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From Man City to Gfinity | Former football chief Garry Cook positions himself as esports emissary

during the Sport Industry Breakfast Club at BT Centre on November 7, 2018 in London, England.

• Gfinity will host and film the inaugural ePremier League in its Fulham esports arena
• Cook says European Super League in football would be “a natural evolution”
• Time at Jordan Brand provided a template for cross-promotion between sports

The beauty of an interview with Garry Cook is that his thirty-year career has included stints at some of the most interesting properties in sport – and he’s not shy of expressing an opinion about any one of them.

From an early role heading up the Jordan Brand project for Nike, a three-year spell as the chief executive of Manchester City – which included the takeover by the Abu Dhabi United Group – and a four-year stint at the Ultimate Fighting Championship (encompassing its sale to Endeavor), Cook’s career has intersected with some of the most compelling events in the recent history of the sports business. It has also traced an arresting arc from what might artlessly be described as “traditional” sport to its more contemporary challengers.

In his current role as the executive chairman of esports event organiser and content producer Gfinity, Cook appears to be positioning himself as an emissary between the old and the new, helping traditional rights-holders find their feet in professional gaming. In October, Gfinity partnered with the Premier League to become the official tournament operator of its new ePremier League (ePL), a move which followed a similar deal to deliver the inaugural Formula 1 Esports Series in 2017.

The ePL starts in January 2019 with every Premier League club represented, giving UK-based players the chance to compete for and represent their favourite teams. Gamers will play against each other in EA Sports’ Fifa 19 title for three months across three rounds: online qualification, live club playoffs and the eventual live ePL Final that will be broadcast live on Sky Sports in March 2019.

The way Cook describes it, Premier League sponsor and Fifa game publisher EA Sports and broadcaster Sky Sports approached Gfinity to run the new league because they didn’t have the expertise to do it themselves. The ‘esports solutions’ company will provide its proprietary tournament management platform, dedicated esports arena and broadcast studio in Fulham to help to get the competition off the ground.

Competitors celebrating in a Gfinity Elite Series tournament.

That esports has the potential to be more commercially complicated than regular sport is well known. Add the Premier League and its teams to a stakeholder mix that already includes game publishers, event operators like Gfinity and the players themselves, and the complexity rises further still. Cook hints at the potential for future disputes when he is asked which party will own the sponsorship rights to the new competition.

“Right now, it would be the Premier League. Right now, that’s a fact.” he says. “But that doesn’t mean to say that’s going to [always] be the case because without the tournament operator there is no ePremier League, so maybe the tournament operator becomes the rights-holder.

“It is like the pioneers putting a stake in the ground and saying I’ve got these 350 acres and they go from there and I think that’s what everybody’s doing, but somebody’s got to lead the way.”

The size of the opportunity in gaming isn’t in doubt: Cook claims 480 million people played Fifa in the UK last year while EA Sports earned $650m from in-game purchases across its big sports titles – Fifa, Madden and NHL. Less certain is whether anyone will be willing to watch people playing Fifa 19, especially on linear TV. Historically, gamers have tended to favour streaming content that teaches them how to be a better Fifa player over watching competitive gaming and prefer multi-player online battle arena games like League of Legends and Dota 2 for their esports fix. A seven-day snapshot on video-game live streaming site Twitch in late November, for example, revealed an average of just 26,900 viewers watched Fifa 19 on the platform, representing just 2.3 per cent of its total audience [see chart, below].

Cook contends that the new league represents a way for the Premier League to test the waters in esports and that it will have to think laterally and defy sports media conventions to make money from the enterprise.  But he is also careful to add that linear TV still has a place in the media mix.

Media segmentation

“I think what we have seen is that there is certain content that is required for certain audiences at certain points in time,” he says. “Therefore you will create a segmented audience, segmented product, segmented distribution,” he says. “Don’t put five hours of Battlefield competition at seven o’clock on Friday night on linear TV – nobody would watch it. Give them a story.

“Do we have to watch gameplay live to make it compelling, because that’s what we grew up with? Fifa might be a game of highlights packages but [with] more shoulder programming to tell us why it’s important,” he says.

A press release from the Premier League announced that the ePL will be broadcast on Premier League social media channels in addition to Sky Sports, but didn’t specify if it will also be shown on Twitch. Cook says esports and social media are forcing sport to move from a model based on “exclusivity to inclusivity”.

“We’re in a different world now, because you can get anything, anywhere, any time. The gaming community has grown up in that world, not in an exclusive world.”

He thinks the Premier League and Formula 1’s first forays into esports point to a recognition that they can no longer hide behind a paywall.

“You’ve got to be everywhere,” he says. “Formula One, you couldn’t touch it. No one was ever going to drive one of those vehicles. You couldn’t get anywhere near the pits. If you wanted to watch it you had to buy a satellite TV subscription and it was so exclusive, but that was the model and that’s what they wanted. Liberty Media have come in, under Sean Bratches, and said they have to change all of that.”

