#1 Ross Quaile – Commercial Manager, Partick Thistle
In a first for Pure Fitbaw, Graeme Ellis and Gavin Miller were invited Behind the Scenes at Partick Thistle. We spent an informative and enlightening morning at Firhill chatting all things Thistle and Scottish football with the club’s Commercial Manager, Ross Quaile.
This was a major coup for the site in its formative days, and in much the same way as the SFA recently claimed an ‘exclusive’ when it secured an interview with a current Scotland internationalist, so PF will claim this as an exclusive, and why not? It will also be the first of many such interviews aiming to give a holistic view of the work that goes on behind the scenes at Scottish clubs. It’s a pretty healthy 10-minute read, so make yourself a brew and enjoy!
Can you remember what you were doing on your last birthday? Ross Quaile spent his 29th birthday in front of the Partick Thistle board of directors interviewing for his current position as Commercial Manager at Firhill. With a background in sales and business development at Sky, Quaile already had contacts within the game, including Thistle’s Managing Director Ian Maxwell (more on him later). But this interview came around somewhat by chance when one of Quaile’s Thistle-supporting mates alerted him to the advertised vacancy. The rest, as they say, is history and on 1st August 2017, just four days before the Jags’ SPFL Premiership curtain-raiser away to Hibs, he was in position as the club’s new Commercial Manager.
Ross opens by telling us that the role is probably different everywhere, depending on the size of the club. At Partick Thistle, Quaile is not just the manager of the commercial department – he IS the commercial department. That means dealing with everything from hospitality and corporate sales on matchday, to bringing new sponsorship and partnership deals into the club. Basically anything to maximise revenue.
Although there are a lot of transferable skills that Ross brought from his previous role, he says that dealing with the sheer weight of the workload has been the most challenging aspect of the job. He also tells how he quickly got over the feeling of being star-struck in his early days at the club when manager Alan Archibald or some of the players would be milling around.
“They’re just normal guys like us, who happen to play football for a living.”
“There are tough days like with any job, but on the whole I enjoy everything I do and it’s a great club and a great place to be.”
The Hearts game at Tynecastle earlier in the season – which was in doubt due to delays in getting the new Tynecastle stand ready in time, was a massive eye-opener says Quaile. He explained how the back-room machinations were completely different to the “sensationalised” way it was delivered through the media. Everyone involved from Thistle, Hearts, the SPFL and SFA were in constant communication and dialogue in order to do as much as possible to get the game on, and to ensure that fans and stakeholders were kept informed every step of the way.
This relationship with the media would become a recurring theme as the conversation progressed. As an aside, this was music to Pure Fitbaw’s ears, having been established to provide an alternative and authentic source of information and debate for fans of all clubs and at all levels of the Scottish game.
One of the major aspects of Quaile’s role, which is universal throughout the club and not just from a commercial standpoint, is to improve the image of the club; promoting positive values and positioning Thistle as the family-friendly club it is, and aspires to be. Part of this is simply spreading the message of what’s available to fans, advertisers and sponsors through Partick Thistle. Quaile says the perception of football is that things will be prohibitively expensive, when that’s not necessarily the case. A big part of his remit is to find out what stakeholders wish to achieve – meaning he plays a pivotal role in everything from sales to activation.
‘Activation’ sounded to PF suspiciously like a marketing buzzword. When pressed further, Quaile was able to point us to the now world-famous Thistle mascot, Kingsley, as a perfect example of what the ‘activation’ of a commercial partnership can look like. Introduced in 2015 as part of Thistle’s sponsorship deal with US-based Kingsford Capital, Kingsley was designed by the artist and Turner prize nominee, David Shrigley. Of course it quickly went viral on social media and gained the Jags and Kingsford Capital worldwide attention, the likes of which most football clubs could only dream of. Kingsley continues to perform well for the club, and has just won the Scottish Football Supporters Association’s (SFSA) Mascot of the Year for the second year running.
