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From the Brink of Relegation to Mid-Season Champions. Exclusive Interview with Śląsk Wrocław's CEO.

Roger Hampel

Śląsk Wrocław
Patryk Załęczny Prezes Śląsk Wrocław

Patryk Załęczny - CEO of WKS Śląsk Wrocław

WKS Śląsk Wrocław, the current autumn champion and leader of the Polish Ekstraklasa table, was on the brink of relegation from the league as recently as May 2023. Moreover, for 10 years, the Wrocław club had not managed to sell out the 40,000 seats in its stadium for even a single match, yet this season they have achieved this feat twice already.

What is the secret behind the transformation of Śląsk Wrocław? How does the success of the Wrocław team look from a business perspective? And how important is transparency and social media interaction from the president and the sports director with fans in rebuilding the image of the sports brand? Join us for our latest interview with the club's CEO, Patryk Załęczny.

Roger Hampel (Football Business Journal): The club nearly faced relegation in May but emerged as the Mid-Season Champion of the Polish Ekstraklasa by the end of the year. What do you think sparked this remarkable turnaround in Śląsk, both on and off the field?

Patryk Załęczny (CEO of WKS Śląsk Wrocław): The transformation began at the end of the previous season, during our fight for survival. Key changes included bringing back coach Jacek Magiera and altering the board. The coach’s approach evolved, impacting the team's performance. Despite initial struggles, Śląsk managed to stay in the Ekstraklasa.

Significant shifts occurred within the club thereafter. New sports director David Balda and I, along with the reformed board, strategically reshaped the squad. We made selective changes, bidding farewell to some high-contract but underperforming players. This freed up budget space and allowed for strategic acquisitions like defender Aleks Petkov and midfielder Peter Pokorny, who brought stability and skill to the team. Coach Magiera’s effective mentorship of Erik Exposito, who transformed into a key leader and captain, also played a crucial role.

The crux of our success lies in the newfound unity within the club - aligning the board, coach, players, and fans towards a common goal. This unity was further solidified during the negotiations around Erik Exposito's potential transfer, which we ultimately declined, ensuring he remained a pivotal part of our team. This collective effort and strategic decision-making turned Śląsk Wrocław from a team fighting relegation to the autumn champions.

Roger Hampel: My next question concerns Erik Exposito. His contract was expiring. From January, he could sign a completely free contract with a new club. Despite this, you decided not to sell him, even though the amount would have been very high for Ekstraklasa standards. How difficult was this decision from an economic standpoint?

Patryk Załęczny: Financially, it was a tough decision since Erik is among the highest earners in the team. However, it was crucial for our championship aspirations. He's our top scorer and a major marketing asset - he is the 'King of Wrocław'. His presence boosts both our marketing and overall team performance. We plan to keep him through the winter and are in talks to extend his contract, though negotiations are complex due to his excellent form and contributions on the field. We're aiming for a solution that benefits both Erik and the club, hoping his performance will help us achieve great league results and the associated financial rewards.

Śląsk Wrocław
Śląsk Wrocław

Erik Exposito. Current Top Scorer of the Polish Ekstraklasa.

Roger Hampel: You mentioned the sale of Erik's shirts. How have the club's successes overall impacted financial growth and revenue from shirt sales, merchandising, and club accessories?

Patryk Załęczny: Since my arrival, we've prioritized the expansion of our sales department and FanShops. We have outlets at Tarczyński Arena and Oporowska Street, and plan to open more across the city to capitalize on untapped potential. The club's transformation and success have sparked a surge in merchandise demand, which we initially struggled to anticipate, leading to some shortages in our online store.

On match days, our merchandise sales have tripled compared to the previous season. We frequently release new collections that are well-received by fans. Currently, almost everything we stock sells out rapidly. We're actively working to enhance our sales and merchandising efforts, responding to fans' needs. This growth and adaptation is a gradual, ongoing process across various aspects of the club.

Śląsk Wrocław
Śląsk Wrocław

Christmas Collection | Śląsk announces its starting 11 showcasing their latest Christmas collection.

