Mark Bullingham, the new commercial director of the Football Association, is the man charged with overseeing a commercial programme that can help turn the English into World Cup winners by 2022. As challenges in sport go, they don’t get much bigger.
England’s 2-1 defeat to Iceland on June 27 at Euro 2016 – 49 nine days before Bullingham took up his post – was described by former England player and TV pundit Gary Lineker as the worst defeat in England’s history. He was not alone in that view. The previous month an Italian, Claudio Ranieri, led rank outsider Leicester City to an improbable Premier League title. The two events are not unrelated.
England still cannot produce the players to win major tournaments, 50 years after last winning the World Cup, and the Premier League, founded in 1992, has still never been won by an English coach. Some of the choices made by the FA over the years have arguably contributed to this technical sterility.
Like spending £798m (€938m/$995m) to build a national stadium. Germany, Italy, Spain and a host of other countries that regularly outperform England don’t have one. What they do have is long established technical centres, like the Italian FA’s Coverciano, opened in 1958, where Ranieri learned his trade. The FA got around to opening its own technical centre at St George’s Park in Staffordshire in October 2012.
But the past is another country, and it is not a place that Bullingham wants to visit when talking to SportBusiness International. “Clearly, they are decisions that were made a long time ago,” he says. “All I can talk about is the present. Maybe we were slower than other countries in one or two areas. Where we are now is really exciting and will only help English coaches and players of the future. The picture now is that we are doing some brilliant grassroots programmes. We have a world-class coaching programme, a world-class participation programme and we will see a very different result in areas like that in the future.”
Bullingham inherited two immediate challenges when he replaced the highly-regarded Stuart Turner, who had held the post since 2011. The first was to oversee the sale of the global media rights for the FA Cup, working with Tom Gracey, the FA’s head of broadcast operations. The second was to begin negotiations for the next cycle of sponsorship contracts for the national teams and the cup.
The first hurdle was overcome in spectacular style. After a sales process run between September and October, the value of the FA Cup rights more than doubled, to just over $1bn for the six years from 2018-19 to 2023-24, in deals with the IMG and Pitch International agencies.
By offering all the rights on a global basis, instead of doing separate sales processes in each region as in the 2012 to 2018 cycle, the FA tapped into a white-hot sports-rights market, where a small group of deep-pocketed companies are battling for market share. The Infront Sports & Media agency and digital specialist Perform Group also bid for the global rights. The switch in sales strategy followed a series of aggressive, unsolicited agency bids during the summer.
“We wanted to get the global broadcast tender under way quickly,” Bullingham says. “We changed some of the fundamental parameters on that from how we had done it in the past. We recognised it was a good time to go to market. We are delighted with where we go to on that.”
He adds that the partnerships with Pitch and IMG are “transformational for us as an organisation” and open up “a broad range of opportunities for us to achieve our strategic goals and even change our targets on one or two of them with further investment.”
The international rights deals followed a renewal in April with the BBC and pay-television operator BT for rights in the UK, which also involved a healthy, though less dramatic, uplift. The new joint deal runs from 2018-19 to 2020-21, extending an original agreement covering the 2014-15 to 2017-18 seasons.
Bullingham points out that decisions on where the money gets invested will be made by the FA Board, which is made up of representatives from all levels of the game, but adds: “We are preparing some options for them in ways they might want to look at.”
The huge uplift in media-rights value comes at a time when report after report points to falling audiences for live sport on linear TV and a living-room exodus of millennials, who prefer to find their media content on other devices, via other portals and on the move. But far from being a paradox, it makes perfect sense for Bullingham.
“You have to look at the broader context of media fragmentation and proliferation,” he says. “Audiences on all traditional mainstream assets are challenged. Sport is one of the ones holding up best. If you look at the pay-TV market, whether that is linear or OTT, what are the things that power subscription decisions? Sport is absolutely at the top of agenda for that. If you look at some of the new entrants to the market, from the OTT point of view, that puts more strength into the portfolio that subscription channels have. Sport is a very strong differentiator for pay-TV channels.”
The FA Cup, first played in 1872, is the oldest football competition in the world. It still represents the romance of football, especially when it throws up one of its periodic ‘giant-killings’. For fans of a certain generation, few football memories are as indelible as Ronnie Radford’s goal to help non-league Hereford knock top-flight Newcastle United out of the cup in 1972. Or the Jim Montgomery ‘miracle’ double-save that enabled second division Sunderland to defeat the all-conquering Leeds United in the 1973 final.
Yet like most domestic cup competitions, it has suffered from the fact that for many elite clubs across Europe, playing in the Uefa Champions League has become the Holy Grail – something that is reflected in team selections. And when IMG and Pitch go to market with the FA Cup rights, they will be up against a revamped Champions League, featuring more clubs from the big leagues, designed to be a much stronger television product.
Uefa is expecting to increase rights fees by 30 per cent and there is only so much money in broadcaster budgets. Something will have to give. For Bullingham, that won’t be the FA Cup. “They are very different competitions played at different times – midweek for the Champions League and the weekend for the FA Cup. They are different audiences from a broadcast point of view. If they [Uefa] do a great job of their marketing, it raises the profile of the English clubs that are in it and are also in our competition, then I only see that as beneficial.”
