Jack Majewski speaks to Kevin Roberts, Editorial Director of Sport Business on the impact of commercial organisations on youth sport.
JM: As an organisation which deals with very young professional athletes, or athletes which are on the verge of signing professional contracts we have the distinctive feeling that young people enter the world of professional sport not very well prepared. How well do sporting and commercial organisations around Europe prepare young athletes for the demands of professional sport?
KR: I think that this is part of the market which people have become more and more aware of. One of the best examples which I can think of is in football when an organisation independent from UEFA or FIFA developed the concept called Next Generation Series. Next Generation Series is an U-19 football competition which in its first year of existence has major European clubs participating, including CF Barcelona, Manchester City, Liverpool, Celtic, Wolfsburg and both Milan’s clubs. It is quite strange that UEFA was not interested in a Champions League for young players, so it took an external organisation to put it together and clubs absolutely love it! This external organisation created a property, an event which plays a very important role as a stepping stone to make the progression between youth sport and a professional career. In England, Manchester City have plans to abandon their reserve team, because the quality of playing against these top young players from around Europe in competition which lasts a whole season is much better than playing against thirty year old players in the reserve league. It is a much better way of preparing them for the professional life to come. This is a great example how people within and outside of sports governing bodies are creating an opportunity for youngsters and building business opportunities on the back of it. It happens in football and may happen in all other major sports, particularly team sports.
In rugby there is tremendous focus on providing stepping stones for youngsters to make a smooth transition to pro-level. In all sports the main danger is losing kids when they are coming out of full time schooling aged between 18 and 20. In rugby the drop off in this particular age gap is around 40%. In England players seem to be committed to the game, playing for their clubs up to the age of 18 and then going to university where they can’t find a path for themselves and lose contact with sport altogether. In their schools these kids feel like a big fish in a small pond, while when they enter universities they became a very small fish in a very big pond and they can’t find a place in the teams. Very few of them can play for teams and the rest drift away and therefore their talent is being wasted. Rugby is very aware of this situation and tries to keep this talent within the game by creating much better development systems for youngsters allowing them to make a seamless transition to a professional game.
JM: You talk about the importance of creating good comprehensive development systems for young players who are on the verge of entering a professional career.However sport is a very cruel business and by definition only exceptionally gifted individuals can rely on building a career as professional athletes, the rest is simply not good enough. Playing the role of devil’s advocate, please explain to me where from a business point of view is the sense to invest into a social group in which the majority will not succeed in their quest to be a professional sportsperson?
KR: Modern marketing nowadays is all about communities and all about engagement with communities! Youth sport is a massive community and also a very influential one. Sport is a powerful tool which is influencing their future life, their attitudes towards physical activities, towards their personal timetables and priorities .Every organisation which has a property or an event which allows brands to engage in a meaningful way with these kids in a seminal time of their life has a genuine marketing opportunity and genuine reason to spend money. It is a very clear business rationale for a variety of brands to be involved in youth sport. These brands may vary, starting from credit card providers who want to gain “first mover” advantage. Let’s face it almost all of these kids will need a credit card at some stage of their lives. That is how you are building brand familiarity and brand trust and that needs to be done from a very early stage. Perhaps more directly to the point, there are a lot of brands which offer products related to sport and sports performance and kids need new kit, equipment, drinks, nutrition, supplements and they are consumers in the making. They are at a stage when their future life is being formed and the brands which are around them at that time can deliver a significant value.
That is precisely what the people from Next Generation try to benefit from. They believe that they have a very powerful combination of factors going for them; the first one is the fact that they can run a serious competition with a serious visibility provided by their TV deals and a website with fast increasing traffic. Of course this traffic is generated by association with famous football clubs. The second one is a ready-made audience of youth players and young people which follow them. There is a significant value in it for brands involved in youth sport.
From a purely business point of view, in the real world it is much cheaper to get involved in youth sport. Nobody is expected to pay premium prices to be involved with any youth initiative or project. It is almost a no risk investment for them. As long as the numbers stack up they buy the rights to get involved with an important community without paying a huge amount of money for the rights to this engagement.
