Artistic Flair

Gymnastics is one of only five sports that has been present at every modern summer Olympic Games. Ahead of this month’s World Artistic Gymnastics Championships in Nanning, China, Elisha Chauhan spoke to FIG (International Gymnastics Federation) President Bruno Grandi about his plans to develop the event and the sport.

Running since 1903, the World Artistic Gymnastics Championships are only seven years older than the modern Olympic Games.

At the 1896 Games, the artistic gymnastic disciplines weren’t dissimilar to those we see today, with current disciplines of horizontal bar, parallel bars, pommel horse, rings and vault all competed. Artistic disciplines are those where gymnasts perform short routines – ranging from around 30 to 90 seconds – on different apparatus.

Another trait that remains by-and-large unchanged over more than a century of artistic gymnastics is the dominance of countries from eastern Europe and east Asia, with competitors from Russia, China, Romania, Japan and the Czech Republic all as strong today as they were in the late 1890s and early 1900s.

This month, the World Artistic Gymnastics Championships will be held in Nanning, making a return to China for the first time in 15 years after Tianjin hosted the 1999 edition. Nanning is the capital of southern China region Guangxi, which borders Vietnam.

Gymnastics is
deeply rooted in
the hearts of
Chinese athletes

FIG president Bruno Grandi, meanwhile, is looking forward to the event – which takes place annually excluding summer Olympic years – returning to Asia for the first time since Tokyo 2011. Grandi has led the body since 1996 and has also been a member of the IOC (International Olympic Committee) since 2000.

“The FIG was excited about the opportunity to host the event in China for a number of reasons,” Grandi told SportBusiness International. “China has a long gymnastics tradition, and the sport is deeply rooted in the hearts of Chinese athletes. This vast country regularly produces magnificent champions, and takes its place on numerous artistic gymnastic podiums, as it does in other FIG disciplines.

“So it was natural for the FIG and its gymnasts to return to China after a premiere edition at the 1999 World Artistic Gymnastics Championships in Tianjin, the 2006 Aerobic Championships in Nanjing, and the upcoming 2016 Acrobatic Championships in Putian.”

Performance Development

Whilst Grandi concedes gymnastics’ history has been dominated by the performances of eastern European and Asian athletes, he also notes that the United States has become a powerhouse since the turn of the millennium.

This March, governing body USA Gymnastics received a boost when it signed a broadcast deal with the NBC Sports Group, part of US media company NBCUniversal, and pay-TV broadcaster Universal Sports Network, covering its major events. The deals runs until the end of 2016.

Grandi also says the rest of Europe is quickly playing catch up too: “Great Britain, in particular, really surged [in performance] before the 2012 London Olympics and has continued to do so as its younger generation of gymnasts come up. Britain is still new and getting used to being amongst the top teams, but they are very, very strong.”

The FIG runs an academy to encourage the growth and development of the sport, where coaches and technicians travel the world to share their knowledge and training tips to countries that actively request help in improving the quality of their gymnastics.

“It’s important to remember, though, that competitive national teams are not formed overnight, or even within a year or two,” says Grandi. “Getting to the top level takes years of training and lots of patience and dedication on the part of both the gymnasts and the coaches, as well as support from the national sports federations and national Olympic committees that provide the infrastructure, training facilities and medical support. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to have that in every country.”

Like many international sports federations, social media has played an integral part in the growth and attraction of the sport to new generations. At the time of writing, the FIG boasts over 74,500 Facebook likes, 17,700 Twitter followers and an impressive 51,500 subscribers to its YouTube channel.

“There’s a large community of fans on social media, like Facebook and Twitter, and we also accredit a number of bloggers who have demonstrated commitment to the sport and unbiased reporting of the World Championships,” says Grandi.

“We have a crew that films routines from the qualification rounds and puts them on our YouTube channel, and the number of people who watch and share them is very good. A live stream of finals events is also available. All of these things help spread the word about what these athletes are doing.”

Immersive Partnerships

The FIG only has three official partners – entertainment group Cirque du Soleil, Swiss watchmaker Longines and Russian bank VTB. However, each of these partners plays an integral role for the FIG.

