Lord Seb Coe talks sponsorship, Olympics, politics and FIFA

Former Olympian Lord Coe brings the ideal mix of political nous and business acumen to his role as chairman of sports-marketing firm CSM, which now incorporates Chime's PR shop Good Relations. He tells PRWeek how geopolitics and cultural differences will transform the sporting landscape and why the balance between sport and commerce must be preserved.

You might think that after having won two Olympic gold medals and setting no fewer than 11 world records, a person would stop fantasising about sporting success. Not Lord Sebastian Newbold Coe, Baron Coe, CH, KBE – or ‘Seb’, as most of us know him.

"Cricket is my sport these days and, for a few delusional moments when I go out on to a village green, I imagine I am [Indian cricketer] Sachin Tendulkar. I also dream of scoring a winning goal for Chelsea in a Champions League final," he confesses.

It is tempting to start waffling on about how the magic of sport is that it speaks to the childish dreams within us all – even champions such as Coe. And that is certainly one aspect of sport’s appeal.

But the truth is that sport and its business wing, sponsorship, is a serious, grown-up affair these days. Global sports revenue including gate receipts, programme rights, merchandising and sponsorship is expected to reach $145bn (£91bn) this year. That makes it worth roughly the same as the world market for digital advertising or the GDP of a medium-sized nation such as Hungary. So it’s not just big business – it’s huge business.

With its ability to transform the wealth and prestige of cities, regions and nations, and its role as an extended military metaphor – George Orwell described sport as "war without the shooting" – sport is also intensely political.

At the centre of this industrial-political-sporting complex sits Coe, the double 1,500 metre Olympic gold medallist, former Conservative MP for Falmouth and Cambourne and current member of the House of Lords. He led London’s bid to host the 2012 Olympics and became chairman of the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games. He was the first chairman of FIFA’s ethics commission, chair of the British Olympic Committee and vice-president of the International Association of Athletics Federations, for which he is one of only two candidates in August’s presidential election. Since January 2013, he has also been chairman of CSM, the Chime-owned sports-marketing consultancy that has offices in 16 countries.

Bringing sport closer

As you can imagine, Coe has had many offers to monetise his fame. So why did he choose CSM? "Largely because I had deep-seated relationships with people in the organisation. This company passionately believes that sport can make a difference and that we fulfil a really important function and that is bringing fans closer to brands.

Our mantra is that we want to be at the heart of the world’s great entertainment and sporting experiences," he says.

The company has recently undergone a restructure to achieve precisely that. Following the decision by Chime founder Tim Bell to buy out PR firm Bell Pottinger from Chime in 2012 , the company reorganised itself into four divisions. CSM is by far the biggest of them and Coe sits on the full Chime board as well as being executive chairman of CSM.

As part of the restructure Good Relations was brought under the CSM umbrella, which now includes motor racing specialist JMI, Fast Track sports events, corporate hospitality company iLuka and experiential marketing company ICON.

The rationale, it seems, was for Good Relations to round out the CSM offer with good storytelling skills while giving the agency, which has three UK offices, access to CSM’s international network.

If relevance is CSM’s aim, then it could not have chosen a better chairman than Coe. His CV looks as if it was constructed with the express purpose of putting him at the centre of the world sporting establishment. But Coe denies any deliberate long-term strategy: "I didn’t set out to acquire all three skills sets [sports, politics and business] and it certainly wasn’t choreographed or planned. But, as it happens, they are the three skills you need to do what I did."

He provides a glimpse of his modus operandi when discussing the benefits of sponsoring London 2012. Coe was instrumental in raising £750m from British sponsors such as Lloyds TSB. "I took the idea to [former Lloyds chairman] Victor Blank, who is a good friend of mine. He got it within 30 seconds. I sat down and said to him ‘this has you written all over it’. And, within a couple of minutes, he said yes. We shook hands and then our teams went away and crunched numbers for six months."

He made a similar call to Justin King, then CEO of Sainsbury’s, which resulted in the supermarket sponsoring the Paralympics. "What am I good at?" Coe asks. "I can get to talk to people and I understand sport without rose-tinted glasses."

Despite his constant, dignified and winning presence in national life since the early 1980s, he has never quite acquired the status of national treasure. He is too slick, too lacking in vulnerabilities, too much of a winner for that. He has all the poise and diplomatic skills of an ambassador, which is appropriate because with his multiple personal and commercial agendas, he clearly sees it as his job to talk up sport in general.

Sport is arguably the most pervasive global cultural form we have today. Why is that? "It’s a common language," he says. "At its best, it’s based on free, fair and open competition. There is no certainty of outcome. It can be abrupt, surprising and dramatic. It quintessentially underpins and articulates the human condition almost better than anything else. It’s something we can all relate to because we have all tried it."

It has been that way ever since the first sports were recorded as long as 7,000 years ago. Mongolian cave paintings from that time show a wrestling match watched by a crowd. But today, he says, the world of sport is changing at a rate that was inconceivable even five years ago.

