The Rangers support is vast, you will find Bears in all corners of the world who are devoted and loyal to their club. Around 200,000 of these supporters descended on Manchester last season for the UEFA Cup Final, an unprecedented number of people actively following a football match. That single event served as proof of the Rangers' fan base's enormity, and these were just the English fans.
On the 9th of March 2006, Rangers Football Club signed a ten-year licensing agreement with JJB Sports PLC. As contained within a press release from the sportswear distributor, it was announced that JJB would "design, develop, and source all Rangers merchandise throughout its substantial network of 439 stores."
Also JJB was tasked with the “maintenance and order fulfilment of the Rangers online retail facility where Rangers product will continue to be sold."
The deal was struck and an initial payment of £18 million was paid to Rangers on the 6th of June 2006. This deal is accentuated by a minimum annual royalty of £3 million which is then added to the Rangers's revenue if sales thresholds are met and exceeded. The deal was put in place just as Alex McLeish’s tenure at Rangers was running out and the arrival of Paul Le Guen was looking more likely. The deal, brokered by Sir David Murray and Martin Bain, meant that 18 club shops were closed, leaving somewhere in the region of 200 Rangers workers unemployed.
But what has the deal brought to the club? Surely it is a good thing?
Another consideration that needs to be discussed is whether JJB are actually keeping up their end of the deal. How many JJB stores have you been into recently that have a good breadth of Rangers products to purchase or have made their Rangers merchandise clearly visible?
Problems of JJB mismanaging the deal could have been prevented. The conspiracy theorist in me makes me think that JJB is purposefully not selling Rangers merchandise to avoid high royalty costs. But that is merely conjecture, we will never really know.
But what could not have been predicted was the financial crisis, which has been thrust upon our country. JJB as a company is no different and is facing the prospect of closure. Now, I don't know what would happen to the Rangers' merchandise contract if JJB folds. But it would seem that the Rangers and Murray should have a Plan B.
Would we go back to handling our own merchandising and sales? Perhaps it would be a blessing in disguise if the deal with JJB was vetoed, allowing us to reanalyse and come up with a new innovative strategy.
Although the JJB deal has been a bonus for the club financially, I do not feel that the small increase of annual profit from JJB's sales is worth the loss of the Rangers' name from High Street or the reduced range of merchandise available. Yes, there is a wider range available online but, most supporters still prefer to shop in the High Street, as do most consumers in general. People feel a sense of pride and excitement when we purchase something we can take home. That is somewhat lost with Internet shopping.
Therefore, as has been said, the club must either cut our ties with the failing retail chain and negotiate a deal with one who will promise to offer a wide selection of Rangers merchandise. Or else reinvest in introducing the traditional Rangers superstores back onto the High Street. Sometimes you have to take one step backwards to take two steps forward.
Now, let’s have a look at how our generated merchandising income compares to others in Europe. International sports business group, Deloitte, recently published a list of the top twenty richest clubs in the world. Included in the report was a breakdown of each clubs' revenue; merchandise sales was of particular interest for this article.
Unsurprisingly, the top two clubs, Real Madrid and Manchester United made a whopping £102 million and £64 million respectively on commercial revenue. It would be unrealistic for Rangers to ever dream of competing with those figures in the short term.
Starting from South of the Border in England, you would expect there to be an abundance of Rangers merchandise given the large amount of JJB stores in the country. This is what an English Rangers fan had to say:
“I couldn't even get the home shirt in JJB this season until about September. The away and third shirts were never available. Anything we English Bears need, apart from the home shirt, has to be obtained either from the club shop or the official site online shop.
I'd like to see us promote and significantly expand the American market, as well as promoting the Rangers name in general within the rest of the UK, particularly England.”
It seems that JJB are proving to be just as poor in providing a good range of Rangers merchandise in England as they are in Scotland. The recent UEFA Cup Final, when a great many English Bears were looking to purchase Rangers kits for the big day, were told that there was none in stock.
Outside of Scotland, there are more Rangers supporters in Northern Ireland than in any other country in the world. Historical associations over the years has created a unique situation where thousands of Ulster men and women support the Light Blues and travel in vast numbers across the sea every week to lend their support. Here is the opinion of two such Rangers fans from Northern Ireland on the issue:
“In Belfast we used to have a Rangers superstore, but like everywhere else they were replaced by JJB.
JJB stores in Belfast started off with rather large RFC sections, but they have shrank down as time has passed, and now they rarely carry an more RFC stuff than say Manchester United.
Celtic still has a megastore in the city centre, whereas the availability of Rangers stuff is much more scattered and fragmented.
