Appointed in the midst of a global pandemic, Huddersfield Town commercial director Ian Birtley has had to navigate a difficult first year at the club – but has come out the other side more determined than ever. 

Town were recently relegated from the Premier League when Ian joined, and life back in the Sky Bet Championship wasn’t going to plan. Slumped near the foot of the division, Carlos Corberán’s side had just survived another relegation.

As well as on the pitch problems, there were off the field hurdles to overcome too. In a Covid-19-riddled world, Ian had to get to know staff over Zoom calls and Teams meetings.

Ian, who had big boots to fill taking over from long-serving and popular Sean Jarvis, was no stranger to working in challenging situations, having previously worked at Derby County and at Leeds United in various commercial and sales driven roles. 

The 32-year-old joined the club on January 15 2021 and insists coming to the Terriers was the right challenge at the right time.

He said: “Huddersfield is a big football club who had recently been in the Premier League, and a club that has a fantastic, long and proud history. When the opportunity came up it wasn’t something I could turn down.

He added: “I finished school at 16 and although I wanted to be a footballer, like the majority of us, I knew that wouldn’t happen. But I had a part-time job in a phone shop where I built up some really good customer service skills.

Ian Birtley (centre)

“I then went into the insurance industry which was a complex sector to learn as an 18-year-old. I found I was good at the customer service sales side, speaking to people and selling them our products. 

“Over time, I became the best person for results whilst working at Swinton Insurance. I progressed into being a brand manager. However, I decided the industry wasn’t for me.

“There was a commercial executive role going at Derby County, so I applied and got the role after a three-stage interview process. I stayed at Derby nine years and in that time sold everything from hospitality to sorting out shirt sponsorship deals.

“I enjoyed my time there and was offered opportunities at other clubs but at the time it just didn’t feel right. Then the opportunity to work at Leeds came along and it gave me a chance to see a different club and another geographical area.”

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One of the first major things Ian has changed since joining Town is the structure of the sponsorship model. He believes less is more.

Ian explained: “From looking in, it seems the club has worked in a certain way for a number of years. However, that’s not a good or a bad thing but when you have someone who comes in and has had different experiences and starts to make changes that’s because they aren’t fixing something that’s broken they are just trying to expand and improve on what’s already been built. I have to look at how we can be smarter and look at where we can improve. 

“One thing I looked at when I first joined was that the football club did really well with partners in the town and across Yorkshire. However, it didn’t have relationships with big national brands.

“So for me it was about getting Huddersfield Town in front of these companies and explaining to them what we are about. I have a good track record of doing that, bringing national brands in and having a great relationship with them.

“We as a club have always had our Terrier Spirit, and we just needed to get across to national brands why that’s exciting.”

Ian’s vision is to connect with local businesses but also look further afield and connect with big established national brands that fits the club’s ethos.

“I am ambitious and I want to succeed. I didn’t come to Huddersfield Town to just do the same old thing. I want to drive us forward commercially.

“We have a structure here which is very accessible. We have had over 30 new partners come on board with us this season. We have also retained a number of long-standing partners which have been with us for many years. 

“We haven’t taken those opportunities to be with us away. We just want to differentiate between what are the different partners we have and to create an aspirational pathway for businesses to grow their association with us.”

BK8 recently caused controversy when joining up with Town.

One brand that recently came on board and caused a stir was betting brand BK8. That company had agreed to be Norwich City’s shirt sponsors in the summer of 2021. However, the Canaries dropped the firm a few days later due to some of the company’s marketing materials which came across as sexist. This was pointed out in no uncertain terms by Norwich fans.

When Town signed BK8 as a partner in December, the club received a similar furious backlash from fans. Despite this the partnership has continued and Ian explained why.

He said: “We had been discussing a partnership since July and we had lots of meetings with them. We had done our research and were aware of what had happened with Norwich. Since that time the company has looked at itself and changed the way it markets itself.

“It has been endorsed by a number of high-profile women’s footballers, it has also helped to fund our women’s team and will continue to do that. We monitor their output and are constantly in dialogue with them.

“We expected some backlash but I want to make it clear, I wouldn’t get a company commercially involved in this club if it wasn’t right for Huddersfield Town and hopefully, as time moves on, people will trust me to do this.”

One of the biggest challenges for Ian to understand is the commercial possibilities around the stadium as both Derby and Leeds own their grounds where the Terriers don’t.

READ MORE: Huddersfield Hub spoken to former Huddersfield Town commercial director Sean Jarvis about his 14 years with the club.

The John Smith’s Stadium is owned in a partnership between Town, Huddersfield Giants and Kirklees Council through Kirklees Stadium Development Ltd. Talks have been underway to create a Community Trust with the football club taking ‘operational control.’

On the stadium, Ian said: “This is a brilliant stadium and one where we try to maximise where we can both commercially and as a revenue stream on game days. It is a tricky situation and one I haven’t had to deal with before but again that has presented me with a new challenge.”

Ian relishes all the challenges and loves the fact he can make a difference at a club that’s really at the heart of its local community.

“I love a challenge and the fact every day is different,” he said. “I like connecting people to us. I get a buzz from talking to people and learning about their businesses and how they work. Hopefully people will look at my time here and say that I helped the club move forward.”