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Top Man

The United States Equestrian Federation (USEF)’s newly-appointed CEO Chris Welton describes how he went from practising law to taking the reins of the IOC (International Olympic Committee)’s sponsorship programme.

The best decision I ever made was to stop practising law. Billy Payne, CEO of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics local organising committee (ACOG), asked me to leave the law practice I was working at to help manage the domestic sponsorship programme for the event. As a part of that role I was also the liaison between ACOG and the IOC’s TOP (The Olympic Partner) programme.

I had no idea what I was doing in the first few months at ACOG. But you learn as you go along and you have to make decisions based on your own judgement. Another interesting thing about working for an Olympic organising committee is that you know in a relatively short amount of time you’re going to be unemployed. Anyone going into a role of that kind is taking a leap of faith believing it will lead to another job.

The IOC was not satisfied with the job ISL was doing. My business partner [Laurent Scharapan] and I approached the IOC about creating a new marketing agency, Meridian Management, to lead the TOP programme, because ISL – which managed the TOP programme for the IOC prior to Meridian – lost a lot of its key management.

My proudest day was becoming the IOC’s exclusive marketing agent. It was really quite a surprise in the sports marketing world when the IOC announced that a couple of young guys, who had never really run a company before, would take over from ISL. We helped grow the TOP programme from about $350 million in revenue from when we took over to over $800 million eight years later.

You can’t just buy into sponsorships and sit on them. I sold the TOP programme for a very long time, and I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t think that companies could get a just value out of it. Having said that, it is really up to the company to get the most out of the sponsorship. You have to be diligent to combat ambush marketing, but I’ve always thought that the best way for a true sponsor to protect itself is to have a very aggressive activation programme.

Meridian grew the IOC’s TOP programme to over $800m in eight years

The IOC bought Meridian shares and compensated us. Then-IOC president Jacques Rogge decided to take most of the commercial activity in house. I frankly wasn’t at a point in my life where I could move to Lausanne, so we worked out an arrangement where the IOC didn’t have to pay commission for deals we had in place, and could also gradually integrate the agency into its own body.

Hosting the Olympics in the United States attracts a lot of sponsorship dollars. We set a lot records for the Atlanta Games, especially because the financial market in the 1990s was really strong. The United States has a really strong chance of hosting the 2024 Olympics, and all four bidding cities [Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington DC] would do a really good job of hosting the Games.

I joined USEF as there’s tremendous opportunity to grow the sport. I left [sports consultancy] Helios Partners and was doing some private work when I got a call from an executive recruiter who was helping USEF find a new CEO. It was intriguing to me as I owned horses and my wife competed in the sport.

My biggest challenge is to make equestrian more accessible. We need to broaden the base of people who participate in the sport, but also increase the United States’ success at an international and elite level. Job number one is to get USEF’s commercial agenda back on track and to raise the visibility of the sport.

We don’t necessarily need broadcast partners to get coverage. I want to get more coverage of equestrian sport, and social media could be a real opportunity – the FEI (International Equestrian Federation) and USEF already have their own media. The proposed Olympic Channel could help us get visibility, but I’m not sure how much air time we will get on it so we need to focus on equestrian-specific outlets.

 

I expected Princess Haya to stay on as FEI president. USEF voted in favour of a change in the bylaws so she could remain president, but she’s made her decision [not to run for president] for personal reasons and we have to respect that.

Europe is a very mature market for equestrian sport. I’m doing my best to get to know all six of the FEI presidential candidates, and though they’re all capable, we have to find out which one recognises the importance of equestrian sport in the United States. It’s a young market, unlike Europe, but it has a lot of room for growth.

I’ve been successful because people know they can trust me. There are opportunities all the time to do things that are unethical, but if you stick to your principals then ultimately you will get a better reward. You can’t always predict how business is going to pan out when making sponsorship deals, so you end up promising things that can’t always be done. So if you’re unable to deliver on your promises, figure out a different way to equal or better the value a client expects.

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