The SportBusiness International Sports Innovator of the Year recognises the sports executives who have made the most original business decisions throughout the past 12 months. This year's winner is IPC (International Paralympic Committee) President Sir Philip Craven.
There is letter in the archives of the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) offices in Bonn, Germany, dated 1980.
It is from a Soviet official, declining the opportunity to host the Paralympics – alongside the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow – due to the fact that there were “no invalids in our country”.
Fast-forward a generation and to the eve of this year’s winter Paralympics in Sochi, Russia, and the Paralympic Movement was once again facing a Russian problem. This time, one of the leading nations, Ukraine, was threatening to pull out of the event following an international land dispute with Russia over the Crimea.
Not only was Crimea the centre of the political conflict, but it is also the location of a state-of-the-art performance centre for Paralympians that Ukraine founded in 2002. The centre covers 60 hectares of what used to be a former communist youth camp on the Black Sea coast in Yevpatoria. It houses five swimming pools – including two 50-metre, Olympic-standard pools – a gym, football fields and athletics stadium for javelin and shot put events. Ukraine’s leading Paralympians therefore faced the prospect of not being able to train in their own headquarters.
Sir Philip – a former wheelchair basketball player who lost the use of his legs following a rock climbing accident when he was a teenager – suddenly found himself in the role of peacemaker between Vladimir Putin, president of Russia, and a Ukraine delegation. Daily, he had to negotiate between the diplomats of the warring countries and find a common ground that would mean the 2014 winter Paralympics would not be overshadowed by a political dispute featuring the host nation.
Ukraine staged a symbolic protest at the Paralympic opening ceremony, with all but one athlete boycotting the parade. Everything was on a knife-edge for Sir Philip, and little did the general public know what was going on behind-the-scenes as he and Putin went on public press tours in the run up to the event.
I'm buzzing and excited…but let me tell you, you ain't seen nothing yet
However, thanks in no small part to Sir Philip’s daily discussions with both sides, Putin reached a compromise, and a political disaster for the IPC and the Paralympic Games was diverted.
As the figurehead of an organisation, you have to be all things to all people, and some of sports most successful leaders have, like Craven, been able to fulfil the role of peacemaker in the morning, before planning out a media strategy after a light lunch. In the case of Sochi, that is what made Sir Philip a real sports innovator in 2014.
In terms of creating change, there can be no doubt the impact a successful Paralympics had on Russia, especially when you think back to the mindset of the author of the 1980 letter.
It was also a record-breaking Paralympics, with 1,378 hours of action shown on TV in 55 countries and a global viewing increase of 32 per cent on the 2010 Games. Over 316,000 tickets were sold, compared to 230,000 in Vancouver, and importantly the event also saw an accessibility programme implemented by the city of Sochi, advised on by the IPC, which is now a blueprint for over 200 Russian cities.
Craven has also played a major role in forming innovative partnerships that not only bring cash to the IPC, but also grow the awareness of Paralympic sport.
On the eve of the IPC’s 25th anniversary 12 months ago, he agreed a global partnership with oil giant BP running through to the 2016 Rio Paralympics. At the time, Sir Philip said that the beauty of the deal was that not only did BP want to work with the IPC, but BP “also wants to work with a number of the countries in which they operate to help raise awareness of the Paralympic Movement and its athletes”.
This year, Craven ensured that BP stuck to its word. One of the problems the Paralympic Movement has is securing enough media exposure outside the flagship event every four years and, as a result, after the 2012 Games the IPC started an initiative of recruiting a volunteer journalists to report on Paralympic sports events.
BP has become engaged in the IPC’s Volunteer Writer’s Programme. Around 50 writers have been recruited to date, some of whom were flown out to Sochi and will be going out to Rio in 2016. In return for the voluntary reporting, the IPC, working closely with BP, provides writers with a digital publishing platform and feedback. A plan is in place for more writers to join next year, who will be guided by PR managers in BP’s global network.
“The idea is that if we give these writers a chance to begin with, they will hopefully stay loyal and want to report on our events even after they’ve gone on to work elsewhere,” says Craig Spence, director of media and communications at the IPC.
“We’ve started to see that happen with some of our early writers who have moved onto places like Sky Sports and the BBC. The BP PR managers next year will help develop their talents and help us with the workload.”
The programme has helped the IPC achieve a 500 per cent increase in its online presence over the past four years, and the increased exposure has also helped sponsorship negotiations with other brands. This October, the IPC renewed its worldwide partnership with Samsung until 2020, and signed a new deal with Panasonic to cover disability care products such as The Shower and the Wearable Powered Suit. For these products, Panasonic has acquired global marketing rights with the Paralympic Movement in conjunction with the Paralympic Games.
Sir Philip’s chief innovation this year has been the ability to be the man for all occasions. Whether it be persuading a commercial partner to buy into his vision and invest in wearable technology, or cajoling anyone from a student journalist to the president of Russia to come round to his way of thinking, with the end result being the same: definitive change and a brighter future for the Paralympic Movement.
The American Stream
Despite it being universally recognised as the event that elevated the Paralympics into the mainstream, there was one black spot for Sir Philip Craven and his team following the 2012 Games.
American broadcaster NBC, which had exclusive rights to the event, did not air any live coverage, and in total only showed four hour-long highlights specials.
Shortly after the event, Sir Philip Craven urged NBC to change its tact. NBC listened. Ahead of the Sochi Games, NBC confirmed its schedule would include an unprecedented 52 hours of coverage of the five events at Sochi, and in 2016, NBC will show 66 hours of coverage from the Paralympic Games in Rio.
“It is fantastic for us, and really a great honour for this to happen. I’m buzzing and excited. I’m so honoured that the Paralympic Movement has received this honour for 2014, but let me tell you, you ain’t seen nothing yet.”
That was the reaction of Sir Philip on hearing that he had been named SportBusiness International Sports Innovator of the Year, before hinting at a greater involvement with the Olympic Movement – and potentially extra exposure on Thomas Bach’s mooted Olympic Channel – thanks to what he describes as a “special relationship” between himself and the IOC (International Olympic Committee) president.
“There have been discussions between us, and also Yiannis [Exarchos, CEO of Olympic Broadcasting Services] with regards to the Olympic Channel, and it is very, very exciting.
“I don’t think you will see a merging of the two committees (IPC and IOC), but I think you will see lot more of us working closer together in the future, let’s put it that way.”