At around 3pm on Christmas Day 2022 I received an email to the Subbuteo.Online address. It read:
I thought I’d buy my son a subbuteo for Xmas However, have you tried to construct the goals!!!!! WHAT A PAIN!! The slots are too small for the frame to be placed into. Why oh why do you make soooo hard for your customers???!
We’ve almost given up trying…2 cut fingers. Has anyone in your business ever tried to put the goals together??? I bet your CEO hasn’t. So much for introducing my son to game I loved playing with my bros in the 1970s!!!!! Very very frustrated almost a new old customer of yours!
While I corrected the frustrated lapsed fan that I wasn’t actually the CEO of Subbuteo it did ring some alarm bells. These are alarm bells that have continued to chime long and loud during a handful of probably the worst marketed product launches of any brand in 2023.
Now they are too loud to ignore and they mean just one thing.
Longshore. University Games. Hasbro. It’s not working is it?
Subbuteo’s tailspin into mediocrity that started in the early 2000s with a failed relaunch of the brand and a series of poorly designed and low quality boxes has now turned into a death spiral. The brand is teetering on the edge of oblivion because of a long list of bizarre management decisions at three different companies.
In the last 12 months Subbuteo has been everywhere. Pubs across the UK featured Subbuteo-style figures to advertise the most recent World Cup, the Champions League Final programme had a double page spread featuring the squads as Subbuteo players, Nike has just finished a shoot featuring Subbuteo for its new Women’s football range and a day doesn’t go by when a podcast, book or magazine isn’t featuring a Subbuteo-style player to market to the world.
Subbuteo as a brand is a retro classic. It’s one that major media and football hipsters alike are gravitating towards at a time when the world of football is desperate for a dose of nostalgia and joy to drown out the creeping march of state owned corruption and declining morals.
So why is Longshore and University Games running the brand into the ground?
In the last six months alone Subbuteo has (sort of) launched lots of new things. A training set that was never actually announced and is incredibly difficult to find, a Maradona set that changed three times before actually going on sale to zero fanfare from both Subbuteo license holder Longshore and UK importer University Games.
There was a 75th anniversary set. A repackaged modern set with a single ball sprayed gold. Like a turd rolled in glitter in a vain attempt to make a box of tat seem exclusive or remotely interesting to the hundreds of people sat waiting to spend their money on anything with the Subbuteo logo on.
There are new sets. New accessories too. But why are they never actually telling us that they are arriving? The Subbuteo social media accounts do not post. They do not give dates, prices or availability. They do not even show is the correct picture of the items they intend to sell at some vague date in the future. It’s almost as if they don’t want us to know these things are on sale. As if they are embarrassed at the things they are throwing out to market.
Earlier this month the University Games social account did post about Subbuteo. It said the rubber-backed pitch is now back on sale thanks to the public’s demand. Except the Subbuteo rubber-backed pitch has been available from stores ever since it first arrived (they didn’t tell us, we all found that out ourselves). It was then widely panned by the community for being unplayable.
Listening to feedback? Absolutely not.
University Games did do some good. They sponsored last year’s SubbuteoFest and delivered some really nice trophies to the event. I was impressed. They even delivered a bespoke Subbuteo pitch to SubbuteoCollector, who completely deserves it as he is doing all of their work for them by announcing new sets when he manages to find them in the dusty corners of the internet.
The marketing is a mess. The Subbuteo website is still telling us to ‘stay home with Subbuteo’ two years after lockdown restrictions were lifted. The newer sets such as the Maradona special edition are not available to buy on there or University Games.
Meanwhile, the official Subbuteo Twitter account has tweeted five times all year. And one of those was an incorrect picture of the Maradona box set. The rest were tatty graphics paying lip service to Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and two cup finals.
Is anybody even trying? Is there a marketing plan? A promotions plan? A sales plan? We know the sets are not up to scratch but are they so embarrassed by them that they’ve given up completely?
Next year England hosts the FISTF World Cup in the home of Subbuteo, Tunbridge Wells. This is a group of companies that has been handed the easiest marketing and PR opportunity they will ever see. They own a brand that is so beloved it’s now entered mainstream culture, has a dedicated player base far beyond many board games, an international tournament with 75 years of history on their doorstep and somehow they are dropping the ball.
The lack of new products, the quality of existing products, import issues, the age of the fanbase, the competition with computer games and trading cards – Subbuteo faces a lot of problems that are bigger than this. But basic communication and a level of professionalism would be the quickest and easiest way for them to start to move Subbuteo back to where it belongs. Why is this not being done?
It is so rare for a company to have people actively wanting them to tell them what and where they can buy. It is rare for a company to have its products appearing at every major football event and in hundreds of marketing campaigns every year without spending a penny on advertising. To throw away that opportunity by sitting behind closed doors and doing absolutely nothing is baffling.
Subbuteo under Longshore isn’t working. Subbuteo promoted by University Games isn’t working.
We’re at the point where an independent Subbuteo blog is receiving angry emails from disappointed customers because the official channels are so poorly maintained nobody knows where they are.
In all the years Subbuteo has been in the UK’s living rooms, on carpeted floors and dusty attics it has suffered from many things; competition from modern games, supply issues, box sets that didn’t sell very well. But one thing Subbuteo has never suffered from is an image problem. It takes a special kind of mismanagement to achieve that.
We’re not stupid. We know Subbuteo is old fashioned. We know creating an affordable, quality Subbuteo set is almost impossible in the current climate. Why not just talk to us? Tell us what is happening and you may be surprised at the solutions that could be offered.
Ceaseless, arrogant silence is just not the answer.
It’s time to sell up and give up. Hand the brand to a company that knows what it is doing. Every Subbuteo fan I speak to talks lovingly of Hornby, or Panini, or anybody who does the simple thing of listening to its customers and communicating effectively.
It’s either that or Subbuteo will have plenty of frustrated ‘nearly new, old’ customers. And there can’t be too many left.