Although before Quaile’s time at the club, he explains how this type of ‘activation’ is about “bringing your sponsorship to life”. This could also include, but is not limited to; photo opportunities with players, social media competitions, pretty much anything that drives customer interaction and grabs attention. Its only real limiting factor is the imagination of those involved, and there’s clearly no shortage of that around Kingsley’s manor!
Another example of this activation is with Just Employment Law, who now host a monthly networking meeting within Firhill. Since the company moved the event from its own offices – just 5 minutes down the road, the event has grown from 20-30 people to 70 or 80 attendees regularly. As a one-off event Ross says Thistle were happy to host. Based on its subsequent success, the club and main sponsor JEL have continued to co-host and develop the initiative further. Quaile says it’s win-win for everyone. New connections are made and it’s also the ideal opportunity to show off the club’s facilities and give prospective new partners an idea of what they can expect when working with the club.
The Energy Check Stadium @ Firhill
This led us nicely on to a burning issue that PF couldn’t wait to get into – namely The Energy Check Stadium @ Firhill. Since moving from Partick to Maryhill in 1909, the club and the stadium have been part of the very fabric of the local community. How, then, do you broach the subject of changing the name and identity of the club’s home for over a century without upsetting the fans?
Talk about introducing yourself with a bang! This was one of the very first deals struck with Quaile’s feet barely under the table at the soon-to-be-rebranded stadium and it could hardly have been any bigger or more impactful. Ross takes up the story…
“during negotiations it became clear that stadium naming rights would be on the table. However, the company itself was keen to retain the existing identity and thus the name The Energy Check Stadium @ Firhill was agreed.”
Pure Fitbaw put it to Quaile that fans and punters will basically just ignore the new name and it will continue to be known as Firhill. He agreed to an extent, in as much as it will be forever known “down the pub” as Firhill, but was keen to point out that the fans’ response to the partnership and the stadium’s new name has been extremely positive.
It also provided a fascinating insight as to how these decisions are made at board level. This was not an issue that fans were canvassed on ahead of time, says Quaile.
“There are certain decisions, this being one of them, where the club has to take leadership in making these calls for the benefit of the club’s long-term commercial health.”
He added, “in this day and age, fans are broadly supportive as they appreciate that this type of commercial revenue is vital to the running of the club.”
Proof of the pudding…
Thistle finished in sixth position in Scotland’s top-flight in season 2016/17 – a 36-year-high. Quaile goes on to explain that results like that, along with some of the club’s pre-season signings this year, are evidence of deals like this bearing fruit.
“When the manager has the funds to sign the likes of (Miles) Storey from Aberdeen and (Conor) Sammon from Hearts, we now have the biggest squad that Thistle has carried for a number of years. Fans can therefore see directly – through the strength in depth of the playing squad on the pitch, the benefits of things like the stadium naming rights, and where that investment has gone.”
On that point, PF asked how league position and prize money impacts on the club’s finances and planning. Quaile says that even prior to his arrival, the club has been run on a very firm financial footing.
PF: So, what’s the difference between a top-six and bottom six finish?
RQ: “It does have an impact. But we’re run in such a way that our budget is conservative and therefore not reliant on performance on the pitch. Success on the pitch is a welcome bonus, but it’s fair to say that the office isn’t a happy place on a Monday if the team has lost over the weekend.”
PF: But surely you would rather be 10 points better off and therfeore secure at this point of the season? Relegation wouldn’t be an issue and the club would be all but guaranteed of its top-flight-status once again for next term.
RQ: “Of course. It can affect planning for next season. If the team was safely (in the) top six, it may speed things up a bit in terms of sponsors and partners being able to commit to their spend and decisions for the coming season.”
“However, we don’t budget for a top six position. To do so would be too risky. Unless you’re a Rangers, Celtic, or perhaps Aberdeen, you’ll always be guessing in terms of league position, and that’s just one of the things you have to put up with working at a football club.”
PF: On that note, how do you find it dealing with your couterparts at other clubs, and are the SFA and SPFL proactive and supportive?