JM: Moving closer to the sport of basketball, I’m sure that basketball creates a huge number of consumers in the making. Why is it then that serious business in England don’t tap into this potential market and are reluctant to invest into this sport. Basketball has never properly taken off in this country and probably never will without serious outlay of money
KR: Interesting question which has baffled generation of people after generation. Twenty-five years ago when Channel 4 launched in this country, basketball and particularly British basketball was one of the mainstay of their sports offering. They had two sports: American football and basketball. So you can see that major, national broadcasting organisations tried to popularise basketball and never managed to do it! Basketball needs better promotion, better penetration and also probably better coaching especially at the school level. Sport is a generation thing in the UK. Habit of watching all main sports in England is passed down to generations. Unless you have something which breaks this cycle, something which excites kids about playing basketball, gets them in a group of boys and girls who enjoy playing the game, then it is very difficult to build a culture of basketball in this country. These changes must happen at school level. Having kids playing basketball at the age of 8-9 just for fun in groups of boys and girls has to be the way of initiating a love and appreciation of sport which later transcends into willingness to watch and engage in the sport of basketball. We have the Olympic tournament next summer and that will allow the UK public to watch the best basketball players in action. This is a fantastic opportunity for the people responsible for the promotion of the game to make a real effort to engage with this new audience.
JM: I understand the cultural conditioning which makes the public in England follow slavishly the main sports and treat the others with barely masked disdain. But in other countries such conditioning was overridden by huge investments which brought certain sports to the mainstream of their sporting interest. A good example of this would be the huge popularity of ski jumping in Poland generated by the success of basically one athlete –Adam Malysz. In the last decade ski jumping attracted huge interest in the media followed by involvement of major global brands and became a part of the mainstream culture. Why is it that in England basketball can’t attract similar interest from major brands?
KR: I just wonder whether there is another parallel here with American football. Many years ago the World League in American football was created and one of the first franchises was a team called the London Monarchs. For the first season they were selling 70.000 tickets at Wembley Stadium, but it didn’t last. The second season wasn’t so good and in the third they had to leave Wembley. The team was renamed and they moved to other parts of the country and then they folded. Relatively more sophisticated fans in the UK realised very quickly that what they were getting with the World League was in fact second class products. These were the people who weren’t making teams in the NFL and this realisation happened around entire Europe, because the World League in fact became a German League. All the other European teams just disappeared.
I just wonder whether the same is true in the sport of basketball to a certain extent. There is a very strong link between the UK and American market, lots of kids can watch basketball in the NBA and see the difference in level. I know that the level of European basketball is rising dramatically in recent years, but this message is somehow lost to the English sporting public. I guarantee that you can talk to quite sophisticated sporting fans in the UK who will not know about Euroleague or who their current Champions are. They may mention teams which are connected to famous football teams like Barcelona, Real Madrid or Panathinaikos. There is a massive gap in knowledge and understanding and maybe that is one of the reason why nobody thought it suitable to invest significantly heavily and making work a Euroleague franchise in London. I know that the guys in Barcelona [Euroleague head office] would absolutely love it.
JM: So maybe a part of the problem lies with both Euroleague and the NBA. Don’t you think that both organisations deliver a product which is far removed from youth basketball. NBA has been in London for years and their effect on the state of English basketball is negligible. If anything the state of London basketball was much stronger before NBA descended on the capital than now.
KR: NBA is an interesting case. It’s literally at a distance. I can’t believe that you can built a business in sport simply by coming and playing exhibition games every so often or having your highlights on terrestrial television late at night. There needs to be slightly more engagement to make it real. We are coming back to football so often in this interview, but it demonstrates very well how passion and loyalty to the team develop over the years. Everyone in Europe develops clubs on basis of local engagement. If we don’t have this close engagement the relation with sport will be always different and worse. Leading football clubs like Manchester United and Liverpool claim many millions of fans in south East Asia. In Malaysia, a former British colony there is a strong awareness of British clubs and this is a habit that parents who grew up in the seventies watching these clubs playing on TV passed onto younger generations and this is how mass following was created. But their relationship with these clubs is much different and distant than the relationship of local fans. When I interviewed Ian Ayre, Liverpool Chief Executive not a long time ago, he was very clear that, yes indeed these distant fans are important for the revenue of the club. After all they will buy subscriptions to the television channels, replicas jerseys and other merchandise and maybe when they visit the UK they will also buy tickets for a game. But the relationship with them is entirely different than with local fans that came to the games regularly, that live and breathe the game and create a community around the club. You create a completely different type of fan when you don’t have a real contact point between the club and the community. Which one is more important? The answer is very clear-these genuine local people who feel affinity, ownership and even responsibility for a club are more productive in any kind of way.
Photographs credit: Action Images / Paul Harding / Alex Morton