- Mark Waller joined McLaren in May after 13 years at the NFL, returning to his native UK.
- More consumer-facing sponsors and more behind-the-scenes digital content are among his plans.
- European sport can learn from the customer focus in US sport, he says.
“If you ever go to an NFL stadium, it’s impossible to get lost,” says Mark Waller, the new managing director of sales and marketing at McLaren Racing. The quality of signage at NFL stadiums may appear a curious preoccupation for a commercial director at a quintessentially British/European motor racing brand. But Waller has spent the last 13 years in executive roles at the American football league, and his observation points to an important attitude in the US sports business that he’s aiming to bring to his new role.
Waller joined McLaren in May, returning to his native UK after his stint with the NFL where he was most recently executive vice-president of international. He was one of the masterminds behind the league’s ten-year agreement with Tottenham Hotspur – incidentally, the team he has followed since a boy – that will see annual regular-season games at the Premier League team’s new stadium in North London.
Speaking to SportBusiness in Singapore in September, Waller said: “I think American sport, historically, has been much more fan-focused, because the passions aren’t as deep as they are in Europe. If you think of European sport, it’s built off of a tribalistic base…Even if you look at Formula One, it’s the Italians versus the Germans versus the Brits. There’s an intrinsic, historic set of rivalries that drive the passion, and everyone understands that. In the States, you’ve got to work to get them to love it – the approach of American sport is you’ve got to make absolutely every aspect of it on point for the fan.”
The clear signage at NFL stadia is one manifestation of this. “Everything is laid out so you can find your way from A to B. When you go to a European sporting event, there’s often an assumption that everybody knows where to go because everybody comes every week.”
This customer focus is just one of the lessons Waller is bringing from his time in the US, and one suspects it will be a valuable one. He joins McLaren at a crucial period in Formula One’s history, as the sport seeks to modernise under new owner Liberty Global and faces, as do all sports, a more competitive battle than ever for attention from fans, sponsors and media.
Two big jobs
Waller’s remit at McLaren covers two main areas – fan engagement and sponsorship. His role is at the McLaren Racing motorsports team, which acts as a marketing and R&D arm for McLaren’s car and technology manufacturing businesses. As well as Formula One, McLaren Racing will from next year compete in the IndyCar racing series in the US.
“It’s really a great marketing platform for us,” Waller says. “If you think of F1 and the technology required to perform at that level…we’re essentially the marketing proof point for the automotive and technology divisions.”
The racing team is a cost to the McLaren business, with a negative ebitda of £96m (€108m/$118m) in 2018. It contributed 11 per cent of McLaren’s revenues, about £140m out of £1.3bn. Formula One racing costs are set to reduce from 2021, when the series introduces a $175m cap on team spending. Waller describes his job as “to essentially drive business that will cover the cost cap. That’s our goal. We’re not quite there at the moment. But the key to that is to bring in partners that will drive revenues for us, and also add value to the business proposition”.
One of the sponsorship opportunities he sees is in building a bigger portfolio of consumer-facing brand partners. The 51-brand roster is currently heavily weighted towards suppliers and technology partners.
“We’ve got a great portfolio of technology partners and functional partners that drive performance. But, for example, we do a lot of travelling and we don’t have a travel partner. We have a great hotel partner in Hilton, but we don’t have airline partner. That would seem to be a logical opportunity.”
As alluded to above, as well as driving revenue he sees consumer-facing brands playing a big role in growing McLaren’s own brand in parts of the world where it is less well-known, such as Asia.
“We’re a quintessentially British and European brand. The origins of F1 are in that part of the world. I think we’ve done a great job as a sport of adding races in recent years in Asia. But there’s so much work that can be done with our partners to help build that.
“One of the things I love about the sports business is that the partnerships are about mutually reaching an audience that is broader than if you were on your own…There are parts of the world where we’re an incredibly strong brand and parts where we are not strong, and where F1 and automotive are not strong. You can build partner relationships that will help you build a presence in the marketplace, and I think Asia is, for us, one of those regions.”
For Waller, the overarching fan engagement challenge at McLaren, and indeed at any sports team rights-holder, is retaining fan interest no matter the performance on the track, pitch or field.
“You’re never going to win all the time, so how do you build real brand stature irrespective of performance? And then when you win it’s a bonus, as opposed to ‘We’ve got to win in order to be a meaningful brand’.
“In the NFL, we thought: You know your fans will leave the stadium at least 50 per cent of the time disappointed. And so how do you make sure that they still have an awesome experience and want to come back?”
One of the key planks of his strategy will be generating more digital content that takes fans behind the scenes, showing them what it’s like to be part of the team during all the currently unseen hours outside raceday.
“At the moment, if you think of the sport, you think of the two hours of a raceday, maybe the few hours of qualifying practice. But there is content that exists around the preparation, the training, the planning and logistics of moving from country to country, how that gets managed from an athlete perspective, how it gets managed from a logistics perspective, how it gets managed from a fan perspective…I think we’ve got a lot of opportunity to develop media content on our own that can tell our story and the background, behind-the-scenes stories of our drivers, our team, and our partners, which for many people are as compelling and as interesting as the race itself.”
The success of Drive to Survive, the Netflix Formula One documentary series, which didn’t show any racing action, is proof of the power of such content, he says: “When you watch it and talk to people about it, a couple of things are very apparent. First, people are interested in how driver choices get made and how drivers move, and all the internal intrigue of the sport, which is compelling.
“The other thing is it’s much more human interest. Many casual fans are really interested in it from that perspective. They say, ‘Yes, it’s great that there’s a race on the track, but actually I’m really following driver X, or team Y, or personality Z’.”
Esports has become an important part of McLaren’s fan engagement in recent years, and Waller is seeking partners within the gaming industry to help drive this forward. McLaren runs its own annual esports competition, the McLaren Shadow Project, as well as taking part in the F1 Esports Series. The Shadow Project attracted more than 500,000 entrants last year.
“There’s huge interest in it. I think the challenge is how you scale it more broadly. If you think of the overall esports market, there’s huge growth potential in making it more accessible, getting it better promoted, getting it broadcast- and media-accessible…For that, we would probably want more partners that are in gaming and esports, who know the space and can help us build out the fan engagement side.”
The opportunities for motorsport in esports may extend beyond fan engagement, Waller says, to identifying and training new talent. The idea echoes a discussion onstage at the All That Matters entertainment industry conference the day before our interview, about the potential for esports gamers to step up to racing real cars.
“Why not?” Waller said. “I don’t think you can go straight from esports to F1, but I think you can develop and accelerate your skillset so that when you enter the sport you don’t have to go through so much of the development process.”
McLaren’s 19-year-old British driver Lando Norris already makes heavy use of games to hone his skills, he says. “He probably spends more time gaming than he does actually driving…Particularly at the moment, as this is his first year, there are certain tracks he’s never driven on, and Singapore is one of them. So the esports simulation experience is his introduction, warm-up and conditioning for when he actually drives this afternoon.”
Part of the team
Waller speaks with enthusiasm about his new job and the opportunities he sees within it. He was tempted into the move by his regard for McLaren chief executive Zak Brown and, after many years working at a league, a desire to work in a team. Now, he is clearly relishing the new challenge.
“I know Zak well, and I’m a huge admirer of his leadership, his style, and his drive to do great things…And I also wanted to be part of a team. Having been at league level at the NFL, I was always interested in what would it be like to be on a team, where you’re driving day-to-day, week-to-week, and how that feels. And it’s amazing, it’s a great learning experience for me.”