Striking out: fencing’s digital advance

The formation of the annual FIE Fencing Grand Prix series in 2014 gave the sport of fencing an elite-level showcase outside of Olympic years. Now, with social media and the emergence of new over-the-top streaming options having created direct ways of reaching the uninitiated fan, the International Fencing Federation is taking its repackaged event concept to a digital audience.

Striking out: fencing’s digital advance

It’s a Friday morning in the middle of March and the city of Long Beach is gearing up for its biggest event of the year. Where Shoreline Drive meets Ocean Boulevard, the main coastal thoroughfare that hugs the palm-lined strip of golden sand for which this Los Angeles satellite town is named, a team of workmen is busy installing panels of roadside fencing. All along the street, piles of car tyres sit solemnly in the early spring sunshine, waiting to be arranged into crash barriers, while row upon row of temporary seating is being erected to form an imposing grandstand. In three weeks’ time, this quintessentially Californian shorefront will be transformed into a motor racing street circuit, where the roar of Indycar engines and more than 200,000 spectators will herald the arrival of the fabled Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.

This week, however, the city is hosting a Grand Prix of a less familiar kind. Just across from the marina on Shoreline Drive, a stone’s throw from where the Los Angeles River channels languidly into the Pacific Ocean, the US leg of the 2017 FIE Fencing Grand Prix (FGP) series is about to get underway, with many of the world’s finest male and female fencers set to go toe-to-toe inside the Long Beach Convention & Entertainment Center.

For the Lausanne-based International Fencing Federation (FIE), the global governing body for a sport that is one of only five contested at every edition of the modern Summer Olympics, the FGP series has become an important showcase for fencing at the elite level. 

Beyond the Olympics and the Fencing World Championships, the Grand Prix is the most valuable event on the FIE calendar in terms of ranking points. Launched in 2014 under the tagline ‘One Series. Nine Cities’, the circuit features nine elite-level tournaments held in major urban centres across four continents between November and June. Events using each of fencing’s three weapons – the foil, épée and sabre – are split equally across three geographic zones: Europe, Asia and the Americas. Each event draws the planet’s top practitioners in their respective weapons, with more than 300 athletes, including Olympic and world champions, representing over 30 nations across the entire series.

In Long Beach, a place that holds special significance for fencing having hosted the sport during the Los Angeles Olympic Games of 1984, the weapon of choice is the foil. After sabre events in New York City in 2014 and Boston in 2015, the tournament marks the first top-level foil event held in the United States in more than a decade. Boasting both men’s and women’s competitions, it is the second foil contest of the 2016/17 season, following a prior stop in Torino, Italy in December and preceding a third to be held in the Chinese city of Shanghai in May.

“For the FIE, the Grand Prix series is a really important competition,” says Evgeni Tsoukhlo, the governing body’s Russian deputy chief executive who doubles as the FGP series director. “It’s a high level for us. The classification of this tournament is maximum because the FIE wanted the same top level, the same quality of competition across the world… like track and field, tennis, soccer.”

Comparable to athletics’ IAAF Diamond League or, perhaps more accurately, men’s tennis’ ATP Masters 1000 series, the aim of the unified Grand Prix concept is by now familiar in the world of Olympic sport. As well as providing year-round opportunities for top fencers to compete on the world stage, its goal is to increase visibility and create a sustained competition narrative for the sport throughout the entire Olympic quadrennium. But aside from the sporting motives behind its creation, the FGP series is also the result of an effort by the FIE to revitalise and better commercialise its preeminent non-Olympic events. 

By halving the number of top-level tournaments from 18 to nine and investing in higher quality, more consistent broadcast production, the governing body has sought to create a product that will attract more broadcasters, entice more viewers and, eventually, bring more sponsors into the fold.

Our goal now is to create compelling content and move past the mindset of doing fencing for fencers.

To that end, the FIE has struck media rights agreements with a host of international broadcast partners, including Eurosport, which is among the networks carrying the main broadcast feed from the two-day event in Long Beach. But while securing mainstream TV coverage was an initial focus of the FIE’s media strategy for the FGP series, digital and social media has become an increasingly crucial part of the mix.

Fencing, like other Olympic mainstays, is a traditional pastime in constant pursuit of modernisation, compelled by a desire to be regarded as a 21st century sport. Though it is rife with anachronisms – rules and athlete attire that have remained largely unchanged for hundreds of years, for example, and those idiosyncratic referee calls of ‘En garde!’ – more recent technological advancements have helped bring fencing into the modern age. Innovations such as a wireless electronic scoring system, masks that incorporate LED lighting to highlight when an athlete has scored a point, and the lamé, an electrically conductive jacket worn by competitors in foil and sabre, have brought a new dimension to the spectator experience and made the action easier to follow for the uninitiated. Indeed, technology now sits at the very heart of elite fencing and is firmly ingrained in its live presentation, but those developments only go so far.

