Before the written word, people made sense of the world, and connected to each other with stories. Stories were passed on from one generation to the next and in this way culture, history and lived experience were able to take root. As South Africans, this oral tradition is a fundamental strand of who we are as a nation.
While the world has taken gigantic steps since then, especially with regard to the rapid and almost insane advance of technology, Cape Town City Football Club’s sensational social media and marketing strategy retain the core elements of this oral tradition.
Established as a Premier Soccer League (PSL) club in 2016 – when owner John Comitis bought the franchise rights for Mpumalanga Black Aces, closed that club and created Cape Town City instead – City have made it their mission to prioritise the fans. It’s a revolutionary approach in the staid South African football arena, which often frowns upon adventure and innovation, and tends to treat its followers as an afterthought.
For City, it’s about the human factor. They want to tell the stories, of the players, of the club, of the fans. There is a veritable catalogue of experience, imagination and emotion that can be tapped – and in the best traditions of our oral heritage, it’s in relaying these stories that City are facilitating that all-important connection with the ordinary football fan.
The man responsible for the Cape Town club’s fresh and disruptive game plan off the field is commercial director Michel Comitis, the club owner’s 25-year-old son. Football-obsessed and business-educated, he sees social media as the word-of-mouth vehicle to pass on these football tales and experiences. In essence, it’s the oral tradition on steroids.
“If you want to build a club in the modern era that can connect with people, you have to use the medium that people connect with on a daily basis,” said Comitis. “It’s that simple.
“For us, as a young club, we have to look at the next generation. We need to invest in the captive audience, which is the youth. Social media is what young people use and it has been a massive opportunity to get people to understand who we are in a short space of time. It is also not just an opportunity to engage and connect with people, but to really get them to feel part of it. Because that’s what it really is about for us.
“If you tell me that City are going to play behind closed doors and our social media channels will be shut down, but in return we will win the league every year, then we will close the club [because] that means nothing to us. It is not who we are. This is a football club, and we want to connect with people, to let them know they are not forgotten. Our strategy asks for engagement and then reciprocates, because what we do comes from a genuine place.”
The secret behind City’s growth as a brand
It’s this authenticity that is at the heart of City’s success. Comitis loves to use the word “genuine”. If there is a secret to what City have done, it can be found in that word. What they do is not a glib, meretricious attempt to win over fans. It’s not an ephemeral flirtation with people. Instead, it’s a sincere desire to connect, to make those who follow the club feel as though they belong.
“There is no smoke and mirrors about what we do,” said Comitis. “We haven’t created a trendy, captivating social media strategy that simply papers over the cracks of something that isn’t genuine. We’ve gone at it from the other way, we created something that was genuine and then told the story.
“What is this club? What does it stand for? What does it mean? What does it do? Why is it worth being a part of as a player or, emotionally, as a football fan? In SA, we have a tradition of oral history, so we asked ourselves: How do we tell these stories, and how do we show that we have value in our sport?
“In this way, we wanted to build that brand equity and then we made sure we had the right mechanisms in place to tell the stories. So when players come here, from Europe or from the township, they all feel the same thing. When people support the club, it doesn’t matter where they are from, they all feel the same thing. The motivation was always to create something that was endearing and impressive, something that was genuine, and that people could see was genuine.”
Born into football
So who is this dynamic young man changing the face of football in South Africa? Needless to say, with a father like John Comitis – a former striker with Wits, Hellenic and Cape Town Spurs and now a top-drawer administrator – Comitis junior was born into football. It’s just part of who he is.
Growing up, he can vividly remember there was only one name that adorned the back of his football jerseys: John “Shoes” Moshoeu. Michel Comitis was in love with South African football. He still is.
A promising young footballer himself, an attacking midfielder, he was taken up by the Ajax Cape Town academy and later Chippa United and Hellenic. Coming from a privileged background and growing up in Camps Bay, Comitis admits he is in football’s debt in that it gave him a window into a life beyond what he understood, beyond his background, and exposed him to other races and cultures. The sport was integral to his development because, in his own words, “football integrates and amalgamates like no other sport”.
For Comitis, though, the academic pull was just as strong, which was why he eventually enrolled to study economics at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, between Boston and New York in the United States. A prestigious institution, Brown is one of eight Ivy League schools in the US known for their academic excellence (others include Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Columbia).
“From an economics perspective, the US experience gave me a good business sense,” said Comitis. “There is a strong culture of pursuing experience in America. It’s almost obsessive. So, while studying, I did various internships in banking and finance, and in the sports industry, and it allowed me to equip myself on how to run a business and how to do things that made financial sense.
“After I completed my degree, I was working in New York, so at that stage it wasn’t planned that I would come home. But I had spoken to my father about this budding concept of creating a football club for Cape Town, something that would become a football institution, not just something short-term. One day he called me and said: ‘It’s time.’”
Building the City brand from scratch
Starting a football club from scratch is never easy. For City, in relocating the PSL franchise from Mpumalanga to Cape Town, the challenges were even greater. With no structures in place and no fans to call their own, Comitis and his dad rolled up their sleeves and got to work.
“The basic premise from which we started was that South African football needed a superior level of attention to detail in everything, not just the football side,” said Comitis. “There is such a great distance in this country between the professional club and the person in the community. We wanted to change that. There are so many facets to creating something people can experience and enjoy and feel a part of. We have such a rich football culture and yet we haven’t managed to package that in a way that does us justice.
“So we entered a marketplace that had failed, especially in terms of connecting with the ordinary fan. It took a while for people to open up and understand what we were trying to do. But I think we are getting there…”