Last weekend, during the international break, Villarreal Club de Fútbol continued its centenary festivities with a legends game at their beloved Estadio de la Cerámica. It was a celebration of historically renowned Players who brought joy to the club -- including the likes of Marcos Senna, Santi Cazorla, Diego Forlán and, of course, Juan Roman Riquelme -- but the day also marked an opportunity to commemorate the community itself.
Nearly 20,000 supporters attended the event, which might not seem like a massive amount when you compare it to the crowds at Camp Nou or the Bernabeu. But to this proud city with a population of just over 50,000 people, the power of the Submarino Amarillo's reach and ability to maintain notoriety and value beyond the pitch is potent.
EL VÍDEO. #CentenariGroguet pic.twitter.com/tkVV6LqxkV— Villarreal CF (@VillarrealCF) March 25, 2023
"I see Villarreal as a family," says Senna, who played for the club for more than 10 years and became captain. "I can't remember a city with so few inhabitants who have had a team in the top division for so many years, winning important titles such as the Europa League."
Villarreal the club have been very successful, which includes the 2020-2021 Europa League trophy against Manchester United. Yet this story is not about their football or their upcoming match vs. Real Sociedad (Sunday, 12:30 p.m. ET, live on ESPN+) -- but rather their ability to connect with communities, whether digitally or physically. It's a very important element of Villarreal's DNA, which also serves as a strategy of growth.
Let's begin with the digital aspect. At this point, Villarreal is one of the most followed clubs from LaLiga on social media, where the diversity in audience expands beyond the town, Spain and even Europe. In the past year, the club's growth has boomed: Villarreal's social audience grew by 52%, with North America becoming a bigger slice of the pie.
The club's collective following across social media is 6,743,364. On Instagram alone it's around 1.5 million, and on Twitter, where they diversify across the women's team, academy, the English account and e-sports, it's closing in on 1 million.
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These numbers may not be as gargantuan as those of Barcelona, Real Madrid or bigger clubs, but some context should be noted. For one, Villarreal's infrastructure is obviously not as big as these mammoth clubs -- not even close. But the most important factor is that for Villarreal's digital strategy -- just like their philosophy with academy and local talent -- the size of an audience is not as important as their ability to engage and connect. The true meaningful value of engagement is what's important to Villarreal, whether that's digital or physical interaction with the local entities.
The Villarreal project is solely focused on becoming the bridge between club and community.
"Generally speaking, smaller clubs have to work harder and put more effort into marketing and digital strategy to engage their fans," says Jordan Gardner, a consultant at Twenty First Group, a firm that helps leagues and teams build commercial value. Gardner speaks from experience -- he was also previously the chairman and managing partner of Danish club FC Helsingør.
"This has to be done in an authentic and genuine way that both engages fans internationally but also does not alienate local fans who have supported the club for generations," Gardner tells ESPN. "By necessity with such a small population base, Villarreal has done as good a job as any club in connecting with their supporters and building generational support. Similar-sized clubs across Europe have taken an innovative approach when it comes to marketing strategy. Several years ago, Atalanta B.C. in Serie A started giving every newborn baby a club jersey in the Bergamo community in bid to engage with a new generation of supporters."
Gardner believes that regardless of the size of the club, more should emulate Villarreal's strategy as it's the proverbial door that opens to the growth and discovery of younger and more diverse audiences. "From my experience, many clubs take for granted their supporters/audience and don't necessarily put in the hard work needed to build a younger and more international audience," he says. "You'd think that most clubs would have multiple non-native language social media accounts, especially when foreign Players at any particular club could draw new fans, but this is often not the case.
"When we acquired FC Helsingør in Denmark a few years ago, we immediately launched an English-language social media presence, led by an experienced digital marketer who had worked for some of the biggest clubs in Europe. While our goal was not necessarily to monetize this new audience, we felt it was important for the long-term growth of our club brand and to connect with our fans in the English-speaking world. We had several Players on the roster from the U.S., New Zealand and South Africa and without an English-language media presence it would have been very difficult for our club to have any visibility outside of Scandinavia."
Villarreal feel the same way, which is why they focus on more than just Spain. There's a global focus, but a local spotlight. Juan Antón de Salas, who has spent 15 years at the club and is now the club's commercial director, tells ESPN: "At the end, I always say that Villarreal is a community project."
Back in 2008, De Salas & Co. launched the campaign to make Villarreal a more meaningful and digitally impactful club. Back in 2017, he launched the international department, which became a massive channel of revenue within global markets.
"Part of this strategy was out of necessity," De Salas says. "From the 50,000 people that live in Villarreal, 12,000 are season-ticket holders. In total, we have 20,500 of them. So how can we keep growing? How can we gain more notoriety from a commercial standpoint? When we talk with sponsors, we are a bit of a rare bird. So we have to sell our story as a club with a great history and even greater community. That's how we can compete with bigger teams."
This is Villarreal, a town smaller than Old Trafford's capacity, but what Villarreal CF lack in population, they make up in return, and this return goes directly back to the people. "Our own president and the family that owns the club, Fernando Roig, believes that the best way to give back to the community is through sporting initiatives," De Salas adds. "We are the biggest sponsor in our province."
Aside from the well-structured academy, the club also financially helps local athletes who have nothing to do with the club, including Olympians. Villarreal provide economic aid during their training and eventual journey. Local university student-athletes are also assisted with partial or full scholarships. So there are multiple ways in which some of these 50,000 residents of Villarreal feel directly impacted by the club.
But now, the Villarreal effect is international.
"What If I told you that in China, our audience is more than a million? We are opening our culture to other places," De Salas tells ESPN. "We are now creating a meaningful relationship and giving our Spanish football approach over there and equally educating ourselves with Chinese methodology."
Academy Players have gone back and forth between Villarreal and China, and now some Players are making their careers over there. Coaching, education and beyond are also shared. China is just one example: the commercial department has founded 30 international academies that are now present in 15 countries, five continents and train more than 9,000 Players.
"We want Villarreal to be everybody's second team," says De Salas, speaking of international communities, now focusing heavily on the United States with 14 stateside academies. "We love to come here in the U.S. and equally help and learn from what they need and how we can be of assistance." From Chicago to Las Vegas, and Virginia to Nebraska, the academies in the U.S. host hundreds of boys and girls, aiming to develop and nurture young Players with the fundamental ethics of a Villarreal system. Coupled with the social strategy, this is the point of Villarreal that separates them from other clubs -- especially those that are similar in size.
"Our academy in Nebraska works wonderfully, and the community engagement is fantastic," De Salas says. "The director is Argentinian, who was in love with Juan Román Riquelme, and when he chose Villarreal, we created a great relationship and now it's a great success." That academy now hosts 400 kids, all extremely aware of Villarreal's history in Castellón.
The COVID-19 pandemic also made the club's relationship with these academies stronger via social and digital connections. Whilst these clubs had to shut down during the worst of it and were unable to generate fees, the club didn't require any of these academies to pay licensing fees or stay open. In fact, Villarreal sent coaching videos and nutritional guides for every academy member in order to facilitate the continued training. Back in Villarreal, during that time, the club's catering team fed the hospitals, medical and health responders.
Across the board, Villarreal's philosophy -- from their academy to digital presence -- is deeply rooted in community. They may be small, but they're mighty. They may be humble, but they're strong and resilient. This is a yellow submarine forever searching for new waters, aiming to spread the good news of their culture.
"We don't ever want to say we're a better club than this or the other," De Salas says. "We just want you to think of Villarreal with warmth. So we apply this to our community. We are also in the industry of entertainment, but with this, we also aim as a club to be something positive. On and off the pitch."