How does a Premier League football club navigate the biggest public health crisis in a century? We caught up with Southampton FC’s Chief Legal & Risk Officer, Tim Greenwell, to find out.
The legal function of seven at Southampton FC doesn’t just support the team of 11 on the pitch: it supports a thriving events business, an international sports brand, and a community of millions of fans. What was legal’s role in navigating the biggest public health crisis in a century?
To read more stories from legal leaders at Stripe, Deliveroo, Hopin and more, check out our eBook, ‘GCs and the pandemic’.
Tell us about your team and its focus, Tim.
We’re a multi-jurisdictional team of seven, with a general focus that also includes health and safety and safeguarding. Safeguarding is about making sure we keep under-eighteens safe, addressing child protection and mental health, plus issues like social media, as well as the charitable work we do with vulnerable people visiting on match days.
We work to do everything that we can to keep them all safe, understand the risks that they face, and mitigate those risks as we need to. That workload has increased – mental health, both at work and in the communities around us, is becoming increasingly important.
It’s been a year of lockdown, but do you remember when you first heard about Coronavirus?
It was around January 2020 when we first started to see the effects ripple from China and then beyond. Remembering back to the SARS outbreak in the early 2000s, where there was a perceived threat that never really materialized – in the UK at least – we saw a similar mindset initially, in terms of whether coronavirus would reach the UK and whether it was a genuine concern.
What were your main priorities in supporting the football club?
We were monitoring internally from early February, tracking data and information to make sure that we knew and understood the threat, in terms of completing games and getting fans into our stadium safely.
On the playing side, having an internal medical team allowed us to access really accurate, up-to-date, cutting-edge ideas and guidance. Getting that information almost directly from either the government or from the World Health Organization was quite helpful to understand and track all the patterns around us.
We were able to get ahead of the curve in terms of planning – but then again, there’s nothing to really prepare you for quite how seriously the virus would impact us. We were able to at least base our response on reliable data. We had a call on the 13th of March, and the game on the following afternoon had been cancelled, at which point we pulled the plug in the office and sent everyone home.
We’d completed some scenario planning and testing before, and if we ran a scenario like the pandemic and the impacts of a global crisis, it would have seemed too unbelievable. Even as everything sank in, some people thought we’d be back to normal within a week, or at worst a few months.
“Taking on challenges outside of the normal office environment and without daily in-person interaction has been hard, but it does show the value of the right technology within legal teams. Nowadays you can’t get by without it”
How did the pandemic change your priorities and workload?
It ebbed and flowed as the crisis wore on. When COVID first hit, it was all about making ourselves ready for sport to return, so that we hit the ground running – which we did. But I think over time, it’s probably returned more to ‘business as usual’ and actually given us an opportunity to push some of the projects that we wanted to push forward, on the commercial side, and around privacy, data protection, information security, and so on. COVID gave us a gap to take stock and almost launch ourselves again.
The club relies on events and on matches, which all had to stop overnight – how did you adapt?
We are ultimately an events-driven business; we’ve got the football side, but the stadium hosts lots of commercial events, from weddings to concerts, throughout the year.
The biggest challenge now has really been now trying to fit everything together, with a view to coming out of lockdown. Doing that safely, so fans can get back into the building without breaching restrictions or impacting their health, is a key focus, in collaboration with the local safety advisory group.
We’ve been able to use some specialist data modelling and technology platforms to help us in terms of being able to model crowd numbers, and to understand what our space would look like, and what our safe capacity is.
Another challenge has been relationship management. Right before lockdown, we outsourced our events and catering provision to a new supplier. Building on that relationship when we haven’t had any events has been challenging, for our supplier more than anyone! We’re really looking forward to getting them up and running, and seeing all the benefits from the work they do.
Taking on all of those challenges outside of the normal office environment and without daily in-person interaction has been hard, but it does show the value of the right technology within legal teams and in fact within any business. Nowadays you can’t get by without it.
Southampton FC moved some events online and launched an app – can you tell us more about that?
We pride ourselves in terms of being quite innovative and trying to push boundaries, so the pandemic gave us a chance to do that by launching the app.
We see those online events as ways to really interact with people and to keep fans informed about what we’re doing, but also to try to just keep in touch with people as much as we can. This was a really good time to reposition ourselves to the community around us and get people involved naturally through the online platforms available.
The pandemic and the restrictions that came with it brought everyone that much closer anyway. We couldn’t necessarily go out and do lots of face-to-face work with people, but we could use those platforms to inform and to interact with people as much as we could. So for us, it was a really good chance to do that.
What was legal’s role in making that happen?
For the app, we were involved across all the standard legal issues in terms of making sure that we had the right privacy controls in place, as well as our contracts with providers.
Beyond that, legal’s role is to help link together all of those different projects – ticketing at the stadium, a new texting platform, websites, retail, and so on. We need to make sure these systems and departments integrate with each other and communicate well.
We aim to be a well-informed team, but also a team that’s on the front foot in terms of not waiting for people to come and ask us hard questions, but instead making sure that the right issues have been thought about at the development stage, so that they don’t become issues further down the line.
“No piece of information or any particular process should sit with one pair of hands, and I think siloing is where you start to get into difficulties. Using your available time available to build out a good collaborative effort is really important”
How does your team prioritize when there are so many different, urgent workstreams?
That comes with knowing and understanding the organization, and what could wait and what really, really needs to happen immediately. Sometimes you can get it wrong, and you need to be open to the process afterwards: if something falls away or slips that you should have completed, then you need to accept it, pick that task back up and do what you need to do to fix it.
It’s really important to use the teams around you and establish strong internal relationships so that it’s a team effort rather than all on one person. No piece of information or any particular process should sit with one pair of hands, and I think siloing is where you start to get into difficulties – where we don’t get that interaction, we don’t get that reporting, and we don’t have information coming our way, and we’re just working blind. Using your available time available to build out a good collaborative effort is really important.
How do you see legal’s role in being ready for the bounceback from the COVID pandemic?
I think legal is fairly central to it. With events coming back and the potential return of fans to stadiums, we’re starting to see where we can be really useful in helping to plan that phased return of people in our office or people coming to watch a match. Creating simple, streamlined processes that can be communicated easily to people so they can understand them is key.
Tim Greenwell is the Chief Legal and Risk Officer at Southampton FC.
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