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Rob Wicks: Atlanta United visit is chance for Aberdeen to learn lessons on technology, fan engagement, stadium design and more

Atlanta United's impressive Mercedes Benz Stadium, with Aberdeen's commercial director Rob Wicks, inset.
Atlanta United's impressive Mercedes Benz Stadium, with Aberdeen's commercial director Rob Wicks, inset.

On Monday, Aberdeen jetted off for a winter camp at Atlanta United’s training base – making it the perfect time to launch our multi-part Aberlanta and Beyond series exploring the Dons’ partnerships with clubs across the globe.

For the past few weeks, we’ve been talking to key figures at Aberdeen and elsewhere to establish the benefits the Pittodrie outfit see in working with their roster of current partners – Major League Soccer (MLS) side Atlanta, California grassroots side Allstars United SC and KR Reykjavik.

We’ve also asked whether we could we see more of these partnerships in future.

In part two of Aberlanta and Beyond, Aberdeen commercial director Rob Wicks details why strategic partnerships are valuable off the park, and why this week’s visit to Atlanta in particular can provide lessons on a range of topics from creating a better matchday fan experience to stadium design.

Partners can help Dons growth off the field – in systems, tech, fan engagement and stadium design

Aberdeen fans’ focus may be firmly on events on the pitch, but commercial director Rob Wicks believes the Dons’ strategic partnerships are a vital tool to the club improving their off-field performance.

The pause in domestic football for the World Cup in Qatar has given the Dons the chance to visit one of their key partners in Atlanta United.

Manager Jim Goodwin and his squad made the trip to Georgia yesterday ahead of a week-long training camp which includes a friendly against an Atlanta United XI on Wednesday (8pm).

While Goodwin and his players will be hellbent on preserving their fitness ahead of the December return to action, for Wicks and other members of the Dons operational team, this week is equally important.

He said: “This is an opportunity for both parties (Aberdeen and Atlanta) to learn. There are opportunities to explore synergies and economies of scale.

“Every football club – irrespective of size – has systems of some sort, technology of some sort, a fan engagement programme, stadium design. We can always learn from others.

“We’ve made some tentative steps for example in the world of esports.

“Atlanta United have an exciting esports programme and there is a lot we can learn from that.

“They do a phenomenal job with their social media and their broadcast and I think again there are lessons for us to learn.”

Dons believe stadium lessons can be learned from Atlanta

Given Atlanta play in front of 60,000 fans while the Dons are averaging 16,000 at Pittodrie, shared practice may not be easily identifiable for the layman.

But Wicks believes, despite being founded only eight years ago, United’s rise to prominence and place as a leading MLS side presents his club with invaluable insight.

He said: “We’re looking at their experiences and trying to take what might work within the context of Scotland and then try to apply it to improve the relationship we’ve got with our fans, ideally create a better matchday experience and look at ways particularly from a commercial perspective that we can drive new sponsorship, commercial revenues etc.

“Obviously there are some fantastic learnings to come out of the Atlanta United stadium and all they went through in the build process.

The new Aberdeen FC stadium plans are part of a proposed regeneration of the city’s beachfront. Image: Aberdeen City Council

“Yes, of course we’re talking about completely different sized stadiums.

“(But) with the thought of a new stadium at the beach, there are so many things we can learn and apply within a Scottish context.

“We’ve got a series of meetings coming up when we head out there and we’re going to be reviewing a broad range, everything from fan engagement to commercial ideas.

“One of their founding partners, Gallagher Insurance for example, have come on board as match sponsor for the friendly against an Atlanta United XI.

“There’s one example of how we have able to work closely together and pull that off.”

Aberdeen chairman instrumental in Atlanta presence – but no management input from Five Stripes

Aberdeen chairman Dave Cormack.

The Five Stripes, as Atlanta United are known by their loyal fanbase, came on board – literally – with the Dons in late 2019.

Dave Cormack, who has a base in Atlanta, convinced the club’s parent company AMB Sports and Entertainment, to take a 10% stake in the Dons prior to assuming the role of chairman from Stewart Milne.

The £2 million investment package made by AMBSE was part of a £5m investment, led by Cormack, into the club and Wicks insists the chairman has played a leading role in establishing the working relationship.

He said: “Dave is based in Atlanta and has forged a very strong relationship with the club.

“They’ve had a meteoric rise, winning the MLS and performing in the way they have for such a young club, and they’ve done some really remarkable things in a very short space of time.

