More than 330 franchisees operating in 34 countries. Classes attended by over 70,000 children a week. When it comes to franchising, soccer concept Little Kickers is in a league of its own
When it comes to franchising awards, it could be said that the Global Franchise Champion accolade is akin to the World Cup, so it’s only fitting that an educational soccer program took the top prize at this year’s Global Franchise Awards 2020 ceremony held at the International Franchise Association 2020 conference in Orlando, Florida.
Little Kickers is an educational soccer – or ‘football’, depending on where you’re based – program which was designed to provide children aged one-and-a-half to seven years old a fun and positive introduction to sport while promoting the development of fundamental early learning skills such as color and number recognition, sharing and taking turns.
Founded in London, England in 2002, Little Kickers was established because Lukas, founder Christine Kelly’s son, adored football, however, at the age of two, there was nowhere for him to go to learn how to play it. “The brand evolved through a ‘play not push’ philosophy,” explains Christine, who is now chair of the operation. “Kids who participated in the program were encouraged to have fun rather than be overly competitive footballers. We saw a niche in helping children to develop early learning skills – for instance: color and number recognition; sharing; taking turns; following instructions – through our classes, and the business has evolved from there.”
And Little Kickers has well and truly kicked on since. In 2004, the decision was made to start franchising the business – by 2005 there were 25 franchisees signed up in the U.K. “From there, we continued to develop in the U.K., and also sold masters and units into a variety of countries,” says Christine. “In 2013, we developed an English language progam for the Brazilian market, where we use the Little Kickers program to also teach kids English. We now operate in over 40 cities in Brazil and the Little Kickers program has grown into multiple other non-Anglophone markets, including Spain, Chile, China, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands.”
“This award gives us the confidence to continue to take bold steps to move the business forward”
For Christine, the relationships with franchisees are absolutely critical. The brand goes to great lengths to take on franchisees who share the organization’s core values – this helps to establish a vision to work together on a long term basis. “In international markets, we tread a fine line between ensuring the core processes and procedures which form the basis of our franchise model are followed as closely as possible and respecting key social and cultural differences in these markets. This is always much easier when we’re working with people who have the same values.”
When it comes to winning the coveted title of Global Franchise Champion, Christine is a true team player and dedicates the win to everyone involved with the brand. “We’re absolutely delighted to have won – it’s Little Kickers’ 18th birthday in April, and so many of the team have been with the company for many years now – it’s fantastic to see everyone’s hard work being recognized this year. It’s also very positive for the head office team. We have taken many bold decisions in the past, which have changed the direction of the business – fortunately, most of these have worked out very well. This award gives us the confidence to continue to take bold steps to move the business forward and differentiate ourselves rather than playing it safe!”
And not playing it safe is what has set Little Kickers apart in a saturated children’s activities, tutoring and education market, with the brand not only winning the Global Franchise Champion award but claiming the Best Children’s & Education Franchise title, too. “We have never aspired to be a small brand and have always invested heavily in world-class infrastructure that supports the growth we would like to see,” she says. “We have very clear and strong values and only take on franchisees and coaches who share these, which means everyone within the business is very aligned when it comes to objectives. We’re happy to take risks and constantly push the envelope with what we do.”
One of those objectives is for Little Kickers to become the most eco-friendly kids soccer club in the world by the end of 2020. Just like with most of her entrepreneurial career thus far, Christine relishes the challenge. “This will involve us shifting our current production of over 100,000 football kits and other merchandise away from petrochemical-based fabrics – which is the norm in the industry – to using fabrics made out of recycled plastic from the ocean. Once our Little Kickers have finished with their uniforms, they will then be delivered to six orphanages in South Africa, together with kit and equipment, by teams of Little Kickers coaches who will train up local people on how to deliver our program.”
“We’re happy to take risks and constantly push the envelope with what we do”
Bold ambitions, but if there’s any organization that has shown time and time again that it can achieve incredible things, it’s Little Kickers. As well as the eco-friendly focus, the brand has a lot of other exciting plans for 2020. “We’re also launching a new online shop in the U.K., Australia and Canada, with a wider range of merchandise,” says Christine. “In 2019, we donated a franchise to Aston University in Birmingham, England, where two placement students now run their own franchise – we plan to roll this out to other universities. Franchising as a business model is not incorporated into many business management programs at universities, which is strange given its huge impact on the overall economy. We’re also exploring how we can make proprietary technology we have developed to facilitate monthly recurring customer payments across multiple markets available to other franchisors who are investing in moving to this business model.”