The creation and sale of extra advertising inventory at behind-closed-doors Premier League matches will need to be managed carefully in order to retain the right “look and feel” as the English top flight returns, according to Carl Woodman, managing director of the UK arm of the recently-rebranded Sportfive agency.
As the Premier League prepares to return without fans on June 17, the clubs, league and broadcasters alike have been looking to other leagues – notably Germany’s Bundesliga – where additional advertising inventory has often been created over rows of empty seats and in addition to two rows of LED boards.
Sportfive UK plays a leading role in the sale of aggregated LED advertising packages across the English leagues and Woodman told SportBusiness that the “phenomenal” broadcast coverage in place and staggered kick-off times, coupled with the heightened appetite among fans, would create significant opportunities to sell additional inventory.
However, he cautioned: “The challenge will be the opportunity within the market for people to spend on it. To a certain degree that will drive the supply and demand of whether or not creating more inventory is the right thing to do.
“The opportunity for more inventory has got to be managed carefully. People want to see football back on their screens but you have to think about the visual product as well.”
All 92 remaining matches of the 2019-20 season will be shown on UK television, including 33 on a free-to-air basis (on the BBC, Sky’s PickTV and Amazon). The domestic broadcasting of all matches has also allowed heightened international exposure, such as in Spain, where subscription OTT broadcaster DAZN will stream all matches.
The sale of UK football clubs’ LED and static advertising, along with brokering sponsorship deals for Premier League clubs, represents the backbone of the Sportfive business in the UK. The agency has around 40 clubs under contract in the UK for pitchside advertising sales, including exclusive deals with 13 Premier League sides.
While the exact plans are still being finalised, Woodman said that he expects an element of the “strong visual look and feel” to include non-commercial messaging as the UK begins to emerge from the effects of the Covid-19 shutdown.
Woodman was also recently named executive vice-president sales in Europe, Middle East and Africa in an executive rejig that followed the takeover of the agency by private equity firm H.I.G. Europe and amidst its rebranding from Lagardère Sports and Entertainment to Sportfive.
He continued: “Getting the right balance between commercial and non-commercial messaging and look and feel will be important and there’s definitely a clutter issue [to consider]. You can introduce new inventory but you’ve got to be careful it doesn’t detract from the value of the existing inventory. There’s a balance to strike there.
“I’d think the stakeholders involved – the clubs, the Premier League and the broadcasters – will take a view across all those things and there will be a sensible solution that does deliver some additional inventory.
“As much as anything to compensate existing partners for some of the disruption that they’ve had as much as to create new opportunities for revenue and keep it a clean and strong visual product for the broadcasters and audience.”
Woodman said that the return to empty stadiums has created “unchartered territory” in terms of the rules around advertising, but that “the spirit of the relationships between the stakeholders is that people want to agree on something that everybody’s comfortable with” and that he doesn’t expect clubs to “go renegade”.
English clubs have taken a gradual approach to implementing two rows of LED boards – where stadium infrastructure and sightlines allow – with Stoke City the first team to do so in 2012. Premier League side Wolverhampton Wanderers introduced a double-row perimeter LED system in 2018 that allows sponsors to display their logos to television viewers with double the height.
Sportfive’s exclusive pitchside advertising deals with Premier League clubs exclude the ‘big six’ of Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur, while the agency’s agreement with Crystal Palace is non-exclusive.
The sale of pitchside LED boards in the top flight and the brokering of sponsorship deals on behalf of top-tier clubs brings in a total of over £30m (€33.6m/$38.1m) of revenues per season to Premier League clubs, according to Woodman.
Sponsorship agreements facilitated this season by the agency on behalf of Premier League clubs have included Arsenal’s deal with financial technology company Global Kapital Group, Leicester City’s sponsorship with UK money transfer brand Xpress Money, and, most recently, West Ham’s two-year deal with Chinese tyre manufacturer RoadX Tyres.
A project involving Sportfive and “one of the big six clubs on one of their more principal assets” is to be announced soon, Woodman said.
FA sponsorship sales, the Covid-19 impact
Elsewhere in UK football, Sportfive continues its role as the official sponsorship sales agency of the Football Association.