In spite of his positive reading of where sport fits into the media content pecking order, Bullingham does not underestimate the scale of the challenge represented by the changing habits of the young. “Every organisation, when they are looking at targeting millennials, has to look at how that generation consumes media,” he says.
“We are very happy with our audiences over 90 minutes. We have had very good audiences for both England and the FA Cup, which are holding very strong. But the reality is that younger audiences watch less and less TV. And we need to reach them through other devices and with other forms of content.”
The FA initially carved near-live clips, the most valuable form of short-form content, out of its global rights tender. It is thought to have toyed briefly with the idea of making such content available exclusively to its sponsor partners. In the end, Pitch and IMG both secured some near-live rights.
Bullingham explains: “Short-form content will be split between sponsors, FA vehicles and TV partners. It is all mutually beneficial. We will retain a lot of live clip rights, which can build audiences on our own channels and drive increased traffic to the broadcasters. With sponsors, it is not just what you can offer, but when you can offer it to them. Clearly, we have reviewed some of the holdbacks we have. We believe if it is done in the right way, they can have some exclusive film content that doesn’t in any way present them as a broadcaster presenting highlights. It is all raising the profile of the game.”
The association is producing video clips, typically one to five minutes long, for its digital channel, FATV, which has currently over 270,000 subscribers on YouTube. “That is something we are increasingly looking at, particularly if you look at how we increase the popularity of the women’s game. Take the Women’s Super League as an example – short-form content is going to be crucial in growing that audience over the next four to 10 years.”
With over three million registered players, football is now the biggest participation sport for girls and women in England. Doubling this player base, as well as the female fan base, by 2020 is one of the seven strategic targets that the association has set itself. One of the few major changes in thinking about the next cycle of sponsorship deals ties into these objectives.
“The biggest change will be looking at the women’s programme as an entirely different carve out and building up the rights and the IP around the women’s programme to make it more distinctive,” he says. “That doesn’t mean that brands can’t invest in both the men’s and women’s game. But if they invest in the women’s game they will be putting market support behind it. What we won’t have is a situation that you have in some sports where the women’s game is just tagged on to agreements with the men’s game.”
With media-rights worries put to bed for another five years at least, Bullingham can turn his energies to an area where most observers expect his professional track record to be more valuable: sponsorship. At the end of the 2017-18 season, the FA’s agreements with sponsors will expire and talks are already under way about the next cycle. These include deals with sports goods manufacturer Nike, airline Emirates, car make Vauxhall, mobile network operator EE, beer brands Carlsberg and Budweiser and another 15 or so brands.
The dynamics of the sponsorship market are different to those of the media-rights market. The former is not experiencing the same kind of rampant rights inflation as the latter but the fundamentals, at least for premium sports properties, are sound and the association is expected to increase its revenues from an estimated £70m per year. “There will be areas of uplift, for sure,” Bullingham says. “We are looking at the moment at what the strategy should be.”
For the kit supplier contract, aggressive players like Under Armour and New Balance, along with sector giant Adidas, are expected to challenge the incumbent Nike. Across the portfolio, companies from other industry sectors are likely to emerge.
“There are lot of emerging new segments that need to get their brands out there quickly and connect with consumers, and we provide a fantastic platform to do that,” he says. “Sport is one of the last remaining appointments to view. We do have an increasing value which is one of the reasons the industry is doing well. Direct engagement with a passionate fan base drives commercial returns for brands. I only see that increasing.”
Apart from carving out women’s football as a separate sponsor product, Bullingham rules out a revolution of the overall model in terms of numbers and categories of partners. Value will come from offering a richer property to the market across the board.
“We will be able to offer all our partners more than we currently do in a couple of areas. One is building up the sole and exclusive rights we’ll be offering both around the event and from a digital point of view. We are also making a massive investment in our digital ecosystem and CRM capabilities. That will allow us a more direct interaction with the football fan base in this country.”
The starting point, he says, has to be “what the brand wants and how we can use our marketing platform to help them achieve their marketing goal. We have a huge passionate audience that we are connected to and are building an ever-stronger connection with. We can partner with brands to allow them to shift their brand and their commercial objectives through that marketing platform that we provide.”
Bullingham joined the FA after five years at the award-winning Fuse Sport & Entertainment agency, which is owned by the Omnicom Media Group. As chief executive of the agency’s operations in the EMEA region, he built relationships with clients at all levels of the sports value chain and so comes armed with a sound knowledge of what those brands on the other side of the negotiating table will be looking for. Before that he had helped transform the commercial fortunes of the America’s Cup sailing series.
“The fact that I have worked in several different sports is helpful. There is best practice that can be applied across a number of different sports and entertainment platforms. Football is entertainment as well as sport. It gives you a broader perspective. As we build ourselves as a world-class marketing platform engaging brands, that will help. I feel lucky to have had the breadth of opportunities I have had,” Bullingham says.
He cites as a personal ambition the creation of a strong connection between England fans and the team, giving fans what they want in terms of access to the team. A second ambition is to build up football’s participation base, especially for women’s football. “Once we build that platform, the commercial results will come,” he argues.
Build the platform, drive the commercial revenues, feed the grassroots, produce the players that can win the World Cup and maybe even a coach that can lead them to it. For England’s long-suffering fans, it might all sound a bit utopian. But Bullingham and his team are so far over-delivering on their side of the bargain.