Frank Leenders, director general of Fiba Media and Marketing Services, is optimistic about the future of basketball, in spite of the ‘invisible enemy’ of Covid-19. The organisation has also faced other challenges in 2020, such as losing much-loved ambassadors of the sport Kobe Bryant, David Stern and Borislav Stankovic.
Leenders speaks to SportBusiness’ Kevin McCullagh about Fiba’s new global partnership with Chinese consumer appliances firm TCL and its preparations for the next basketball World Cup in 2023.
Why is the TCL deal a particularly significant one for Fiba?
We believe this one is more than just another deal for Fiba. We are in a very challenging year for society and the world of sport. With Covid-19, a lot of questions are being asked about the status of sport, the outlook for sport. And at this moment, that we have the ability to strike a brand new agreement with TCL, we think this is a beacon of light, not only showing the strength and appeal of the Fiba programme, but for other sports also.
We believe it’s very symbolic of the continuing investment and commitment of the Chinese conglomerates and international companies like TCL, which is an amazing company out of Shenzhen in the electronics business. We believe that Chinese companies are here to stay. It is the year after our pinnacle event in China, the Basketball World Cup, and a lot of people may say, ‘You had those great Chinese partners with you for that window of the World Cup in China, but then that goes away’. And that is absolutely not the case. TCL has been pleased with what they could do in the years around the World Cup, but they see a lot of potential even when events are not in China.
How did the Fiba-TCL relationship start, and how did it develop into these successive deals?
The relationship started when we embarked upon our presence in China. We have our Fiba China office – this shows that being on the ground in China, not only for the World Cup but also staying there beyond, has value for us. We were involved on the sports side, with academies, etc. TCL was a partner of sports, a partner of basketball involved in Team China, so it believed in the basketball platform, the basketball demographics. And that was the initial phase, how we got to know them as a company.
When we concluded the Basketball World Cup a little bit less than a year ago, after a very professional evaluation that TCL did, they turned to us and said: ‘Our agreement has finished, but we want to discuss a new partnership’.
It really got underway during Covid, which is even more significant for us – that they take the long-term view and they continue to believe in basketball, and not only in activating in China but actually having a lot of ambitions in the rest of the world.
What factors helped get the deal over the line during this difficult period?
Again, it’s the belief in sports, the belief in basketball, the belief in sports communications to reach a global audience. TCL is very precise and numerical in terms of their evaluations and their work. We laid out to them an opportunity for the next World Cup cycle, the years 2020 to 2023, and with all the activities that we can develop together. The Fiba marketing team, which is our partnership with Infront, globally, and in China, was able to layout a programme for all of these years. The next World Cup is in your region in 2023, in Japan, Indonesia and the Philippines. That whole programme is starting 2022, when we have an amazing Women’s World Cup in Australia. So it is that whole package of activities and events which has been important for TCL.
We have been able to develop and integrate some specific elements for TCL. They did very well during the World Cup with their ‘Player of the Game’ rights, showcasing their product and the brand name.
And they had the ability, maybe a little bit more than we sometimes have in the Western world, to look longer-term and beyond certain phases in society.
Can you give us any details on the commercial and other benefits Fiba expects to earn?
With any commercial partnership, ideally you want a blue chip partner, a great name, because that has a magnetic effect on the whole ecosystem. You need the revenues to keep the engine of a sports governing body running. And you want a lot of activation, because by this activation your partner is working for you as well.
During our World Cup in China that worked incredibly well because we had our global partners like Nike, TCL, Ganten, Molten and Tissot that were activating everywhere. Then we had a very strong lineup of domestic partners that were doing the same. Wherever you were looking, you would see activation around the event, not only online or on-air but also physically in the eight cities. So that worked incredibly well, and the numbers of the audiences for 2019 have just come out, and they are record-breaking numbers for the Fiba Basketball World Cup.
Fiba is putting a huge focus on Asia at present, with two World Cups in a row. Is your commercial business in Asia increasing commensurately?
It is, because of the World Cups. It is, undoubtedly, in general as well, in terms of our partnerships – in global sports it’s quite a trend. People sometimes forget basketball is a very big sport in China, where it is the biggest team sport, and in the region. Sometimes, in the Western world people ask us, ‘Why is this all in Asia?’ And, when two World Cups, in 2010 and 2014, were in Europe – in Turkey and Spain, respectively – not so many people were asking why.
Apart from that, as Andreas [Zagklis – Fiba secretary general] said, it is an era of Asia. For us, it is an important region where we still see a lot of potential. We see that potential in traditional, big markets like Japan, but also in more emerging sports marketing territories like the Philippines and Indonesia.