On that project, Woodman said: “The sign-up of partnerships has been successful. There are a number of ongoing conversation and focuses that we had pre-Covid that clearly are taking a little bit longer now.
“There are some partnerships that we completed that we’ll still execute as planned. There are some that we still hope we will but, as with many rights-holders, there are a number of things that are on hold now while the Covid situation develops.
“The brands that we’re speaking to continue to have the desire to partner with the FA at a time when they have more certainty about how their business looks moving forward.”
As with other agencies, the multitude of cancelled or postponed events during the coronavirus shutdown has taken its toll on Sportfive’s advertising and sponsorship revenue streams.
Woodman said: “It’s been a really challenging time for sport and that includes us as an organisation.
“Commercially some impacts of that are just timing because those events will happen at a further point down the line. And there are some impacts that are more finite, particularly for the likes of the hospitality business where behind-closed-doors [matches] is going to have a real impact on those revenues.”
He continued: “If we can get games back on in a safe environment for the players and associated people then that’s job one. The commercial impact we have to think about in two distinct ways – there’s a short-term impact and then there’s the medium- to long-term impact.
“For all of us in the industry we have to make sensible smart decisions in the short term that are going to protect the medium- to long-term of our sports and events…
“…everybody is going to have suck up an amount of pain in the short-term.”
The biggest unknown, according to the Sportfive UK managing director, will be the broader economic effect on brands who have historically spent in sport and how quickly their budgets will allow them to spend again.
Woodman added: “The underlying model of sports sponsorship and partnerships is solid and once the world starts to come out of Covid then sports marketing will be a very valuable tool for brands who want to get back to communicating about their business and brands to people around the world.”
There will also be an opportunity for brands to communicate value-based propositions, Woodman noted, as a result of the shared experience the public will have been through.
Outwith its activities in football, Sportfive UK is also active in selling ‘Team GB’ sponsorships on behalf of the British Olympic Association and sponsorship rights to the Commonwealth Games as part of the CGF Partnerships project set up by the agency and the Commonwealth Games Federation.
In esports, the UK arm of the agency recently brokered a sponsorship deal with banking group Barclays to become the headline sponsor of major League of Legends competitions in the UK and Ireland. Creative work with brands involved in sports sponsorship – previously housed under the Lagardère Plus brand consulting arm – also forms part of Sportfive UK’s activities.
New identity “better reflects the business that we are”
The Sportfive name was recently revived in the wake of the sale of the Lagardère Sports and Entertainment by Lagardère, the France-based media conglomerate. H.I.G. acquired a 75.1-per-cent stake in the business in a deal valuing the company at €110m ($125m).
The name and new corporate identity became effective at the end of May across all regional operations and for most subsidiary companies.
As the Lagardère name disappeared, the Lagardère Sports agency (and its regional subsidiaries), Lagardère Plus, the Hamburg-based U! Sports agency and VIP Sportstravel hospitality agency all adopted the Sportfive name.
Subsidiaries Rooftop2 Productions, the New York-based experiential marketing firm and consultancy, and Event Knowledge Services, the major events consultancy, retained their brands but received “an endorsement as a Sportfive company”. Onside, the organiser of football friendly matches and training camps, and the UK-based creative agency Brave have continued to operate under their existing names.
Woodman said the rebrand “better reflects to the marketplace and the public the business that we are”.
He said: “How we operate, the efficiencies and the values we drive from our business is the result of the last few years’ worth of work in driving towards the right kind of structure and integration to allow that.
“Internationally, the way that we’ve integrated and connected the different salesforces has been really important. We genuinely have a globally-connected sales organisation that goes from North America across Europe through to Asia-Pacific.”
Lagardère’s sports and entertainment unit finally delivered a positive Ebit in 2014 following a restructuring of operations. A reliance on media-rights trading, previously through its Sportfive, IEC in Sports and World Sport Group agencies, was drastically reduced as the strategy developed to encompass sectors such as athlete and player representation, consulting and stadium management.
Woodman added: “The integration that we’ve gone through as a business has been the most significant development since the old Sportfive days.”