Football, Passion and von Hippel: The Legacy of AFC Wimbledon

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Each member of the MAIM Class of 2016 proposes their individual perspectives on innovation management in the lead up to their Degree Show “Through the Kaleidoscope: Perspectives on Innovation Management”. In this post, Lilian Yeung shares her perspective on how von Hippel’s theory of lead-user innovation can be translated beyond academia and business context into one of the country’s favourite sports: football.

Over these months in London, one of my most memorable experiences was going to a football match at Wembley Stadium. The passion within the stadium overwhelmed me with emotions The passion of the footballers who gave their all and the passion of the supporters chanting for the entire 90 minutes made me feel alive. Although a lot of sports, including English Football, has turned into very lucrative businesses and a lot of commercial activities are linked to the branding of the clubs. The rawness of fans’ emotions and unrequited dedication remain unchanged, which makes football clubs one of the best examples of passion brands.


Passion brands have an ‘emotionally charged presence’ (Gobe, 2001) that make followers want to join in the brand story. Not only do they invest financially to purchase the product or service, they are also invested emotionally. This supports Eric von Hippel’s advocacy of the importance of user-led innovation in his renowned publication, Democratizing Innovation (2005). Von Hippel is an economist and Professor at MIT Sloan School of Management, and is known for his work on user-innovation. He believes that lead users develop a deep understanding because of high usage need for the product that they become passionate about the way the product is going to evolve and they innovate ways to make the product more personalised for their needs or to maximise the potential use of the product. Von Hippel also suggests that this will lead to the formation of formal and informal communities, and passion is the main driver of interaction within these communities (Grantitzer, Lux and Spaniot, 2008).


An interesting example of the mentioned theories is AFC Wimbledon, a fourth-tier* English football club founded by fans. Wimbledon Football Club was originally a team from south-west London, formed in 1889 and based at Plough Lane, Wimbledon. It has always played in non-league games until 1977 when it was elected to the Football League and eventually being promoted to the Premier League in the 1980s. In 1979, some of the owners intended to move the club to Milton Keynes as they believe the Plough Lane stadium would limit the long term development potential of the club. This move was dismissed by then-Chairman thinking it would not bring in more fans. In 1991, the club entered a ground-share with Crystal Palace at Selhurst after the Taylor Report demanded a redevelopment of football grounds. This was supposed to be a temporary arrangement. However, much to some supporters’ dismay, the owners eventually sold the club to two Norwegians and the Plough Lane homeground to a supermarket. In 2001, the owners decided to move the club permanently to Milton Keynes. Some original fans were hugely disappointed and angered, because Plough Lane is their ‘home’, not Milton Keynes, and this move is against the history of how English football clubs were formed by locale. Refusing to support the new team, now called the MK Dons, a group of fans came together to fund the setting up of AFC Wimbledon.


This is a living example of von Hippel’s theory of Lead User Innovation, and shows how passion can be a powerful force that ends an era – for a club that originally had more than 100 years of history, it was a big deal for supports to cease support for their home club. However, it is the same passion that gave birth to not just a new team but a new mode of business and culture. The new club is co-operatively owned with 75% of ownership belonging to The Dons Trust, a supports’ group. The club used various innovative measures to raise funds to sustain the club and eventually build a new stadium, including crowdfunding by issuing shares to its supporters. The  story has also inspired John Green, New York Times best-selling author and famous Youtuber, to donate his advertising revenue from playing FIFA on Youtube to the club and have asked his large following to extend their support. His online community, named Nerdfighteria, later became an official sponsor of the club with a logo displayed on their football shorts.


Von Hippel also emphasised the importance and formation of user communities. Indeed, the club recognises its role in the community and set up community programmes including fitness programmes, children coaching programmes etc… It was eventually awarded the FA Charter Standard Community Club Award, the highest graded award attainable in recognition of the club’s outstanding coaching facilities in the local community. In 2012, AFC Wimbledon became the first football club to be presented with the Prime Minister’s Big Society Award by Minister for Sport and the Olympics Hugh Robertson for outstanding contributions to the local community. On presenting the award, Prime Minister David Cameron, on a release from the Prime Minister’s Office (2012), said that this is a great example of the Big Society, in which when people get involved and are determined and devoted, the club has gone from strength to strength. Samuelson, CE of the club, upon accepting the award on the club’s behalf, also did not forget to mention that all of this was made possible by the passion of everyone involved, embracing them as part of the legacy.


There is no better way to demonstrate von Hippel’s theories than seeing real-life success of the club. It has recently been announced that, with the help of John Green, this fascinating story has been picked up by the Hollywood studio, Fox 2000, to make a film about the club’s journey. I am more than thrilled to be able to end this blogpost by congratulating AFC Wimbledon on a highly successful season. With a goal from Taylor and a penalty by Akinfenwa in extra-time, the Wombles have been promoted this season, and will be officially be starting as part of the Skybet Football League One in the coming 2016-17 season. Come on you Dons!


*now third-tier!


Stay tuned for the upcoming MAIM 2016 Degree Show, taking place at Central Saint Martins from 22 to 26 June 2016.


* Gobé, M. (2001). Emotional branding. New York: Allworth Press.

* Granitzer, M., Lux, M. and Spaniol, M. (2008). Multimedia semantics . Berlin: Springer.

* Prime Minister’s Office, 10 Downing Street, (2012). AFC Wimbledon wins the Big Society Award News stories GOV.UK . [online] Available at:  [Accessed 22 May 2015].

von Hippel, E. (2005). Democratizing innovation . Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.