Sport as content

The first factor is technology. "Just three Olympic Games ago you cut coupons from a newspaper to get tickets. You sent a cheque and, if you didn’t get the seats you wanted, the cheque was sent back to you.

There were no smartphones, no Facebook or Twitter." Not only are logistics easier. As a result of changes in communication hardware, sport has been transformed into "content" for the ravening maw of global business, which needs material to engage with its consumers.

But there has also been a geopolitical shift, says Coe: "The other big change is that it may be that London will be the last of the ‘old’ cities to be staging a major games for some time. There has been a drift east into emerging markets. For many of those, sport is a very important vehicle for emerging nationhood."

This shift is not simply about sports institutions looking for new markets, he says; it reflects new geopolitical and economic realities: "Sport isn’t hermetically sealed from global development. So US foreign policy is all about the East, where there are emerging markets and economies with the financial wherewithal that enables them to bid [for major events]."

He seems to suggest that the "sniffiness" and "nervousness" about this shift emanating from the old world is, well, slightly hypocritical. "We can’t encourage international engagement through sport and the ability of sport to change the lives of young people and then say, ‘we’re not really sure about this and it’s a bit hot in July’."

The only obvious context in which temperature is an issue is the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. So can Coe really be suggesting that the Qatar tournament should not be moved and should go ahead exactly as planned?

It turns out he is referring to what he calls "the new world order of sport". This new order, he says, is going to confront us in the West with uncomfortable choices around cultural practices and political systems. For instance, bribery is a part of everyday life in much of the world. Do we reject any suggestion of accommodation with bribery and foist our way of doing things on the rest of the world – thereby exposing us to accusations of cultural imperialism? Or do we abandon our standards and fall in line with ‘different’ ways of doing things that we believe are wrong? It might be an ethics exam question called ‘Seb’s dilemma’.

"We are going to have to find the navigable path – and, yes, sometimes it will be boulder-strewn. And it will mean beginning a global conversation that covers political, cultural and economic differences – even a rethink of the sporting calendar. We can no longer sit here and say that new formats and championships in emerging sporting powers can only be held at certain times of the year for fear of clashing with major or more established leagues and climatic inhibitors."

"And if we are unwilling to have this conversation," he continues, "I fear that many of these countries that have an appetite to invest in sporting infrastructure both hard and soft will find other priorities, few of which will have the opportunity for a discourse on change."

You can draw your own conclusions as to whe­ther Coe does or does not support the idea of taking the 2022 World Cup away from Qatar. Des­pite the constant stream of accusations over the years, which have become a flood in recent weeks, he certainly disagrees with the perception that the International Olympic Committee and FIFA are irredeemably rotten to the core.

"The IOC had its annus horribilis in 2002 around the Salt Lake City winter games and responded very robustly. It introduced fixed-term presidents, age limits and clear strictures about bids not being able to fly round the world."

If the IOC can reform itself, so can FIFA, he argues. He certainly does not seem to think that it has lost all credibility as a result of the arrests of 14 executives on corruption charges and mounts the "few rotten apples" defence.

There are many people still in the organisation who are both capable and honest and didn’t know what was going on. They should be left to reform it: "FIFA has paid a high price for the allegations against relatively few people. It’s a mountainous organisation that delivers the biggest sport in the world across six continents. Of course they are not all corrupt. Just as not all journalists are plagiarists and not all bankers are irresponsible."

"Pristine governance" is the solution, he says. But he believes all the good corporate governance in the world will not save an organisation unless there is the right culture in place – and that starts at the top. The one place it must not start, he argues, is with governments.

Keeping governments out

Many think that bodies such as FIFA and the IOC can only operate with permission from the rest of the world, so they should be somehow regulated and made accountable. But that would politicise sport and be disastrous, he says: "I believe passionately that sport has to maintain its autonomy. You really don’t want government regulation in sport. You get boycotts.

"Politicians come and go, regimes come and go but organised sport has endured for 33 centuries. It wouldn’t have survived three weeks if it had been the plaything of politicians."

He rejects the suggestion that the goings on at FIFA have damaged all world sport. "Have fans walked away? How many sponsors have walked away?" he asks. The answer to both is, of course, "none". And therein lies the problem.

Critics of the industrial-political-sporting complex say sport is such big money these days and everyone has their snouts so deeply in the trough that they cannot remove them. As a result, the concept of fair play has gone out the window for too many athletes, sponsors, hosts and organising bodies. Is the Corinthian spirit just too expensive?

So does Coe think there is a danger that money is going to kill the geese that laid the $145bn egg? No, although he concedes that there is a danger that it could. "Do we need to be vigilant about the balance [between sport and commerce]? Yes, of course. We all recognise the reality that, to an extent, sponsorship is about paying the piper. Good relationships between sports and sponsors recognise that he who pays the piper calls the tune. But it also recognises that you don’t rewrite the symphony."

The important thing, he says, is that sponsors should not just desert sport – or FIFA in particular: "Walking away from an organisation doesn’t help. Good people need to make change happen. Walking away means you have no interest in change."

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