Roger Hampel: It seems fair to say that Śląsk has become a trend in Wrocław. The club has sold out the stadium twice this round, something last achieved 10 years ago during the match against Sevilla in the 2013 Europa League Play-Offs. Despite the obvious impact of sporting results, many still doubted the stadium could be sold out for matches against Legia and Raków. What's the secret behind the #KompletNaŚląsk (eng. #FullHouseForŚląsk) campaign?

Patryk Załęczny: Results drive interest, but let's remember that after three rounds this season, following a 1:3 loss to Stal Mielec, we were at the bottom of the table. Yet, over 20,000 fans attended our next home game. This shows strong trust in the club and the effectiveness of our marketing campaigns in bringing fans closer to the team. We engage with various community segments, including seniors and children, visiting schools and nurseries, riding trams with fans, and making appearances in shopping centers and markets. We want to be closer to the people.

Sporting results are a significant component, but without marketing, promotion, and communication efforts, this success wouldn't be possible. Even comparing to the championship season of 2011/12, when we were also champions, the marketing and promotional potential wasn't fully realized, resulting in lower average attendance than now.

After the first round, our average attendance was 23,219, the second highest in Poland. This season, we've had 208,967 people at our matches, more than in the entire previous season.

Before the last home game of the season against Korona Kielce, we launched the #IdziemyPoWszystko (eng.#WeGoForEverything) hashtag, aiming to exceed 30,000 attendees and top the average attendance in Poland. Although we didn't reach that number, we had the second-highest attendance in the round and are very satisfied with the number of fans coming to our matches.

Śląsk Wrocław
Śląsk Wrocław

Roger Hampel: How does the club plan to attract a large number of fans to matches against lower-table teams?

Patryk Załęczny: We've seen significant attendance even for matches against lower-ranked teams, like over 20,000 fans for the game against ŁKS Łódź. Our strategy involves not just football viewing, but a comprehensive matchday experience. This includes family-friendly activities, pre-match interviews, on-field contests, and various attractions in the Family Sector and esplanade. We also offer visits to the club museum and Sportsbar to enhance the overall experience. We're focusing on extending the matchday duration beyond the game, making it an event that appeals to a wider audience. Additionally, getting fans to arrive earlier helps with organization, especially during high-attendance matches.

Roger Hampel: This year saw two major events at Śląsk's Stadium: Usyk's boxing championship and the England-Ukraine UEFA EURO 2024 qualifier, both with over 30,000 attendees. Did these contribute to the growing interest in Śląsk and a desire for live sports in Wrocław, or were they unrelated to the club?

Patryk Załęczny: While these events weren't directly linked to our club, mainly attracting Ukrainian guests, they did set a standard for us. The vibrant atmosphere and organization at the England-Ukraine match inspired us to aim for a sold-out stadium, which we achieved twice this season against Legia and Raków. These successful events, without any negative feedback, demonstrated our ability to manage large-scale events efficiently and have likely fueled increased interest in attending live sports events at our venue.

Roger Hampel: How have Śląsk's successes affected the club's media presence?

Patryk Załęczny: The impact has been very positive. Since I joined the club, around September 7, we've seen about a 28% increase in media presence. In October, Śląsk Wrocław was the second most media-covered club in Poland. The advertising value equivalent for that month alone was 15.3 million PLN, a 2.5 million PLN increase from September to October. We're catching up to Legia and are on par with Lech, which is where we want to be. Śląsk is a major sports brand in Poland. Notably, the coverage of our club is almost exclusively positive. While Legia has had a lot of media content related to events in the Netherlands or England during the Conference League matches, I want to emphasize that the discussions about Śląsk Wrocław are positive. In line with the hashtag #WeGoForEverything, we aim to climb higher in media rankings and ultimately reach the top spot.

Roger Hampel: Since becoming president of Śląsk in September, what steps have you taken to enhance the club's market image?

Patryk Załęczny: Key initiatives included engaging in meaningful discussions with employees to boost morale, given the club's previous struggles. Revitalizing team spirit was crucial. We've made some administrative changes and are focusing on strengthening our sales department to capitalize on Śląsk Wrocław's high media profile and attract sponsors. The communication and promotion departments are also being expanded. Regular internal meetings are held to discuss strategies and address any potential issues, especially regarding match day preparations.

