🔥Upside Chat: James Murray, Chief of Staff, AC Milan (Serie A) and Non-Executive Director at the Scottish Women’s Premier League.
This week we had the honor to interview James Murray, Chief of Staff at AC Milan, a top Italian soccer team. James is also the Non-Executive Director at the Scottish Women’s Premier League.
📝Show Notes: Through this interview, we touched on his background, his role at AC Milan and what it was like to win the Serie A last year. Then I touched on the club’s recent partnerships in the web 3.0/NFT space with companies like Sorare, OneFootball, and Socios. Then we discussed Milan Lab and the importance of technologies for the club. We also touched on his new non-exec position in Scottish Women's Football and how it is important to him. Lastly we discussed the growing popularity of women soccer at the latest European soccer championships.
Best Quotes: Here’s some of the key discussion points and best quotes from our conversation with James:
On his role as Chief of Staff at AC Milan:
“I think the role of Chief of Staff makes people think of the White House or the West Wing or something like that, but I was the first hire by the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Ivan Gazidis when he moved from Arsenal to AC Milan under the new ownership of Elliot Management a few years ago”.
“I came in without a job description, but with a mandate to help the CEO and the ownership define what the club needed to do better, where we needed to invest, what our priorities should be, and then I really had to get my hands dirty on the execution of those priority projects”.
“I've had the opportunity to work across almost all areas of the club in the last three and a half years or so that I’ve spent with AC Milan from commercial deals to a lot of the planning behind our new stadium project to more branding-led initiatives like our partnership and work with Roc Nation to budgeting and financial planning”.
“So it's a great variety of projects and that's what I really enjoy about the role. In addition to that, I also help manage some of the club’s external institutional relationships with organizations like ECA, UEFA and Serie A, so I get that sort of broad perspective of the football industry”.
“It's been a great ride for the now nearly 10 years I've been working in Club football. And it's fair to say that the industry has changed quite a lot. I've seen it from two different perspectives across two different leagues, and two different big clubs. And hopefully there is a lot more to come from the AC Milan project”.
On what it is like to work for a top club like AC Milan:
“ It's an incredibly special organization and what you just said is something that you repeatedly hear on a day to day basis, whoever you come across. There's this incredible history and heritage at AC Milan”.
“It's an amazing organization to work for. It's something that really means much more than a business or even a football team. You really get the sense that it's a part of people's identity and that comes with a huge sense of responsibility”.
On AC Milan’s solid reputation across the world:
“There is this incredible goodwill towards AC Milan from football fans and non-football fans alike. This is an incredible global heritage brand with hundreds of millions of fans and followers. But it's fair to say that both AC Milan and Italian football, have had a difficult 10 years period from the mid 2000s up until around five years ago”.
“And I think that obviously has created some challenges for the club and for its competitors in Italy, but it's also an enormous opportunity. We talked about when we first arrived at AC Milan, and I believe it's still to be true today, that AC Milan has the highest growth potential in the football league with the highest growth potential in the world”.
On what it was like for AC Milan to win the title (Serie A) last year after 11 years:
“It was honestly such a special thing to be a part of that. And like you said, the fan base had waited 11 years. And to my previous point, it was not just so much about what was achieved. Now the magnitude of the title was obviously huge, particularly in the context of the wait, but I think it was how the club - the ownership and the technical department - managed to do it by not just outspending the competitors, but by bringing AC Milan back into competitiveness and ultimately winning the title while also significantly reducing the wage bill”.
“We won the title while in the process of reconstructing the off pitch side of the club and starting to generate the kind of commercial success that the club had in its more recent history. And the fact that we're just coming out of the global pandemic, we all hope, there was also this incredible release of emotion”
On the fans’ celebration when they won the title last year:
“You had hundreds of thousands of people lining the streets of Milan when the team were going through the city to parade the trophy. We also had a couple of thousand of people at midnight on the night when the team came back from their away game where they won the title outside our office singing and celebrating”.
“Our fan base globally also celebrated the event. We had hundreds of parties and celebrations going on in every country of the world. And we started to see fans that had proactively taken it upon themselves to crowdfund money to purchase advertising space on our behalf to celebrate”.
“You had skyscrapers in China lighting up in red and black with the AC Milan logo saying “Congratulations, AC Milan champions”. So if we were not aware before, that really gave us a sense of the scale of the following and the passion of the fan base that we have. It was a really incredible experience and hopefully one that we're going to be able to use as the platform for more success”.