I do notice in Glasgow the JJB stores make much more of an effort to provide a 'Rangers section' than here in Ulster, but even in Glasgow I would say it’s a far cry from a Rangers store.
I would say that in the High Street, since the Rangers store closed, the lines available to buy over the counter products have reduced by at least 75 percent.
The merchandise that the Rangers shops carried such as DVD selections and leisure clothing is almost totally gone.”
In short, it's Internet only for anything much more than a full strip.”
“I find that Rangers merchandise isn't as readily available here as it is in Scotland, although it's still easy enough to go out and buy a strip at certain shops. I know of one small retail shop in town that sells Rangers jewelery, but you'd be hard pushed to find anything else. There's a Celtic shop in town, and you're far more likely to come across their merchandise here than anything else.
In saying that, I am from Londonderry, the town is mostly occupied with Catholic residents and the Waterside with Protestants. The Waterside doesn't have half as many shops, so it's understandable why it's hard to find anything in town. There is no reason there shouldn't be one in the Waterside. There is a JJB store, but there isn't much in it. For all I know Belfast or other places in Northern Ireland may have more products available, I just don't shop up there often.
Well basically after that rant, 'there's the odd stuff, but not a lot' sums it up.”
In Canada, there is also a very strong Rangers fan base, most member clubs of NARSA (North Atlantic Rangers Supporters Association) are indeed RSCs from Canada. Is there a good range of Rangers merchandise available to Canadian Bears?
“At the local level, I have never seen a single piece of Rangers merchandise in a store in Edmonton. Others who have been her longer than I have may have seen some once or twice, but I never have. You can get Celtic tops here though if you hunt around.
In other cities, I have occasionally seen Rangers shirts, but less frequently than their Celtic counterparts. The range is terrible, where there is anything available at all.
I don't have a problem with shopping on the Internet but I have to say I have never used the official club site or the JJB site to see if I could get something sent direct from them. My mum or dad bring me a jersey when they come over and occasionally I get bits and pieces from them in the post.
The club should give the fans the sense that they matter. Get a shirt deal going with SportChek or someone here in Canada so I can buy the shirts easily. Or at the very least have it so I can shop online here without paying an import tax on a shirt that is already costing me in pounds, not dollars.”
So in Edmonton at least, it seems that Rangers don't exist. There is no club merchandise available anywhere in the city. Not good enough when you consider that the city is home to many Rangers supporters who would be more than willing to buy Rangers merchandise if they could find it. What about other parts of Canada.
“The fact is that Rangers items are very hard to come by here. You walk in the shops here such as Foot Locker and other major retailers and you see nothing from Rangers. In saying that, Celtic is well represented. As are the likes of Manchester United, Barcelona, and AC Milan.
For a continent such as North America where there are thousands upon thousands of Rangers fans, the ability to pick up items is poor. Furthermore, when items are here, they are extremely pricey.
For my last Canadian purchase, I had to go to the Umbro catalogue and order from them because I knew a guy at the one store. It is horrible.
In my opinion, they should allow RSCs in North America to be able to sell the merchandise at UK cost levels. That would make sense to me.”
So this problem of Rangers merchandise being extremely rare seems to be an all too common story in Canada – and what little that there is available proves to be very expensive by UK standards. The above contributor makes a very valid recommendation too. Allowing NARSA registered clubs to import the merchandise in bulk and sell to their members is an interesting suggestion which will be explored later in this article.
There is a common theme occurring here, buying Rangers merchandise anywhere outside of the UK is close to impossible unless you are willing to pay to have it shipped from Scotland via JJB or the Rangers online megastore. Will switching to the other side of the world by getting an Australian supporter's point of view provide some much-needed positivity on the issue?
“Well I generally don't buy Rangers shirts here. For one, there aren't that many in sports stores. They are available but compared to the number of Celtic jerseys it's low. They're also quite expensive over here so I just get my relatives in Scotland to buy them and send them to me.
As far as other merchandise is concerned, it is non-existent. The only items available are football strips.
There is quite an extensive Scottish population in Australia who mostly support either Rangers or Celtic, so I think it would be worthwhile for Rangers to open at least one superstore in this country.
Football is actually taking off in Australia with the new A-League and the international side becoming part of the Asian region and doing so well. It could be worthwhile for Rangers to do a tour of Australia and play some friendlies against the A-League sides to further promote the club. Setanta has done a deal with Foxtel (main cable TV provider) to use their satellites, and this is mainly due to people who wanted to see the SPL, so the market for the Scottish game is definitely here to be tapped into.”
