Darrell McLennan-Fordyce - From combat to courtside

The NBA's EMEA comms head is getting stuck into the challenge of selling basketball to the European public. John Owens reports.

All about entertainment: McLennan-Fordyce
All about entertainment: McLennan-Fordyce

Darrell McLennan-Fordyce was eight kilometres off the Argentinian coastline when a journalist went berserk, gun in hand.

'I guess I am used to seeing weapons, so it was a bit of a case of calm down, dear,' deadpans the NBA's EMEA comms head.

At the time he was working on the BT Global Challenge, handling a press trip out to the start of the yacht race. When the 40ft yacht began to sink, all eyes turned to the one life jacket on board. It seems one hack was more desperate than the others.

Although the incident, back in 2001, may have ended without violence, McLennan-Fordyce could not be blamed if he tried to hype it up. The ex-British Army officer, however, is not someone given to dramatics or easily intimidated.

Some might say this is just as well.

As the person charged with helping spread the American gospel of basketball to unconverted sceptics across two continents, he is a man with quite a mission.

McLennan-Fordyce's long-term job is to raise the profile of the sport to the extent that a European NBA league is possible.

And how to do this?

Firstly, target youngsters. A key part of the NBA's comms strategy is reaching out to early teenagers still not totally absorbed by Europe's traditional sporting obsessions.

Next, use the stars that burn brightly.

Stars are something the NBA certainly has, and with basketball a growing power in Europe, players like Brixton-raised Chicago Bulls player Luol Deng hold strong potential appeal as unique role models.

'We've got players who resonate with a wider audience and have a worldwide profile. The challenge is to carry on doing that and exposing as many people as possible to the ethos of sports entertainment.'

In Britain, the last two words are normally associated with a slightly more staged sporting relative: wrestling.

But for 44-year-old McLennan-Fordyce, the Americanism is simply stating an obvious, but important, truth.

'Fundamentally it is about entertainment. And if you create a spectacle, whether it's for the fan in the arena or at home, there's nothing negative in that.'

Spectacles such as this week's clash in the grand, domed confines of London's O2 Arena between the Detroit Pistons and the New York Knicks, for example.

Or the NBA House, which opened up to the public over the course of the Olympics and included dance teams and a basketball clinic among other attractions.

McLennan-Fordyce's path to the NBA started in the rather different surroundings of military academy Sandhurst.

The son of an actor and TV director, he chose another path, heading to the academy after leaving school to train as an officer.

'There are similarities to being an actor,' he claims. 'When you're in charge of 25 angry soldiers it's about making them believe you're not frightened.'

His time in the Army took him from Northern Ireland to Iraq, with comms work thrust upon him as a secondary duty.

As such, when not leading men, he was dealing with media after the first Gulf war or helping to manage the reputation of his own Scottish Regiment.

But the father of two is not one to revel in a military past. Balanced and understated in his delivery, McLennan-Fordyce is friendly but firm - it is easy to imagine him as a leader. He explains that as well as leadership and media nous, his Army time taught him 'emotional intelligence'.

It was in 1998 that he resolved to move into the world of comms more fully. A theme runs through his work since then.

From work 'crashing through the jungle with teams in Land Rovers' as part of the Camel Trophy, through to joining Orange for extreme sports team-ups, he has found a way to keep adventure and activity central to his career.

Shine Communications director Richard Glennie worked with the avid rugby fan at Hill+Knowlton Strategies. It was during this time that he worked on the BT Global Challenge. Glennie recalls someone with 'more life experience than most' whose manner of marching 'up and down' among his team hinted at his background.

'He is a strategic guy in terms of sponsorship leverage, but was also very personable and a very good motivator too.'

Over this time, McLennan-Fordyce worked with sports stars ranging from Chelsea FC star Frank Lampard to the late golfer Seve Ballesteros.

He has also been part of a landscape in which many sports have become wider entertainment brands.

McLennan-Fordyce points to an 'increasingly fragmented media landscape' as further driving the appeal of sport to brands. 'Brands are looking at how they can tap into people's passion in this kind of landscape, and sport offers that,' he claims.

But while he is ambitious, there is also a strong streak of realism. Football will not be usurped as the global king of sports any time soon. 'The challenge for us is how to close the gap,' he says.

So how far along the path to a European league is the NBA, then?

For those not au fait with Army terminology, McLennan-Fordyce's response may be a tad baffling.

'There is a military analogy. We've definitely broken out of the beachhead but there's still some way to go.'

But it does show one thing - as long as McLennan-Fordyce is at the helm, lessons learned on the front line will help shape the future of global basketball for some time to come.

CV

2010

Senior director, marcoms, NBA Europe, Middle East & Africa

2008

Consultant for Madrid's 2018 Ryder Cup Bid and 2011/12 Volvo Ocean Race

2006

Managing partner, Performance - Ford of Europe Champions League, WPP

2002

Head of sports and games brand marketing, Orange PCS

1999

Media director, BT Global Challenge & UBS sailing, Hill & Knowlton (Sports Marketing)

1999

Event and PR manager, Camel Trophy

1989

British Army officer (Royal Scots Dragoon Guards)

TIPS FROM THE TOP

What was your biggest career break?

I was lucky to spend almost five years at Orange at a time when the brand was still developing globally and we were being quite brave in what we got involved in.

Have you had a notable mentor?

I've been influenced by and respected a great many people to date. Pippa Dunn was head of brand at Orange and was an excellent role model. Agency side, it would be Steve Martin from M&C Saatchi, Henry Chappell from Pitch PR and Alun James from Four Communications.

What advice would you give people climbing the career ladder?

I'm constantly surprised to get documents, applications or the like with basic errors. It matters.

What qualities do you look for in new recruits?

Tenacity and humour. Don't be afraid to keep going for something but don't take life too seriously. It's a marathon not a sprint.

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