Atlanta United’s players celebrate after defeating Portland Timbers 2-0 to win the MLS Cup championship soccer game in 2018. Imgae: Shutterstock

“Dave worked very closely with (former Atlanta president) Darren (Eales) and a number of other representatives.

“We’ve had Atlanta United representatives come over and spend time here from the US and vice-versa, we’ve gone there as well.

“If you wind the clock back a couple of years, the investment which came from Atlanta at the time helped put the club on a firmer financial footing.

“Other than the day-to-day discussion and involvement, they don’t have any direct involvement in the running of the club.

“They have a seat on the board, but there is no day-to-day management responsibility whatsoever.

“I think our upcoming trip to Atlanta is going to be an interesting one where we can really look to forge closer ties.”

Efstathiou the new ‘fully engaged’ Atlanta representative in Dons boardroom

Dimitrios Efstathiou represents Atlanta’s interests on the Aberdeen board.

Former Atlanta president Eales was the representative on the Pittodrie board but he departed from the Five Stripes early this year for a new role at Newcastle United.

His replacement is Dimitrios Efstathiou, the vice-president of soccer operations and strategy at United.

Wicks says the new director’s background ensures he is well placed to offer unique insight in commercial operations.

Wicks said: “It’s a like for like replacement in terms of Darren leaving the board and Dimitrios joining.

“Firstly, Darren made a really valuable contribution to the board and it was a pity to lose him.

“Ironically we’ll probably see a bit more of Darren given he is quite literally down the road, rather than 6,000 miles away in Atlanta.

“I’m sure he is enjoying his new challenge at Newcastle and we certainly wish him well.

Former Atlanta United president Darren Eales. Image: Kenny Elrick

“In Dimitrios, what we’ve gained is someone with some really interesting experience given his legal background and MLS background.

“He spent 11 years at the MLS as vice-president of business and legal affairs.

“That will have come with some really interesting experiences that he can help share from our perspective when we meet and we’re looking forward to tying up with him when we go to Atlanta.

“He’s not yet had the opportunity to come out. He was heading here for a board meeting when unfortunately the Queen passed away.

“He’s fully engaged and wants to make a real success of this partnership. He’s corralling all the key executives at Atlanta ahead of this visit and making sure we’re going to get some terrific support.”

Wicks believes the trip to Atlanta this week represents a fresh start for both parties after a Covid-impacted pause in the partnership.

Aberdeen and Atlanta United representatives together at Pittodrie in 2019. Image: AFC
Aberdeen and Atlanta United representatives together at Pittodrie in 2019. Image: AFC

He said: “This partnership launched in November 2019 and literally three or four months later we were in the midst of Covid and both clubs had to look inwards to solve the challenges that were coming from the pandemic.

“Now we’re through that and Covid is hopefully in the rear view mirror, I think this is a real opportunity for the partnership to be revitalised and Dimitrios is going to be key to leading that charge from their side.”

‘One or two’ inquiries from other prospective partner clubs ‘per month’

Atlanta is only one of the partnerships the Dons have, with the club also establishing links with Icelandic club KR Reykjavik and Californian youth organisation Allstars United SC.

While the three partners are all different in terms of their size and markets they operate in, Wicks believes all three have contributions to make in the months and years ahead.

He said: “From our point of view, if you think about Aberdeen we’re somewhat isolated up in the north-east of Scotland.

“We’ve got clubs at varying tiers within football and I think this presents for us an opportunity for clubs, irrespective of where they fit in those tiers or in terms of size, to align on key football and business operation best practice and really to learn from one another.

“That’s what the partnerships are about.

“From my perspective I see these as long-term partnerships, every one of them.

“Atlanta United is obviously a very significant partnership as shareholders in the club and we hope that continues for the long term.

“This is about sustainable partnerships and we’ve to be conscious from a resourcing perspective within the club not to take on too many.

“We get one or two inquiries a month, if not more.

“Everything from a high school in Australia looking for some form of outlet, all the way through to other clubs of similar sizes to the ones we’re already partnered with.

“We have to pick and choose quite carefully.

“We’re demonstrating we can operate at an Atlanta United level, but there are benefits from working with Allstars and Reykjavik, who come in the middle of the three.

“For us, choosing carefully and building and learning from the experiences we’ve had from these three clubs to increase the portfolio is definitely in our minds in the future.”

TOMORROW – Robbie Hedderman: Partner clubs a key tool in Aberdeen’s bid for global brand awareness

Read more from our Aberlanta and Beyond series:

Steven Gunn – How Atlanta United partnership offers boost to Aberdeen’s talent development and scouting