RQ: “I had a meeting yesterday at Hampden which saw representatives from the SFA, SPFL and the member clubs’ Commercial, Marketing and Communications teams, and this was a welcome opportunity to work together.
“Everyone recognises that Scottish football is stronger together, so there is a shared responsibility to work together to improve the image of the game.”
From a Pure Fitbaw point of view, the big takeaway from this is that communication and collaboration between clubs and governing bodies is therefore vitally important. Quaile points out again that “perceptions in the media are not always representative of what’s going on behind the scenes.”
PF: You’ll presumably be keen for Mr. Maxwell to get the top job then? (Ed: At the time of writing it was widely expected that Thistle’s Managing Director Ian Maxwell would replace Stewart Regan as the SFA’s CEO.)
RQ: *Laughing* No comment!
PF: Pure Fitbaw is giving you a blank canvas. What would you like to see that would make your job easier?
RQ: “Everyone wants to see a more family-friendly Scottish football that becomes more attractive to a wider audience. Attendances across Scotland have been growing year-on-year with increased average gates for the past four seasons.
“Working together and communication between clubs and fans will be key to this and will sustain the future of Scottish football. You want to engage the fans, especially the next generation of fans who are the future of the Scottish game.”
Strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats
Talking about young fans in particular there was a broad discussion about some of the threats and competition that Thistle and others face in getting youngsters to attend games. The most obvious is the oft-repeated mantra of the ubiquitous games console, whose controller first needs to be surgically removed from the hand of many a young football fan. Not just that, but the emergence in Glasgow alone of the Warriors – rugby union, the Rocks – basketball, and the Brahead Clan – ice hockey, means that clubs are now operating in a vastly changed landscape.
Quaile was a Glasgow Warriors season ticket holder prior to taking up his role at Thistle, and says he’s taken lessons from other sports. For example, the Warriors had a crowd north of 10,000 people at one particular match a couple of seasons ago. Quaile reiterates that for this to be achieved at a non-football venue in Glasgow, traditionally a hotbed for football, proves that they are doing something right. It follows, then, that there is potentially much to be learned from the matchday experience on offer at these ‘alternative’ sporting venues and events.
Instead of competing, Quaile and Thistle are leading the way in embracing this new landscape and forging partnerships with these sports as they begin to enjoy their newly found semi-professional status in Scotland. Indeed the Jags have partnered up with the Glasgow Rocks basketball franchise, who play their home matches at the Emirates Arena. Season-ticket holders at Thistle can take advantage of discounted ticket prices at the basketball and vice versa. Quaile and some of the Thistle players have attended matches, taking free-throws and posing for selfies with fans. All of this aligns with Thistle’s intention to be seen as the family-friendly club in Glasgow.
Projects and marketing
Once again there is a theme running through the entirety of the conversation that led us neatly on to some of the Jags’ social media interaction with fans. The #WeAreThistle campaign is one such example of the club attempting to stand out in a crowded marketplace, dominated in football terms by the giants that are Celtic and Rangers, and now coping with the emergence of new and growing alternative sports.
#WeAreThistle was born out of the club’s highest league finish since 1981, sixth place in the Premiership last season. Quaile noted that this was a move away from the “cuddly” image that Thistle has traditionally had as Glasgow’s ‘other’ team. He’s also keen to point out that the Media and Communications team deserve all the credit for this!
The influential twitter account @oldfirmfacts1, above, doing what it does, reflecting (with tongue firmly in cheek) the prevalent attitudes and stereotypes that surround ‘hipster’ Jags fans.
Asked what he thinks about the hipster stereotype, Ross shrugs it off, saying it’s a bit of fun. Let’s be honest, there are sections of the Thistle support that play up to it on social media! He goes on to mention that the club has a diverse fanbase and a “unique opportunity to capitalise on that and make Thistle the ultimate family-friendly club.”