The only exception to the new spirit of inclusivity in the motorsport is the Ferrari team which has so far resisted calls to enter a team in the Formula 1 Esports Series. Cook puts this down to the fact that esports players all compete on the same equipment, which Ferrari feels takes away its ability to differentiate itself by the quality of its machinery.

The Premier League has had more success getting all of its clubs to sign up. Cook says that the 20 teams competing in the ePL will be able to create their own qualifier tournaments for the central league and generate additional content and commercial opportunities off the back of these.

“Manchester United could have a player in India, a player in the United States, a player in Canada, a player in Argentina – all playing in a global Manchester United tournament,” he says. “That doesn’t have to be a Premier League tournament. They still have to play in the Premier League tournament but that’s where, again, the barriers are down – they’ve now got the opportunity to create content that would go around the world.”

Garry Cook at the Sport Industry Breakfast Club in early November.

Jordan Brand

Using esports to cross-promote teams and leagues and reach new audiences isn’t that far removed from the work Cook did at Nike with Jordan Brand, which he describes as his “business school”. He tells the story of how Michael Jordan once asked him why the firm was expending so much of their marketing efforts overseas during a 10-city tour of Europe in the 90s.

“I’d say: ‘Michael, there’s two things: one is you want to be a global sports brand, because we’ve gone beyond basketball, and the other thing is, we can either teach 6.2 billion people how to play basketball or you can start liking soccer.’”

It helped at the time that football stars like David Beckham, Carlos Tevez and Marco Materazzi all publicly expressed their admiration for Jordan. “If fans of theirs can see that they’re fans of yours, then we’ve grown the audience,” he adds.

Manchester City

Cook says his background in football means Premier League teams often ask him how they can cross-promote themselves in esports, and that he tends to point to the efforts of West Ham and his former club Manchester City as examples of best practice. Both clubs have signed a professional player to represent them in Fifa competitions around the world while City recently hosted a Fifa tournament in the US to build fandom in the region.

He appears to have some residual affection for his former employer, City Football Group, and still seems inclined to defend its interests. Asked about the threat that Uefa might reopen its Financial Fair Play investigation into the team on the basis that it inflated the value of sponsorship deals to conceal its dependency on funding from the Abu Dhabi United Group, he returns to arguments he made when FFP was first introduced and he was still the club’s chief executive – specifically that it puts too much power in the hands of Uefa’s accountants, including the task of judging whether deals represent fair market value.

“There isn’t a blue book for the value of a player, I do know that – we bought some bad ones and we bought some good ones. And – in my opinion – there also isn’t a valuation on the naming rights to a stadium.”

His views on the threat of a breakaway European ‘super league’ are even more provocative.

“I think we’re watching the natural evolution,” he says. “All industry sectors rationalise over time. The supermarket industry was built out of the fact that you combined the greengrocer, the butcher, the baker.

“I think there’s always going to be a demand to watch that very fine elite level in all walks of life and consume at that level, at the very top, and so if football is going to go a path that is evolutionary, it will be because the top 16 clubs in Europe are going to join together to make something that is marketable for additional growth economically.”

Player power

Cook believes similar forces threaten to undermine the collective power of another former employer, the UFC, as individual fighters are beginning to develop a more acute sense of their commercial worth.

He thinks UFC has forgotten the debt it owes to the Ultimate Fighter reality TV series and that it has moved too far away from the programme’s successful formula of telling rags-to-riches stories about competitors from tough working-class backgrounds.

“Its basic principle was twelve people in a house and every week a fight would be worked out and whoever loses goes out of the show and the winner gets a contract to fight in the UFC. It was a $100,000-a-year contract, that was the principle of it.

Conor McGregor throws a punch at Floyd Mayweather Jr. during their super welterweight boxing match in August 2017. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

“I believe the UFC was a voice for the world in a strange way because we’re all fighters. There are people in the audience who are fighting an illness in the family, or they’ve fought a loss or they’ve fought adversity financially. Who better to speak about the virtues of fighting which are commitment, passion, dedication?

“I don’t think it should have been Conor McGregor versus [Floyd] Mayweather [Jr.] and I don’t think you should pick up a trolley and throw it into a bus. I think that’s brand damaging,” he says.

Whether he’s talking about media, marketing, fighting or football, Cook keeps returning to the importance of back stories in keeping audiences engaged, so it isn’t too much of a leap to imagine Gfinity will apply the same principles to the ePremier League when it starts in January 2019.

“Until you know who the players are, and why they’re playing and what the purpose is and how much money there is at stake, then there’s no reason to watch,” he says. “I think all of the media organizations are trying to figure out what should they be doing in esports and that’s the bit that’s yet to come.”

Garry Cook spoke to SportBusiness Professional at the Sport Industry Breakfast Club.

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