The Cirque du Soleil, for example, provides a career bridge for gymnasts, whether prior, during or following their time as FIG competitors. The Montreal-based firm launched its partnership in 2009, before extending the deal in February last year until 2016 and the end of the current Olympic cycle.

“For our athletes, this agreement [with Cirque du Soleil] opens the door to new opportunities once they stop competing,” Grandi said at the time of the sponsorship renewal. “It is also an extraordinary chance for gymnastics to benefit from the expertise of Cirque du Soleil in terms of conceiving and creating spectacles.”

VTB has been financially supporting the FIG’s global development programmes since 2009. It shares close ties with the sport via its country’s dominance of the medals table and, crucially, president and chairman of VTB’s management board Andrey Kostin is also the president of the Russian Gymnastics Federation.

The most immersive of FIG’s partnerships however is Longines, which has, remarkably, supported the sport since 1912 (read more about FIG's Longines partnership). This includes being the official timekeeper for all FIG’s artistic and rhythmic gymnastics competitions, providing results and other performance data for internal and external use, as well as presenting a Longines-sponsored award and watch at every major event.

“Local organisers are able to tap into the Longines’ exclusive relationship, taking advantage of the free-of-charge and Olympic-level data handling, public posting, and information distributed to broadcasters and journalists on-site,” says Grandi.

“The relationship reaches the very heart of the competition, with Longines services also including video recording of each exercise to be used for performance evaluations or to train the judges.”

Outsourcing Media Rights

FIG appointed IEC in Sports, the sports marketing agency owned by Lagardère Unlimited, as its official media agency in October last year.

Terms of the agreement were not disclosed, but the appointment followed FIG’s decision to centralise its media rights for its World Championships across all gymnastic disciplines. IEC had previously worked with the governing body, but the October-deal sealed a long-term partnership.

The agreement has been designed to raise the profile of FIG-sanctioned competitions. In addition to distributing the media rights for the Artistic World Cup, artistic gymnastics’ Challenge Cup and Rhythmic World Cup, IEC provides a range of consulting services, focusing in particular on the re-positioning of key events beyond the World Championships and the development of FIG’s digital strategy.

“We have been working with gymnastics for a number of years and our teams have developed a solid understanding of the business,” Daniel Franck, chief executive of IEC in Sports, said at the time of the deal.

“This partnership with FIG is a good progression and demonstrates both our commitment to the sport and our desire to accompany FIG with its media projects to increase the profile of gymnastics across the world.”

Oliver Strebel, marketing and communication director of FIG, added: “This partnership is the result of a long-term collaboration with IEC in Sports and we trust in the professionalism of its team. Whilst the distribution of the World Championships remains our responsibility, we have secured deals in certain territories in collaboration with IEC in Sports.

“Our global strategy is here to last and has been designed to build comprehensive distribution and exposure to our sport. We’ve no doubt additional developments will occur by working with Lagardère Unlimited, with the mutual goal of taking gymnastics to the place where it belongs.”

Knowing Nanning

Dubbed the ‘Green City’ for its tropical foliage, Nanning – the capital of the autonomous Guangxi Zhuang region since 1958 – has a population of over seven million.

This month’s World Artistic Gymnastics Championships will be hosted in the 9,247-seater gymnasium at the Guangxi Sports Centre, which also includes a tennis arena, aquatics centre and a 60,000-capacity stadium.

The Guangxi Sports Centre, which has staggered the opening of its venues from 2010, is designed in the shape of a flower bud – formed by the stadium – with stem leaves made up by the gymnasium and aquatics centre, to reflect the city’s association with nature.

Nanning’s GDP in the first nine months of 2012 reached 162.6 billion Chinese yuan ($26.4 billion), a year-on-year increase of 11.8 per cent. One third of China’s mineral resources are found in Nanning.

Last month Nanning hosted the 11th China-ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Expo, which was attended by over 2,300 companies from China and the ASEAN region. First held in 2004, the Expo serves as an important platform to promote bilateral trade and relationships between China and the ASEAN region.

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