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What went on at the Leaders Sport Business Summit, Abu Dhabi

Gulf collaboration, the growth of Asian football, digital storytelling, destination building through sport, and the future of franchise cricket - day one in review.

The inaugural Leaders Sport Business Summit in Abu Dhabi kicked off on 30th January, with 350 senior figures from across the world of sport gathered at the Bab Al Qasr on the Emirate’s glittering corniche to exchange ideas, handshakes and business cards, and to hear from a full line-up of programming focused on the future of sport.

By James Emmett

Collaboration nation

The very opposite of fighting talk from HE Mohammed Al Rumaithi, a former Major General and commander-in-chief of the Abu Dhabi police, current chairman of the UAE’s General Authority for Sports, and a candidate for the presidency of the AFC, as he opened up the conference. Kind words about Qatar a hard to come by in these politically taut times in this part of the Gulf, but the minister was gracious in defeat, congratulating Qatar on their 4-0 AFC Cup semi-final win over UAE the night before, and emphasised being collaborative as a key characteristic of any good leader.

“I’m delighted for the World Cup to come close to us in 2022,” he said. “Fifa has been talking to Qatar about increasing the number [of participating teams] to 48 and that would be good for Asia because we’d have eight slots instead of four. We will be very supportive to the Qataris if Fifa insist on 48, provided the crisis is resolved. If the crisis goes away then we can go back to working together like brothers. Anyone would help. We can support, Saudi can support – but I wish luck to the Qataris and hope the crisis is resolved.”

Inevitable growth

Official YouTube posts from the AFC Cup have attracted 18 million views thus far, with 10 million interactions across official AFC digital channels, but nobody is under the illusion that the only way is up for Asian football, and, the way the protagonists both political and commercial see it, the growth in quality, popularity and general heft is inevitable. Has Asian football moved on sufficiently since South Korea came fourth in their home World Cup in 2002? “I don’t think so,” said Al Rumaithi. “We have very strong economies, great human resources and the most populous continent in the world. We have potential to be better.”

For David Tyler, COO of DDMC Fortis, the dedicated agency set up to commercialise all AFC media and marketing rights as soon as this tournament in UAE closes, finding a way to rouse what could be the sleeping giants of Asian football will be key to the sport’s development, and way to do that is via digital storytelling. “It doesn’t matter who sparks it, but igniting an interest in football in India will be huge,” Tyler said. “To build profile of AFC properties and competitions, you want to have high quality on the field, but you also want to build lifestyle stories and profiles of the stars – especially in Asia – and building rivalries is important too.”

Storymaking & storytelling

Digital storytelling was at the core of the two mid morning sessions on the Leaders stage, with Kim McConnie, GM of the short-form Big Bash Leagues at Cricket Australia, revealing that the marketing oomph being put behind the domestic T20 leagues in Australia might even extend to WWE-style storytelling. “We look at the UFC a lot too,” she said, “We think they’re the best storytelling outfit in sport. We’re looking to build our more hero/villain stories with our players.”

McConnie joined the organisation 18 months ago, returning to Australia from the US, where she had spent the last few years running sports marketing for Pepsi. And that big brand thinking – the constant focus on the USP – has informed a lot of what she’s done already in cricket. “It’s a fan-centric league with entertainment at its core.” That’s the Big Bash USP, and it’s a mantra McConnie has returned to again and again as she’s driven the league to open up cricket to new audiences of women and children. Treating the game as an entertainment spectacle – encouraging players not to take it too seriously, bringing fans closer to them, creating social, open environments inside stadiums, programming non-cricket activities for before, during and after the action – has paid dividends. According to regular surveys, the three most popular things for audiences at Big Bash games are access to players, face-painting, and the roaming magicians. 46% of the crowd at Big Bash games are female; 55% are families with children; 35% are new audiences to cricket.

Effective content partnerships was the name of the game in an on-stage conversation between the ICC’s head of media rights, broadcast and digital Aarti Dabas, Hilton’s EMEA partnerships director Ed Thorne, and Lewis Hamilton’s digital guru James Pabla – and here we saw successful manifestations of three of the sports marketing world’s sturdiest pillars: experiential, values, and authenticity.

Experiential – Thorne explained that Hilton has 25 partnerships active across the EMEA region, and the two biggest – with McLaren and the European Tour – are both in sport. Bringing a sense of fun and a spirit of innovation to the activation of these deals, the hotel chain uses the partnerships to create unique – and shareable – experiences for fans. Of course, the experiences often involve gigantic, comfortable Hilton hotel beds – placed in McLaren’s HQ for an overnight stay before the Australian Grand Prix for example, or on the hole-in-one hole at European Tour events with the chance to win a holiday. Hilton spend resource on creating the experience, and rely on the strength of it to be worthy of organic distribution on other channels. As Thorne said, “We don’t want to be the storyteller, we want to be the storymaker.”

Values – The ICC’s partnership with Uber for the recent women’s World T20 tournament was a classic example of a rights holder and brand forming a partnership based on values, and activating through content from there. In this instance, the values in question were the empowerment of women, which the ICC is aiming to do with a broad push behind the women’s game, and Uber has helped in countries like India, where, as Dabas explained, women might have had to rely on their husbands or felt unsafe travelling home late before Uber. A campaign to promote the women’s tournament through short clips bringing out backstories of some of the players – TheRoadSheMade – went viral, and got a second life when Uber ambassador Virat Kohli then got involved.

Authenticity – Of course there’s an irony in a digital and social executive – whose job it is to forge the strategy behind one man’s digital output – expounding on the merits of authenticity, but the type of authenticity that flies in the sports marketing world is hard to manufacture. Hamilton is the world’s most followed and engaged racing driver, so Pabla’s words pack some weight, and his advice is clear: “We don’t want to lose authenticity through overplanned moments. We don’t overproduce, don’t have too many photographers or videographers; and it’s our duty to put forward recommendations to extract authentic moments. A lot of Lewis’s partnerships are based on his real, authentic interests, there’s always a real narrative that gives appropriate context to any branded post.”

Visit Rwanda

Arsenal commercial director Peter Silverstone led a discussion on destination building through sports partnerships alongside Emirates’ marketing chief Boutros Boutros, ITU president Marisol Casado, and RCS Sport CEO Paolo Bellino – all of whom have deep experience in using sports properties to market destinations and tourism to consumers. But it was Silverstone himself who came armed with the best stats: Arsenal’s partnership with Visit Rwanda raised some eyebrows when it was announced in May, with the African country, recovering from an atrocity 25 years ago, having been propped up by international aid, with 80% of its national income coming from aid at one point, though that figure is now down to 17%. Why has the Rwandan Development Board partnered with Arsenal? “To get out of the aid cycle,” explained Silverstone. “To develop an industry to make themselves self-sufficient. They want to promote Rwanda as a luxury tourism destination to our audience.” And the first signs are that it’s working, with tourism numbers from the UK up 5.4% since the partnership was announced, and the search term ‘Rwanda’ or ‘Visit Rwanda’ up 1000% in the US over the same period.

Over and out

The future of franchise cricket was up for discussion in the final session of the day with Yorkshire CCC’s Mark Arthur, Reliance Sport’s Sundar Ramen, the Titans’ Jacques Faul, and Shaji Ul Mulk of the T10 League all of the mind that there is plenty of demand out there for manifold formats, tournaments, narratives and leagues. “There are seven billion people in the world,” said Ramen, “of course there’s room for every format. But ultimately it won’t be administrators who choose what people want; consumers will do that for themselves.”

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