Additionally, there is a strong emphasis on collaboration with the coach and sports director, covering all aspects related to the team, both on and off the field. My trust in our coach and sports director is strong, acknowledging their commitment and managerial skills, which are vital for the club's success.

Roger Hampel: How have Śląsk's recent successes impacted interest from potential new business partners, including both large companies and smaller local firms?

Patryk Załęczny: The club's recent achievements have led to companies reaching out to us for advertising opportunities. While these are not large contracts yet, they're important stepping stones for future growth. We've seen an uptick in partner interest, with successful initiatives like match sponsorship and stadium advertising like LED banners and birthday announcements. Our goal is to attract a premium brand soon, enhancing the club's image and demonstrating to other brands the value of partnering with Śląsk Wrocław. We offer a variety of advertising options, making our platform appealing for diverse partners.

Roger Hampel: In Wrocław, Korean companies invest heavily, and the relationship between Wrocław and Korea is so strong that Polish Airlines have opened a direct flight between Wrocław and Seoul. What can you say about the club's relations with Korean companies?

Patryk Załęczny: I can even say that during Śląsk matches, Korean days have been organized twice. Our players have even played with their names in Korean on their backs, so our relations with Korean business are certainly not foreign to Śląsk.

This direction is very interesting for us, and we're in talks with several potential companies investing in and around Wrocław. However, these discussions are not straightforward. Our primary focus is on changing the club's image and improving our sports results. I believe we can now conduct these negotiations from a different position.

Śląsk Wrocław
Śląsk Wrocław

Roger Hampel: Staying on the topic of business collaborations, Śląsk also announced a partnership with the Wrocław American football team, Panthers Wrocław. What exactly will this entail, and do you already have plans for other collaborations with Wrocław sports organizations, like the speedway club Betard Sparta?

Patryk Załęczny: We're considering a city-wide project to unite various sports disciplines for collaborative opportunities. Our goal isn't to compete for the same fan base, as each club, including Panthers Wrocław and Betard Sparta, targets different audiences. We aim to assist each organization in reaching more fans.

Our cooperation is primarily focused on marketing. For example, we've discussed initiatives with the president of the female basketball club - Ślęza Wrocław, and are open to similar partnerships. Potential activities could include challenges with Panthers players, emphasizing unity among Wrocław's sports teams. We've already engaged in reciprocal event participation with Ślęza's basketball team, indicating our commitment to marketing and media collaborations and fostering a cooperative spirit within the local sports community.

Roger Hampel: How does the club plan to leverage its off-field successes?

Patryk Załęczny: Our focus is on social initiatives like first aid demonstrations, outreach to seniors and children, and bringing joy to children from orphanages at our games. We also engage in safety and environmental campaigns, such as road safety awareness and supporting animal shelters.

I'd also like to mention our use of various social media platforms. As president, I engage with fans, for example, on X, which is a convenient communication tool for me. Fans often send us ideas, and when feasible, we implement them. In return, we acknowledge these users on the stadium's big screen during matches, giving them recognition.

Roger Hampel: Speaking of Twitter/X, I think it's quite phenomenal. If you compare with all the leaders in Europe, sports directors and presidents, you and Mr. David Balda might be the only ones who engage so openly with fans on this platform. David Balda, the sports director of Śląsk, even participated in a Twitter room with fans, which is certainly unique. Such openness is rare even among the most family-oriented European clubs.

How important is communication with fans on social media for you?

Patryk Załęczny: I can say that it's the most important part of the job. This is because fans weren't previously recognized as they should have been. The club is essentially its fans, and without them, there would be no club. We must do everything to ensure they feel a strong connection with the club. Upon joining Śląsk, I took over communication and started interacting with fans directly.

David is also very open, likes to talk, and communicates about nuances we can openly discuss. We're pleased with how our presence on Twitter and other platforms is received. We strive for transparency. Obviously, there are contract details and negotiation specifics we can't disclose, but we share as much as we can. Fans want to see what happens behind the scenes, and since they invest their money and time, it's crucial they see as much of the club's internal workings as possible. I'm glad the fans appreciate this. For me, it's a pleasure to participate in this. Admittedly, such activity is time-consuming, as it requires constant phone access and monitoring of information and comments, but the feedback we receive guides the direction of the club. The positive atmosphere in the stands is a testament to the right path we've chosen.

