This year I had been looking forward to attending one of the World Football Summit events, either in Madrid or in Durban. Sadly, like so many other events this year, COVID-19 stopped play before it even began, but the World Football Summit did a wonderful job at organizing an online event in their stead. Here are some of my thoughts about WFS Live, which took place online from 6-10 July.
One of the advantages of the event being online was that it attracted a more international audience, rather than the usual crowd from Europe and North America. There were many attendees from all over Africa and Asia. The speaker line-up was also impressive, no doubt helped by the fact that it was far easier for top speakers to fit an online event into their agendas than it would have been for them to fly perhaps half way around the world to attend an event in person.
Not surprisingly, many of the issues discussed were related to the effects of COVID-19 on the beautiful game, such as how the profile of e-sport has grown, how clubs and players engaged with fans while the leagues were suspended, and how clubs managed to maintain their revenue streams. They also discussed the unexpected challenges that have arisen due to the pandemic, especially to those in the industry that rely mainly on matchday ticket sales.
Regarding marketing and promotions, George Pyne of Bruin Sports Capital stressed that, now more than ever, effective strategies were needed for ideas to be implemented successfully. Rahul Kadavakolu, the Director of Global Marketing and Branding at Rakuten (FC Barcelona’s shirt sponsor), encouraged clubs to continue engaging with their fans. He described the pandemic as a “shake up or shape up situation”, saying that the clubs that endured the crisis would stand the test of time.
The economics of the game was another important topic. Perhaps one of the most controversial statements made during the event was Sir Martin Sorrell’s call for clubs to merge. The Executive Chairman of S4 argued that the current state of play was unsustainable, as there were too many professional clubs and wages were too high. From a purely business perspective, he is right, of course. But I doubt we’ll see many clubs merging any time soon. Growing up in Yorkshire I remember the reaction of rugby league fans when Rupert Murdoch called on clubs to merge. The fans were incensed and it never happened. Expect a similar reaction from football fans if anyone ever asks for Sheffield United and Sheffield Wednesday to form one club, or Dundee and Dundee United, or Red Star and Partizan, or Kallithea and Panionios , or any other two teams from the same town, city or region. For football fans, their club is a community, an ethos and an expression of their roots, not a business.
Another hotly discussed topic related to recent events was that of racism, social justice and equality. In a panel discussion on the future of sponsorship in sport, Michael Yormark of Roc Nation Sports called on brands to stop engaging in performative activism and to base their partnerships on shared values.
Online presence was another important talking point, with Richard Ayers, the CEO of digital sports consultancy Seven League, saying that clubs needed to pay close attention to consumer trends online and Facebook Director of Sports Partnerships Peter Hutton explaining that sports and Facebook were a perfect fit for each other, since both were fundamentally community-centred.
On women’s football, there was a widespread consensus that the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France had been a resounding success and had been a real breakthrough for the women’s game. I was in Geneva for part of the tournament and it was fantastic to see the City of Geneva supporting the event by screening the games by the lake. Large crowds turned out for the two games I watched on the large screen: England vs. USA and England vs. Sweden. The Director of Women’s Football at the Swiss Football Federation, Tatjana Haenni, said it was time for sports organizations to stop talking and to start putting the right structures in place to push women’s sports forward. Rebecca Smith of COPA90 added that sports organizations needed true diversity in their decision-making roles. Meanwhile, Khadila Popal, founder and director of Girl Power Org, called on the media to stop comparing women’s football and men’s football.
Many speakers highlighted the influential role that players can have in their communities, with Marcus Rashford’s recent successful lobbying of the UK government drawing heaps of praise. One of the speakers was Rashford’s Manchester United teammate Juan Mata. He spoke about Common Goal, a charity he founded that encourages players to donate at least one percent of their salaries to charities. What struck me most was how genuine the Spanish midfielder was. The project was clearly very dear to him and he had a genuine desire to use his star status to make a difference in the world.
Mata was also part of the star-studded panel on the final day that reminisced about Spain’s magnificent World Cup win exactly ten years earlier. He was joined by fellow World Cup winners Fernando Hierro, David Villa and their boss, Vicente del Bosque. What a panel! This would not have been very practical if, like most event organizers in English-speaking countries, World Football Summit had insisted that all speakers present in English, so I’d like to thank them for allowing presentations in another language (there were also sessions every evening in Portuguese, targeting Brazil, but the hours coincided with my daughter’s dinner/bath/story/bed schedule, so I wasn’t able to tune in for them). The only downside to having the Spanish sessions was that many attendees who don’t speak Spanish missed out. I did try to help by providing a few live summary translations in the chat room, and bilingual journalist David Garrido gave his own short summary in English at the end, but for future events I’d strongly encourage the organizers to hire some interpreters so that all participants can enjoy sessions conducted a language other than English. I can put them in touch with some excellent interpreters who specialize in football.
One of the disadvantages of an online event is that you don’t get to chat with people over a beer during the breaks. Nevertheless, WFS provided us with an excellent networking tool, developed by French firm Swapcard, which will stay online until the end of July. The tool allows you to filter participants based on their areas of interest, their type of organization, their department within their organization and their country, and during the conference you could arrange a video call with other attendees. Thanks to the tool, I was able to reach out to several other participants and look forward to opportunities to work with them.
In the same way that e-sports are no substitution for real-life sport, WFS Live was not the same as being able to attend an event in person. However, it was well organized, had top-drawer speakers, provided excellent networking facilities and was much more practical for people from many parts of the world, so I hope that, once life returns to normal, the organizers continue to hold an online WFS event once a year in addition to the normal summits.