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Friday 08 June 2012
Ivor Heller: from money-spinning deals to flipping burgers

In the seventh of our features on 10 years of AFC Wimbledon and the key changes seen during that time, we focus on how Ivor Heller has worked tirelessly to implement a professional approach to our commercial operations.

The fact that our Commercial Director spent half the second season flipping burgers for supporters at the ground shows just how far AFC Wimbledon have come during the past decade. Ivor may now spend his match days looking after existing sponsors and cultivating potential new backers, but in our Combined Counties League days he was preparing fast food delicacies at the burger hut for thousands of hungry fans. While Ivor, one of AFC Wimbledon’s founder members, recalls that memory with a chuckle, he is deadly serious about the strides made by a group of fans now running a professional football club. From being a “one-man band” and the person responsible for bringing in our lucrative shirt sponsorship deal with Sports Interactive, Ivor has strived to make AFC Wimbledon appealing to the wider business community.

“Before I brought Keith McGuinness (former Commercial Manager) on board it was basically me on my own in terms of the commercial side of things,” Ivor said. “Keith saved my life with what he brought to us as a club. Obviously, the first few seasons before he started were a bit different. I spent half the second season flipping burgers at the ground as there was no one else to do it. There was always a perception in the early days that fans could not run a football club, but that is something that we have well and truly smashed out of the window. I think that no one can now argue now that we cannot run a football club.

"There have been a lot of changes in terms of us bringing sponsors in, but a key difference when we first started, was that it was mainly friends and fans of the club sponsoring us. For example, we had one guy who put forward £1,200 for an advertising hoarding just so that he could see his name from the other side. But we are not just a novelty now as we get several businesses coming to us who want to be involved because they can see a genuine commercial aspect to being involved with AFC Wimbledon.”

What has not changed during the past decade has been the backing from shirt sponsors Sports Interactive. Ivor’s passionate interview all about AFC Wimbledon on a national radio station impressed Miles Jacobsen (Studio Director at Sports Interactive) and the rest is history. Our deal with the manufacturer of Football Manager was announced before AFC Wimbledon’s first friendly game against Sutton United on 10 July, 2002. It led to chants of “half Ivor Heller” from the Dons fans who were delighted that they had a football club again. Ivor believes the stability of having the same shirt sponsor has been crucial for AFC Wimbledon’s progress.

“Miles heard an interview I did on Radio Five and it all came from that,” added Ivor. “Miles stated publicly that he liked the passion that I spoke with about the club and he believed in what we were trying to do. We came up with a figure that was probably more than all the gate money that all the Combined Counties clubs put together could generate in a season. When we announced the deal at the Sutton match, we had six TV companies and over 30 journalists at the match. We unveiled our first kit that night as we had done a deal with Tempest Sports beforehand. As a kit manufacturer, they still provide the best design for us. The deal with Sports Interactive has just been an absolute boon. You could never dream of having a shirt sponsor that could be so good for us over many years. Nothing has changed as they have been so easy to deal with and it has meant we have not had to change sponsors all the time like other clubs.”

Ivor believes that arguably the biggest change revolves around the wider community’s perception of AFC Wimbledon. While the fan base of the club was strong right from the start, Ivor admits it was much harder to sell advertising because of AFC Wimbledon’s lowly status in the early days and a lack of knowledge about the club. But he says it has been much easier to bring in extra sponsorship deals as the club has progressed towards the Football League.

“When we contacted people in the early days and told them about AFC Wimbledon, a lot of the times we would get asked if we were a club from Milton Keynes,” Ivor added. “But we do not get that anywhere near as much now. We have had a few sponsors on board from the early days with Sports Interactive, Tempest Sports, Cherry Red Records, Paul Strank Roofing and thinkFolio, but sponsorship for us has changed in several ways during the past 10 years. Every single match now is sponsored and it has been a few years now since we did not have a match sponsor. The Dons Directory was a great addition as it gave smaller companies a chance to work around the AFC Wimbledon brand. Bringing in the carvery was also important as it meant we could entertain sponsors on match days, though it would make it a lot easier if we had more corporate space here.

"As a Football League club we are much more appealing and that is a key change since we started from the commercial side of things. The crowds have gone up significantly every year and that obviously makes it easier to sell advertising. When we contact people now they know who we are and it is a much better starting point. The perception now is that we are a proper club and we have shown that fans can be successful in running a Football League club.”

There is no doubt Ivor has been instrumental in AFC Wimbledon's success since helping to form the club 10 years ago. From pulling off big sponsorship deals, serving up the burgers, and even completing a sponsored slim to raise funds for the club, no one can question Ivor's passion for AFC Wimbledon.