Roger Hampel: How does Śląsk, or the Śląsk board, strive to be even closer to fans and the local community?

Patryk Załęczny: As I mentioned, we monitor everything happening on social media because the feedback is extremely important. First, we respond to fans' direct comments under various posts, but I also receive a lot of private messages. I engage in conversations with fans, exchanging ideas and hearing their perspectives, especially on marketing strategies.

These interactions involve not just fans but also professionals in marketing. We utilize all this input to develop Śląsk further. As I mentioned earlier, I hope these efforts continue to break down the barrier that used to exist between Śląsk Wrocław and its fans. The fact that I often read comments appreciating the transparency and openness, and that someone is finally listening to the fans, means a lot to me. Although time-consuming, reading such comments reinforces why I do this and motivates me to do even more.

Roger Hampel: I think this is a great example for other clubs and managers, as football club boards often seem inaccessible to fans, both abroad and in Poland. Here, however, we see the opposite case, with a complete turnaround in just half a year.

Patryk Załęczny: Exactly. And I believe this is reflected, for instance, in the club's advertising and media value. As I mentioned earlier, in October, Śląsk became the second most media-covered team in Poland, with an advertising equivalent value increase from 15.3 million between September and October, a rise of 2.5 million złoty. These are figures worth boasting about.

Roger Hampel: How is Śląsk progressing in terms of sports infrastructure development? I know there are plans for the Wrocław Sports Center, but is the club waiting for this or planning additional infrastructure development?

Patryk Załęczny: The club is indeed waiting for it, as we currently rent training fields and academy pitches. Our first team and reserves train at Oporowska Street, where we have our base with two fields, and play matches at Tarczyński Arena Wrocław.

We also have teams in the Central Junior League, and I hope our U19 team will soon return there. In total, our academy hosts 400 children, including boys and girls, and we also have the Orlen Women's Ekstraliga. We aim to provide suitable training and playing facilities for each team. We eagerly await the Wrocław Sports Center; the design process is ongoing, and we'll soon move to the construction permit stage. It's a few years until this large facility is completed. It will be available not only to Śląsk Wrocław and its academy but also to all Wrocław residents and other clubs, featuring recreational areas and fields for various sports. This facility will be unique in Poland, and we're confident it will help develop our club.

In the meantime, we're collaborating with other clubs to optimize current conditions, like using other fields in Wrocław. The city facilitates this, as many facilities are municipal. While Śląsk Wrocław doesn't have priority, we can navigate the rental process more efficiently. We're expanding our partner club project for the academy, with a new director and deputy director. We focus on partnerships within Wrocław and the entire region, signing new agreements with nearly 50 partner clubs, organizing regular training sessions. This effort, previously either nonexistent or small-scale, is vital for the region to identify and nurture the most talented players.

FOT: Property Design

Roger Hampel: Great initiative! Most players born in the Lower Silesian Voivodeship who debuted in the Polish national team, like Krzysztof Piątek or Piotr Zieliński, started their careers at local rivals Zagłębie Lubin.

Patryk Załęczny: Yes, Lubin has excellent infrastructure and a well-regarded academy. This might be why some parents choose a different path for their children. However, I believe the successes of Śląsk Wrocław's first team and our club's image changes will help us attract the most talented young players.

Despite some current infrastructure limitations, the prospect of playing for one of Poland's top clubs should be very appealing to parents, depending on how things continue to develop on the field.

Roger Hampel: Śląsk is owned by the city of Wrocław, but there are many voices suggesting that the club is close to privatization. What is your stance on this matter?

Patryk Załęczny: Firstly, without the city's support, it's uncertain where the club would be now. The city's funding has been crucial, as without it, Śląsk Wrocław might have been playing in the third division.