Thistle were the first club to introduce “Kids Go Free” as far back as 2008, a scheme that remains popular and has been widely copied by others. All under-16s go free to all matches covered by Thistle season-tickets. Quaile says that the benefits are only starting to be reaped now, a decade on. It has also been telling in that many people still just don’t understand that there are initiatives like this in place to make football more accessible to young fans and of course families.
To combat that, a lot of effort is being put into Jagzone, Thistle’s online subscription service in collaboration with Fierce Digital. You can see more on the club’s official website www.ptfc.co.uk/jagzone. Through this partnership, over 100 season tickets have already been given away to charities and good causes. But the Kids Go Free initiative, driven by Thistle’s Supporter Liaison Officer (SLO) Beth Adamson, is here to stay. If it makes The Energy Check @ Firhill a cheaper family day out than Ibrox or Celtic Park and sways a few fans’ decision of where to watch their football on a Saturday afternoon then so be it.
It would be completely remiss of Pure Fitbaw not to ask about this! Conor Sammon’s arrival at the club, and subsequent purple patch in terms of goals, led to one of the stranger twitter hashtags of Scottish football’s season so far. The local branch of Pizza Express got involved ‘feeding the fish’ and rewarding Sammon for being named the sponsors’ man-of-the-match. Once again Thistle went viral as Sammon was presented with a freshly delivered pizza, and a now infamous photo of the striker looking less than happy about it.
But there’s no mystery behind this, the match in question was a home defeat to Dundee. Two goals in the final six minutes robbed Thistle of a much-needed win, hence the Irishman’s rather morose expression. Not even pizza, it would seem, can soften the blow of a defeat!
#SoldOutSaturday is another initiative that reinforces the success that Quaile has achieved already in a short space of time at the club. At his first home game, an absolute ripsnorter of a match that ended 4-3 to visitors Aberdeen, there were seventy in matchday hospitality. The past five Saturday matches have sold out and have seen up to 200 people enjoying the ‘legendary Firhill’ hospitality experience. He’s proud of the fact that they have created the demand for this and looks forward to seeing out the season in style at the post-split fixtures.
Before that, Thistle will host a Ladies Day on 7th April at the home match against Kilmarnock. Again, this is about pushing the all-inclusive nature of the club and aims to capitalise on the recently completed Female Fans Survey. There will be plenty going on, including celebrity endorsement, all-female mascots and much more, promises Ross!
A quickfire round to cover some other bits and pieces that we just couldn’t resist!
PF: What legends do you see around the club?
RQ: “Obviously Archie (manager Alan Archibald) and Scotty (Assistant Scott Patterson) are club legends, then you have Gerry Britton, who works upstairs with the Thistle-Weir Academy. But the biggest legend of all is Club Historian Robert Reid, the only non-playing inductee to the Partick Thistle Hall of Fame.”
PF: Speaking of the Weirs (Euromillions winners Colin and Christine), how involved are they at the club?
RQ: “They’re great. They have been influential in the formation of the Thistle-Weir youth academy as well as plans for the new training ground.” (A new state of the art, purpose-built, £4m training facility due to open in 2019).
PF: What’s your best memory?
RQ: “Two. Doolan’s last-minute equaliser against Rangers in the League Cup, and also another late winner against Dundee, where I again celebrated amongst the fans in hospitality!”
PF: What’s your prediction for the rest of the season?
RQ: “Well, we’re going to stay up, obviously. We have three tough games coming up, but the real nitty-gritty will come after the split, and I’m confident the players and coaching staff will get the job done!”
PF: What’s your proudest moment or biggest achievement so far?
RQ: “Everything we’ve done off the pitch so far has been really positive. The feedback from fans through social channels has been the ultimate compliment. It’s really just the beginning though and there’s lots more to come.”
We’re excited to say that there’s also much more to come from us here at Pure Fitbaw. Hopefully you’ve enjoyed this peek Behind the Scenes and will join us again as we visit other SPFL clubs. All that remains for now is for us to once again thank Ross Quaile and all at Partick Thistle FC for allowing us this access to the club and for the unique insight it provided!