“Our goal now is to create compelling content and move past the mindset of doing fencing for fencers,” says Donald Anthony, an FIE vice president and the president of USA Fencing, the national governing body tasked with leading the organisation of the Long Beach event. “Because it is one thing to do it for your base – our base is small, we’re a niche – but it’s about making it accessible and available to those who are natural consumers of sport. And, when you’re a small sport and you don’t have a huge budget, doing it in a way that is economically viable.”

For a lower-tier sport like fencing, attaining broad media distribution and mainstream exposure is a perpetual struggle, particularly outside of Olympic years. Yet social media and the emergence of direct-to-consumer streaming options have fostered new and, perhaps most importantly, affordable ways of reaching a global audience.

“Now, you can do these things,” notes Anthony, who founded fencing promoter SwordSport LLC before taking his current administrative role, and whose background is in the content business having previously worked on programming for the likes of NBCUniversal and ESPN. “The cost of the cameras… a US$50,000 camera, now I can get for US$5,000,” he adds. “To get distribution on ESPN, they wanted me to pay US$40,000; now they’re like, ‘We’ll even split advertising with you.’ This is the difference. And there’s not only ESPN, there’s ESPN2 and ESPN3 and all the other networks. NBC is the same way. So it’s a very different environment, and if none of them want it, set up your own channel, over the top.”

With the aim of reaching out beyond the existing fencing community, the FIE was among the first group of international federations to reach content collaboration agreements with the Olympic Channel, the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) new global OTT digital service, in June of last year. Anthony says the Olympic Channel partnership – evidenced in Long Beach by the presence of two commentators from NBCUniversal, which works closely with the IOC and the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) to produce Olympic sports programming for the US market – has been “a huge opportunity” for the sport of fencing, helping to facilitate the promotion of the sport across TV, mobile and internet platforms.

That partnership is, however, just one cog in the FIE’s growing content production machine. With the support of Swiss watchmaker Tissot, an FIE partner since 1996 and one of three main sponsors of the FGP series, the federation also provides live streams of every Grand Prix event via its own YouTube and Facebook channels. Tissot sends a team of around half a dozen technicians to all nine events in the series, overseeing much of the technology and hardware to make the live streams possible. Meanwhile, a contingent of fencing experts within the local organising committee (LOC) works in tandem with Tissot at each event to provide comprehensive output and drive engagement on social media.

FIE vice president and USA Fencing president Donald Anthony speaks to NBCUniversal in Long Beach in March.

According to Allex Gruman, the Long Beach LOC’s director of social media and ticket sales, the FIE’s official Facebook page and Twitter account are primarily used to provide event updates, direct users to the live streams, and “to educate the uninitiated”, while Snapchat and Instagram essentially serve as the event’s real-time visual showcase. On those platforms, says Gruman, images and video clips are posted regularly for the purposes of engaging “those who want to see what’s happening but who have limited attention spans”.

Taken together, the streaming and social components paint an overall picture of the event that is not only professional and accessible, but also well-informed. Within the FIE, there is an appreciation of the need to teach newcomers about the nuances of the sport – a priority born out by the fact that the media guide for the Long Beach event comes complete with a glossary of terms and an explanation of fencing’s rules and weapons – and one of the best means of providing that education, says Anthony, is through the creation of compelling video content.

“People care about the live event but what they really dig into is what you tell them, what’s going on, and then what the athletes are saying,” he says. “Those are the pieces that we’re focusing on now. How do you create a piece of content so that for an audience that is new to the sport, you can engage them, you can educate them, do it in an exciting and entertaining and captivating way?”

To that end, the FIE has introduced novel ways of presenting fencing and all its subtleties. Away from the action taking place on the bustling competition floor in Long Beach, for example, two British athletes are competing in something called the Coin Challenge, a striking accuracy contest that challenges participants to knock a coin off a mic stand with a single thrust of their weapon. The challenge is being filmed using a GoPro camera attached to the stand directly behind the coin, providing a unique perspective of one of fencing’s most important skills. Once the event is done and dusted, the footage will be clipped to form part of a magazine show distributed across the FIE’s digital platforms.

“The first thing is telling our story so that people realise who we are today, that we are a 21st century sport and also, why you would want to be a part of it or follow it,” says Anthony. “If you’re not basketball, football, baseball, hockey or MMA, it’s a challenge. The good news is there are a lot more distribution outlets, there are a lot more distributors looking for content. The key now is creating the content that the distributors are willing to incorporate into their base. That’s what we’re working on.”