extra man advantage when a player from opposing team is sent to the penalty box for committing a foul).
Ice hockey also has golden-goal over time and penalty shots to decide a league game so there is always a winner and makes the climax to a close match more dramatic.
But with all that said I love football as much as ice hockey, they both have their own distinctive positives and they are actually very similar to each other in a lot of respects.
Do football clubs in Scotland take their fans for granted?
No, I definitely wouldn’t say that. More could be done to attract them but I don’t think supporters are taken for granted. Clubs realise how dependent they are on their fans.
Average attendances do look the most positive they’ve been in recent times at a lot of clubs but what would you say is one thing that could be done to attract more fans through the turnstiles in football?
You have to build up the identity of your club, your brand. Some clubs do this really well and have reaped the benefits of it such as Hibs, Motherwell and Dunfermline. These are all clubs who put a big focus on how they market and promote themselves and have made investments in the staff who can carry it out. Look at Motherwell’s quick-thinking to capitalise on Alexis Sanchez’s announcement video at Manchester United to do a parody of it with Peter Hartley. But I wouldn’t expect any less from a club as switched on as they are. I’ve also noticed Kilmarnock’s media output has improved recently after bringing in a dedicated communications officer.
Sometimes marketing ideas or gimmicks don’t always work but I think supporters at least see that the club is trying and appreciate that.
People behind the scenes like that just add so much to the club in terms of bringing fans through the turnstiles but also bringing new sponsorship to the club. Take a look at Dunfermline Athletic’s sponsorship brochure to see some of the clever and ‘outside the box’ ideas they have to entice businesses to advertise with them.
What needs to happen for sports organisations in Scotland to invest more resource off the pitch?
A willingness from the top down to recognise the importance of marketing and how digital communications and media can build a relationship with supporters and bring new ones in. There are a lot of talented and creative people with a passion for football, ice hockey and sports in this country, who I’m sure could take our sports clubs onto another level if given that chance.
One of your main passions is in video. Are clubs doing enough with video? What would be your advice to those looking to do more?
I think videos are a fantastic way to engage with supporters. It’s the one thing a supporter might actually stop to look at when scrolling down a club’s news feed. I was really passionate about founding the YouTube channels for Fife Flyers and St. Johnstone because it just makes your club that more accessible and with the rise of YouTube, Facebook and Twitter it was so easy to put this content on line and for people to watch, share and engage with it.
Megan Moss (now at Hibs) did a great job with Kyle Fummey in putting together the Saints starting line up graphics – I thought that was a great way to be innovative with the match line ups instead of a text graphic.
But I always look at the example Motherwell FC set. Their content is always a great standard, whether it’s the pre match press conference interviews cutting between the two angles or getting their players to play games or quizzes with each other.
Ross McDonald at the SPFL does a great job too. Similar to the NHL in North America, they make a lot of mini clips of games showing a well-worked goal, a piece of skill or a great save, things like that. Small, entertaining clips that are easy for supporters to watch and engage with.
Scottish football looks like it’s coming to an inflection point. What’s your thoughts on the current situation, and what’s one thing you’d like to see happen to improve things?
I think Scottish football is actually in a strong place. It’s the first time in a long time when the country’s biggest-supported clubs are in the top end of the table with top managers and players in their ranks. You’ve also got a club like Kilmarnock doing really well under new management, Motherwell are very strong at the minute, and St. Johnstone always find a way of proving critics wrong and having a strong end to the season.
I would definitely pay to go and see a few teams in the top flight right now, but that probably wasn’t something I would say a few years ago.
One thing the country needs is a strong leader in where it goes from here. With Stewart Regan’s departure I believe someone like Leeann Dempster would be a great candidate to replace him.
What organisations do you closely follow for inspiration?
I’ve always really liked the media content Motherwell FC produce and that goes back to when Alan Burrows was head of their media operation before being promoted within the club. I think other great examples are Colin Millar at Hibernian, Michael Mlotkiewicz at Dunfermline and Malcolm Panton at Aberdeen as people within the game who are very switched on and know how important digital media is and how it can be best utilised to promote their clubs. Look out for Megan Moss too!!
What do you think we’ll see more of in 2018 in terms of digital, social media and marketing?
It’s always hard to predict! But hopefully one is that professional sports clubs learn to use hashtags properly as a lot of clubs use them the same way a supporter would use them like a four or five word sentence that’s joined up to describe a mood. A sports club should be using hashtags in a very specific way to promote a particular campaign or event, or to allow supporters to engage in a conversation online about it in the way you have a chosen matchday hashtag. It’s a great way to encourage engagement if used properly.
I’d love to see more of an investment in video production equipment by clubs to improve that side of it too – Scotland is one of the windiest countries in the world so you need a proper hand-held/rifle microphone with a muffler to block out the wind so people can hear what’s being said. Make the video side of it more professional and you can engage with more with supporters. I know clubs could baulk at the thought of paying a couple of grand for a professional camera and tripod but they’ll last you for a few seasons and make your club look more professional so it’s worth the investment long term.
Have you got any advice for anyone looking to work in sport?
My best advice is to email or phone a local sports club and offer to help out on a matchday or through the week. You could help write content for their programme, take photos for their Instagram account, do interviews with players for their website, film highlights for them, etc. The lower down the leagues the club is the more responsibility they will give you initially so (if it’s football) get involved with a Lowland League or League Two side if possible. It’s a great way to meet people, gain experience, make contacts and see how a sports club operates behind the scenes.