On the crypto and web 3.0 space and the club’s recent partnerships in the web 3.0/NFT space with companies like Sorare, OneFootball, and Socios:
“I think it's super exciting. We've been very fortunate to be able to do a lot of partnership deals, in many different areas, over the last few years. We have our first ever sleeve sponsorship with BitMEX, which is another company very active in the crypto trading space”.
“We've started to see a huge amount of activity across the sports industry and not only in sports around web 3.0 (..) And I think that progression towards web 3.0 certainly appears to be one that is going to be here to stay and it is going to accelerate. The reality is that we are just scratching the surface of the potential of that technology and the opportunities that these platforms open up in terms of how you can engage with your fans”.
“Partnering with organizations like Sorare, OneFootball and Socios, brings so much credibility, technology and expertise within those areas. I think there's a huge mutual learning experience. There's an amazing scalability to working with companies like that. And hopefully we can leverage those partnerships to really be able to create some exciting new experiences for our fans and to make sure that we are relating to them in the platform and in the ways in which they they're going to be consuming their content”.
“It feels like an incredibly important trend and an area that we need to have expertise on. We need to be working with the right people. And on the basis of what we've seen from the start of those partnerships that you mentioned, I think that there's some really exciting things to come”.
On the importance of technologies and AC Milan’s Milan Lab, the mind room and the fact that AC Milan has been a pioneer and an early adopter of new technologies:
“Milan Lab is another big part of the club's more recent history and heritage (..) It is also the term for the more technology and data driven areas of our performance side, which is incredible”.
“At AC Milan, we're absolutely a pioneer there and going as far back as the late eighties, early nineties in terms of modern technology around enhancing sports performance. And so it's important for us as the stewards of the club to continue that reputation. We're heavily data driven in the way that we recruit players and in the way that we analyze performance”.
“We're always looking to make sure that we continue to be leaders in the way in which we use technology, both on and off the pitch. And hopefully there's a bright future for Milan Lab as an umbrella, which can live up to the incredible heritage that we have. And there are the stories, even as far back as the Berlusconi era and how the club used to push the boundaries”.
“Our players and our legends will still regularly talk about Milan Lab, and credit it with many of them playing into their late thirties and forties. So it's an amazing part of our brand story, which gives us a lot of potential to exploit”.
On his non-Executive Director at the Scottish Women’s Premier League:
“This is something which I became involved in relatively recently, only in the last few months. I have been appointed to the board of a new entity. And the clubs and state and other stakeholder groups in Scotland have formed the Scottish women's premier league”.
“ I just think that it's exciting that the clubs in particular, but in general the game in Scotland, has gotten behind the women's game. They have seen it as the right time to develop this new entity, and establish this new league, and really invest in the professionalism and the growth of the women's game”.
“Despite my accent, I do have Scottish heritage and it's something which I am incredibly proud to be a part of. And I think it's only the start of what I think is going to be a really exciting journey. And I believe that if people weren't already really waking up to the potential of women's sports and women's football in particular, so hopefully they will now. The timing of this project really couldn't have been any better”.
On the growing popularity of women's soccer at the latest European Soccer Championship:
“As someone who's been involved in elite football for the last 10 years, I've seen this growing groundswell of support and momentum around women's football. So I can't say that it came as a complete surprise. I always thought it was a case of when and not if the potential and attractiveness of women's football was going to be discovered. But perhaps the scale of the viewership and the passion, and they were talking about 365 million cumulative viewers at the most recent Women's Championships and some of the scenes that we saw from the stadium and obviously the celebrations around England winning the tournament, was phenomenal. And we launched the rebranded Scottish women's league only days after that final, which was really a perfect timing”.
“But I think that anyone who's attended Women's matches can understand the potential and the appeal around it. The women who are and have been involved in professional football or in women's football, even before it started the journey towards professionalizing as it is at the moment, are incredible role models and ambassadors. They understand the responsibility that they have, and the values that they have and the potential to represent around inclusiveness and progressiveness and tackling adversity. There is a closeness between the fans and the players, which I think there, has sadly, in many cases, been lost in the men's game, at least at the physical events”.
“And I believe that women's football has such a unique opportunity to capture the imagination of people and ultimately to reap the commercial rewards of that. There's every hope and aspiration that women's football should become commercially sustainable and incredibly successful in the short term”.
“That's effectively the opportunity that I've seen in the Scottish game, which certainly has a lot to learn from some of the more developed women's football programs around the world. But it's certainly not something which is a surprise to me. And I think, again, it's something that I keep on saying, but I believe that we we're really only scratching the surface of the potential that women's football has”.