Evidently, the same story is appearing the world over. Little to no Rangers merchandise can be found outside of the UK. This is absolutely criminal for a club our size to have such a poor marketing strategy. The demand is clearly there as our last contributor demonstrated. Football is becoming a major sport in Canada, America, and Australia and a large Rangers support base exists in all three countries. Yet, the club either does not have the vision or the business acumen to satisfy this demand and make a substantial profit.
There are various ways in which Rangers Football Club should look to improve their marketing strategy both at home and overseas.
Firstly, JJB are clearly not holding up their end of the bargain. The company is in serious danger of liquidation and is not providing a good range of Rangers merchandise in comparison to the former Rangers club stores. We are not making enough of a financial profit from this deal to justify the decrease in market standards.
Therefore, the club should either look to negotiate a deal with another High Street sports store, who will provide a better range of merchandise or simply revert back to the old system of having multiple dedicated Rangers stores across the country. Thus, the name and logo of Rangers Football Club reappears on the High Street, and the initial flurry of supporters looking to discover the new stores will create good revenue, even if that will only be short-term.
The same method should be applied throughout the UK where there is demand. Cities like Belfast, London, and Liverpool would all benefit from having a Rangers megastore.
In North America, there is already an organisation in NARSA, which has the power to bring together thousands of Rangers supporters either through local RSCs or the highly popular annual conference. The club must approach both the individual RSCs and the wide NARSA community in order to establish ways of importing merchandise which will be easy for Rangers supporters to buy.
Our earlier contributor from Canada had the suggestion of allowing North American RSCs to buy merchandise in bulk and sell it to its members. In essence, this is what should be happening. The club should welcome such initiatives and in turn reward the RSCs with discounted prices on all imported merchandise and a free subscription to Rangers World for their members, or signed strips and photos. It makes these alienated supporters feel like they are still part of the Rangers family despite being so far away from their spiritual home. The club will also make serious amounts of money by tapping into this market.
In Australia ORSA and the local RSCs, although not as many exist, should be given these same opportunities. But the club could also engage with the local sports retail chains all over the country to establish trading links whereby they are willing to have plenty of Rangers club merchandise imported. With football becoming such a popular game"Down Under," it would be beneficial for the club to exploit this trend and make money and possibly new supporters from it. Why not also show some invention and adapt our merchandise to the climate of the country? Residents of Australia are hardly going to be responsive to buying padded Rangers training jackets and raincoats in such a sun-scorched country. Rangers beach towels, sun hats, and baseball caps would sell better.
The possibilities are endless.
Once successful trading systems are in place in the countries where most Rangers support comes from, there is the possibility to expand our horizons further still. The history of Rangers Football Club is an awe-inspiring story of rags to riches. It is a story that everyone loves, a success story. This story should be told to the world and not just those willing to seek it and learn about it. There are many great books which have been written on the story of the club and the various periods of our history. We could export these books to North America, Australia, Europe, and even Asia (in varying languages) to captivate the world by the club's rich history. This will undoubtedly prompt a bigger demand for Rangers merchandise on these continents.
It would be unreasonable to expect there to be Rangers merchandise at a local level all over the world so this is where the club must embrace the Internet much more than it currently has. The current online megastore is too expensive for supporters or customers outside of the UK. It is also not a swift and reliable delivery service, which is why many overseas supporters are relying on family or friends to send them the latest gear rather than buy from the online club shop.
Many British clubs such as Chelsea, Manchester United, and Liverpool have deals with international export companies who are paid to handle the delivery of all club merchandise around the world at a speedy and reliable rate. Rangers should look to make similar deal if we are to maximise our selling potential. The cost of a quick, reliable courier service will be more than expendable given the revenue we will earn from satisfied customers.
In conclusion, there is no doubt that the Rangers' current marketing strategy is failing both the supporters and the club itself. In times of financial trouble, we should be looking at initiatives to improve our income. With there being a huge, unsatisfied demand for Rangers merchandise all over the world, there is an opportunity for new revenue streams.
The club should work with RSCs and supporter organisations around the globe to develop measures in which the demand for merchandise is satisfied and to open new markets. The supporters in each country can provide the club with good knowledge of the local markets that can be used to our advantage. It is not an impossible task. We have a fan base to rival any of the major clubs in the world, but we simply don't have the vision to exploit it.
Now is the time for vision and constructive dialogue between the club and the Rangers' supporters to build towards a more profitable future where merchandise is available to all whom desire it.
[With special thanks to: BoltonLoyal, Brissyger, Toni, Bobby, Nvager, CanadaReady, CanadianGer for your fantastic contributions to this article.]