Norwegian champions present remarkable commercial growth via UN’s Sustainable Development Goals

19 August 2021

Photo: Alamy Players of FK Bodo/Glimt are seen prior to the UEFA Europa League Third Qualifying Round football match between AC Milan and FK Bodo/Glimt in September last year.

Chief executive Frode Thomassen of FK Bodø/Glimt, who won their first Norwegian Eliteserien league title in 2020, is leading a club even stronger than before the pandemic hit.

They were rewarded for doubling down on a unique sponsorship strategy which involves working with local organisations to promote the UN's Sustainable Development Goals.

When the Covid-19 restrictions came, the club lost most of their ticketing revenue but were able to recover the majority of it.

This article is part of a series of interviews with football executives asking what they learned from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Last year was the most successful in the 104-year history of FK Bodø/Glimt. So it was shame so few of their fans were able to witness it in person.

The club from the small Arctic Circle city of Bodø won their first Norwegian Eliteserien league championship in style. They broke records for the most points, biggest winning margin (19 points) and most goals (103 in 30 matches).

But the pandemic meant there were only 200 fans allowed in their 5,500-capacity Aspmyra Stadion for the majority of the season.

Chief executive at FK Bodø/Glimt, Frode Thomassen.
Photo: PR Chief executive at FK Bodø/Glimt, Frode Thomassen.

Fortunately, the club has become used to dealing with turbulence.

"As a club we have been through many changes in the last three or four years," Bodø/Glimt chief executive Frode Thomassen tells.

"For half of the last 10 years we have been in the second division. If we go back to 2017, we had a total income of €4.2 million.

"We are at a stage now where we have doubled it and we are probably one of the few clubs in Europe who have managed to increase our revenue streams that much."

Sustainable Hub

Ticketing makes up between 10 and 15 per cent of the club's overall income. However, Norwegian Government grants recovered 70 per cent of the lost ticketing revenue last year. Other costs, like travel to matches and VIP hospitality, were also naturally reduced as the season was delayed and then played with reduced capacities.

Thomassen says Bodø/Glimt took a pragmatic view on managing the pandemic.

"We had a different approach than the other clubs in in Norway, because we chose to just face it and not reduce our staff," he says.

"We said 'ok, this is how it is at the moment. We need to just work through this'."

He believes the mindset of "thinking differently" had already been instilled in the club, helping staff and players deal with the challenge.

While part of Bodø/Glimt's doubling of revenue is down to their positive performance on the pitch, they have boosted sponsorship income by positioning the club as a "sustainable hub".

Four years ago, they were in the second division and struggling to attract fans and secure sponsorships from local businesses. In searching for a way to become "more relevant", they saw a presentation about how organisations can help society achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030.

First mover

Bodø/Glimt embraced the idea. Instead of having a brand's logo on the back of the players' shirts, they display the slogans:

"Give everything for a sustainable future" and "Action Now". For each home match, the club partners with an organisation connected to one of the SDGs and promotes their work. Even the academy teams have each picked an SDG and volunteer in the local community to support the goal.

The idea found favour with local businesses. Several came on board to support the drive to promote sustainability.

"We like to see ourselves as a first mover in European football because of the way we work with the UN's SDGs and we see other clubs in Norway are very inspired by us. And more and more clubs are taking that position," Thomassen says.

"We live in a city which has a vision of becoming a world class green smart city. We live in a community which take that really seriously.

"And we are getting more income from being innovative and thinking differently when it comes to networking and working with both public authorities and business partners."

When the pandemic hit, the club doubled down on their sustainable sponsorship strategy. They created new concepts for their partners, for example taking networking to digital platforms. By sticking with the plan, sponsors – and supporters – stuck by them.

A more strategic approach

"People stood with us in that period and were not asking for their money back. When things become difficult, you can either choose to lay back and see how things go or you can see it as an opportunity to put your foot on the gas," Thomassen says.

"We came through it and it changed our way of working with our partners. We have a more strategic approach and a more community approach. We have made a positive change in the role the club plays in the society around us.

"We took positive steps and I think we have made a pretty strong platform for the future."

Another pillar of their business model which will remain post-pandemic is a commitment to developing academy players. Aiming for 40 per cent of their squad to be from northern Norway, Bodø/Glimt have built an identity and at the same time generated revenue in the transfer market.

AC Milan's Hakan Calhanoglu (L) vies with Bodo/Glimt's Brede Mathias Moe (R) during the Europa League third round qualifying football match between AC Milan and Bodo/Glimt in Milan, Italy, Sept. 24, 2020.
Photo: Alamy AC Milan's Hakan Calhanoglu (L) vies with Bodo/Glimt's Brede Mathias Moe (R) during the Europa League third round qualifying football match between AC Milan and Bodo/Glimt in Milan, Italy, Sept. 24, 2020.

The 21-year-old winger Jens Petter Hauge, who came through the Bodø/Glimt academy, was sold to Italian giants AC Milan last year after impressing in a Europa League match against them. The reported fee was €5 million.

And it is not only academy graduates who have made the club a profit. Striker Kasper Junker was acquired from Danish side AC Horsens in January last year for €370,000. After scoring 27 times in 25 matches, he joined Japanese team Urawa Reds in April this year for a price nearly six times what Bodø/Glimt paid.

While those sorts of deals look harder in a "low" transfer market, Thomassen sees a longer-term opportunity to increase the visibility of Norwegian players.

We all need to come together and work for more sustainable solutions and we also need to change the minds of people.

"For us the pandemic hasn't changed the way we work. We will try to stick with what has made us successful, which is producing homegrown players," he says.

Quite lucky

"We will never be able to compete with the bigger clubs in bigger leagues in Europe but we have the ambition in Norway to take steps to get to another level. At the moment we are ranked 22nd best league in Europe. But if we can get into the top 15, Norwegian clubs will have more opportunities to compete in Europe and it will also make Norwegian players more interesting for the international market."

Thomassen says his club have been "quite lucky" to time their first championship during 2020, and now have a "more solid financial platform than before the pandemic".

But he thinks there are lessons for the whole football industry to learn from the crisis, and an opportunity for clubs to be a force for positive change.

"It was a challenging period and it's not over yet because we still don't have all the spectators back. But I think the club has probably come through stronger because we are now more connected to each other," Thomassen says.

"When it's hard times, some businesses refuse to back off and are more offensive in their thinking. There are a lot of business books about that – when it's hard times you have to be innovative and think differently and then you can come through stronger.

"In the pandemic and post-pandemic period, I think clubs that can change their thinking and actions can become more relevant. We all need to come together and work for more sustainable solutions and we also need to change the minds of people.

"I think sport clubs, not just in football, can take another position in the future. It's not about only playing football – we have bigger goals.