Remember, the club was once privately owned, and then the city had to rescue it from collapse and relegation. Additionally, just like the city subsidizes theaters, stadiums, and cinemas, it also supports Śląsk Wrocław. If we divide the municipal subsidy by the number of stadium spectators, the city's contribution per ticket is actually less than for other cultural facilities.

Discussions about the club's privatization are ongoing. A substantial and credible partner is needed to boost Śląsk's budget and ensure its further development, such as through academy advancement or attracting players for European cup competitions. Currently, talks are happening between the Wrocław Municipality and Westminster.

The city needs assurance in the privatization agreement that the business partner, taking over 80% of Śląsk Wrocław's shares, will secure the club's financing at an appropriate level for the next five years. In return, the partner expects a financial contribution from the city, which should be proportionate to the club's funding.

Also, while Śląsk is a city-owned club, the municipal subsidy is only a part of the entire budget. We have external sponsors, revenue from Ekstraklasa, and TV rights. The city's contribution of 13 million złoty doesn't cover all salaries and club operations. Owner contributions make up about one-third of the club's budget. We support hundreds of children and youth in the academy, their coaches, care, transport, and meals, in addition to the women's football section, reserve team, and administrative staff. The owner's funding is not solely for the first team; a significant portion is used for other aspects of the club's operations.

Roger Hampel: Is it known how this change of ownership might affect the club?

Patryk Załęczny: Talks are ongoing between city representatives and Westminster. Both parties are optimistic after these meetings, so we at the club are working and waiting for developments in this matter.

I think the coming weeks may provide answers in this regard. Perhaps by the end of the year, we'll know the direction this will take. Both sides are keen on the club's development - aiming not for mid-table but for the top of the table.

Roger Hampel: You've mentioned many marketing initiatives, improved communication, and media development - does Śląsk have any further off-field plans regarding marketing and communication?

Patryk Załęczny: As we delve deeper into marketing development, we definitely need to improve our human resources. The people on board are fully utilized, and if we want to continue developing, we will need to expand our administrative team.

Key areas for further development include expanding our fanshops and enhancing our website. Continuing to reach out to fans is crucial. We also plan to focus heavily on selling season tickets for the spring round. When attendance was around 7 to 10 thousand, a season ticket for the best seats wasn't as critical. But now, as we sell out or draw crowds of 20-30 thousand, securing the best seats becomes important, and that's what a season ticket offers.

We're aware that there are many aspects of Śląsk that need improvement. However, as I've said before, it's not possible to change everything in just a few months - I've been here since September, and change takes time.

The October match between Śląsk and Legia Warsaw was watched by nearly 40,000 people. Exactly 40,000 people also turned up in December for the match against Raków Częstochowa. (PHOTO: Slask Wroclaw/

Roger Hampel: Only once in this century has a team leading at autumn not qualified for UEFA's European competitions. Is playing in European competitions a goal for Śląsk?

Patryk Załęczny: Achieving our primary goal of league survival seems likely. Coach Jacek Magiera initially targeted a top-10 finish, but I believe falling below the top five or six is unlikely. We're focused on strengthening the team, not selling key players. For example, Patryk Klimala (ex. Celtic Glasgow, New York Red Bulls) has been training with us and is ready to play.

As the season progresses, if we maintain our lead, the possibility of qualifying for European cups becomes a realistic goal. This achievement would be a rewarding gift to our fans and a testament to their support. While our immediate focus is on each upcoming match, our overall preparations are geared towards maintaining a strong position for potential European competition.

Roger Hampel: Are there already known clubs for the upcoming friendlies, and can we expect a top-tier club as a sparring partner?

Patryk Załęczny: The list is set; we're just waiting for confirmation. While we may not have top-tier clubs as one might imagine, the teams are slightly above Śląsk Wrocław's level. I'd prefer not to reveal details as I'm not sure how the clubs we'll play against plan to communicate this. Our staff's idea was to play against teams that are at the end of their preparations during our friendlies, so it's not like we're playing a team just starting its preparations. This way, we can gauge how much we lag behind other teams after the holiday break.

Roger Hampel: You mentioned that playing in European cups would be a gift for the fans, and I can only wish for this dream to last as long as possible. Thank you very much for the interview!

Patryk Załęczny: Thank you very much!


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