We look forward to marrying the growth of the sport and events together with the business side, and the partnerships that we can construct in the region.
You mentioned that TCL was quite scientific in its approach to sponsorship. It is often said that Asian brands are far behind their counterparts in the West when it comes to sophisticated approaches to sponsorship. Do you see that changing?
Definitely. That’s why I particularly mentioned this high level of professionalism on the part of TCL. Because a lot of people think that, in Asia, or certain parts of Asia like China, that people are behind and they’re not professional in selecting, contracting, or activating properties. But in the last 10 years I have seen an enormous development, especially in China where we spend a lot of time. People are much more prepared and professional, certainly in the bigger companies, the international companies. I think that is a trend in the region and I think that is good for the industry.
Can you give us an update on preparations for the World Cup?
During Covid, we’ve had a lot of online sessions with the organising committees in the Philippines, Indonesia and Japan. Our tournament director from Fiba, who’s based in Singapore, David Crocker, is actually here for two weeks in Geneva and we’re spending quite some time on the preparation.
It is definitely not easy to start this process without having the ability to travel and to meet face-to-face. We have missed it dearly. But we will make sure we’re on track later this year. We’ll have the mark of 1,000 days to go (on November 28, 2020), which is always the starting point.
We are working on the operational side, the structural side. We have done quite some work on the branding side. But we look forward to really embarking on the road to 2023 next year. At the end of next year, we will start the qualifiers for the World Cup.
Fiba got its events back underway on August 29 with the 3×3 World Tour event in Debrecen, Hungary. Can you tell us where you are in terms of getting your calendar restarted? And what sort of impact the pandemic shutdown had on the Fiba organisation?
Quite a profound effect internally in the organisation, but also with the regional offices. There have also been positive effects. I must say the organisation here and also in the Fiba media and marketing team have been very quick, not only in adapting to working remotely, working digitally, but also in adapting and connecting with the different partners, developing new content and so on.
In the Fiba organisation, there has been a range of webinars developed with the national federations, which has been extremely well received. It’s also amazing to see board meetings with people connecting all the way from Los Angeles to Auckland, New Zealand, in different languages, purely on Zoom, and that happening and working pretty well.
But at the end of the day it’s about being back on the court and we’re all happy to see the 3X3 return, which of course is a very agile sport. We look forward to hearing more about the Basketball Champions League, which has a final eight scheduled for the end of September in Athens. And there are other elements of competition to come.
There was a lot of work done during the lockdown, an enormous amount of activity to be able to get back on the court and get back into arenas, to see how at some point fans can come back in, a lot of work by teams being done creating these famous bubbles where athletes and officials can safely travel. And it’s exciting to see the sports world outside of basketball coming back to action.
What sort of commercial impact has the pandemic had on Fiba?
Nobody in this world is immune. Fiba is far from immune, its stakeholders and federations too. So you talk about the situation with your partners. You try to provide additional value, which we have done with our broadcast partners – there’s a lot of additional content. On the contracts, you have conversations when significant pieces move.
We keep our fingers crossed that, on the national team competitions, we have not been forced to cancel anything on a global level. We are rescheduling events – this is also due to the Olympic move from 2020 to 2021.
So you talk as partners, and on most occasions those conversations are very ‘partnership-like’, where you look at the shift of value. Of course, if Covid-19 would last much longer, it would have more impact in terms of major cancellations – then it’s a different story. But like with your best friends, you find out who they really are in the difficult times and not in the days when the sun is out and it’s shining. So you work together.
I’d like to come back to TCL, which embarked on negotiations on a new deal during Covid, because they believe in the partnership and they take a longer-term view, which people in Asia are often better at than we are in the Western world.
What are Fiba’s plans for recovery? What makes you optimistic that there is light at the end of the Covid-19 tunnel?
First, everybody needs to get back on their feet after this invisible enemy has been eliminated.
We came out of 2019, which was an amazing year for us with the World Cup, and we say here in the Fiba house that 2020 started – even before Covid – not in the best way for us. We lost Kobe Bryant, our ambassador for the World Cup, with whom we had plans for the longer run and was an amazing person. The world of basketball lost David Stern, Borislav Stankovic. So it wasn’t a great start to 2020, and then came Covid.
But Fiba in 2019 in Beijing set some very ambitious goals which we are pursuing to a large extent. For instance, focus on the growth of the club competitions around the world, which we have a lot of belief in. Women’s basketball is an important pillar. And one of the things which Covid has accelerated for sure within Fiba is embracing esports. The Fiba Esports Open 1.0 was so successful with the national federations that later in the year we will host another Fiba Open, 2.0, which may lead to more. It’s fascinating to see that development.