Teamwork: Inside the Uefa Champions League’s rights agency

For over 25 years, the bespoke Team Marketing agency has developed and sold the rights to Uefa club soccer competitions. SportsPro stepped into its offices in Lucerne to see how the operation has evolved.

Teamwork: Inside the Uefa Champions League’s rights agency

There are not too many sporting competitions known around the world by sight. Fewer still are known by sound. Yet just a few bars of a Handel-inspired anthem can loose an avalanche of memories in almost any soccer fan, anywhere.

The music and lyrics of the Uefa Champions League theme hang framed and signed by the composer, Tony Britten, on a wall in the offices of an organisation which has done plenty to generate all the pomp and the glory that tournament now represents.

Team Marketing was established alongside the Champions League in 1991 to sell rights for Uefa’s relaunched elite competition. It has done so ever since, delivering €37 billion in total income.

Today it positions itself as a full-service commercial agency, working across the development, sales and delivery of rights for all of Uefa’s club competitions, including the Europa League and Super Cup. Under the terms of its current agreement, it cannot take on any other clients. The result is a company that has uniquely evolved to cater for the needs and the rhythms of the Champions League and Europa League.

“In the same way that we’ve got a fantastic single client and we’ve got a very profitable business – a very good business – I think it’s very difficult to replicate this very focused, tailored solution, built over 25 years, into another property,” says Jamie Graham, the Team Marketing chief executive. “So everybody talks about wanting a Team-like model, but they don’t realise the costs of doing it and the time and effort needed to get up to a certain standard of delivery.”

The number fluctuates but at the time of SportsPro’s visit in late August, just under 110 people are based at Team’s offices in Lucerne, a small city around 50 kilometres from Zurich in the German-speaking heart of Switzerland. Lucerne is well regarded for its Altstadt; the wooden Chapel Bridge, or Kapellbrücke, over Lake Lucerne; and the KKL Luzern concert hall. Like all the best parts of Switzerland, it is attractive and clean and has excellent access to the Alps. But it would be fair to say that it is the work that has brought most of Team’s staff here. 

Simon Crouch has been with Team since 2008 and became chief operating officer in 2012

The Team offices open out on arrival into a smart reception by a large main boardroom. Beyond that, past installations of Champions League match balls and a branded Subbuteo table, along corridors emblazoned with quotable maxims from sporting greats, is a rabbit warren of offices. Team’s sponsorship and broadcast sales forces are here, along with their servicing counterparts. So too are branding and licensing teams, a troop of lawyers, and a commercial affairs department.

“We tend not to recruit from other sports marketing agencies,” reveals Simon Crouch, the Team chief operating officer. “We’ll recruit from a club or recruit from a broadcaster or a sponsor to try and bring in that freshness. I do think it is hard, having one client, to stay very close to the very latest developments across the industry, and I think we have to put a lot of extra work in to do that than we would if we worked across a portfolio of clients.”

Crouch joined Team in 2008 but was installed in his current role in 2012, bringing to an end a period of turnover in senior management and, both he and Graham believe, heralding a different culture at the agency. According to Graham, there has been a concerted effort in recent years to engender a more constructive environment, both in terms of staff development and staff interaction.

There is a pragmatic dimension to this. “There is a blurring of the lines between broadcasters and sponsors,” says Crouch. “There’s a blurring of the lines between broadcasters, sponsors, clubs and Uefa.”

Consultation has become paramount. Where once, sponsorship and broadcast sales departments might have fought hungrily over scraps of inventory, now they are encouraged to collaborate and discuss what will produce the best overall result. As commercial knowledge within the wider soccer community becomes more sophisticated, there is also more conversation with the agency’s only partner.

“I think ten years ago,” Graham says, “there was much more control that Team had in dictating terms a little bit with Uefa. And Uefa have changed: they’ve got expert personnel themselves; they’re more challenging of us, and rightly so. But I think we’re working much more collaboratively with them now than we’ve ever done. We share more with them than we’ve ever done, and it’s sometimes easier for us to explain and to give them the information, rather than keeping them in the dark.”

“And I think as they develop expertise internally, we need to be better,” adds Crouch. “That’s not meant in a competitive, destructive way. To remain their trusted advisors on all these commercial aspects, we need to be better informed in some way than they are because, otherwise, we’re not adding any value for them.”

Team Marketing chief executive Jamie Graham has attempted to engender a more collaborative atmosphere in recent years

One team, two competitions

Team’s Champions League and Europa League input begins at the very outset. While it is ultimately the job of the confederation, and the clubs, to decide on competition formats, they are informed and led by research from the agency that predicts how different concepts will perform.

In recent years, Uefa has acted on Team’s recommendation to scrap a second round-robin group stage in the Champions League, to replace the Uefa Cup with the Europa League in 2009, and to introduce a Champions League qualifying place for the Europa League winners two seasons ago. Advice is also sought on scheduling changes, with split Champions League kick-off times at 7pm and 9pm CET to be debuted in the 2018/19 season.

Carrie Little, the Team Marketing strategy manager, leads on the commercial evaluation of formats and scheduling, passing her feedback on to Uefa Competitions. Discussions with the confederation are constant in the development stage.

The access system of qualification from national team competitions, Little says, “gets pretty geeky and quite complicated very quickly”. Even within the existing 32-team format for the Champions League, there might be 20 different access structures.

“I think we’re already in double figures [for formats for the next cycle of competitions from 2021 to 2024] and we’re only in our first six months of development,” Little adds. “I like to think that we’re pretty open-minded when it comes to format, so if we wanted to look at a ‘Super League’ with 20 clubs across Europe and weekend scheduling, I’d gladly welcome that and pursue that. Or when Fifa expanded to 48 teams for the World Cup, we thought that might be interesting for the inventory.”

In some cases, such as that of the Super League concept, models might be explored in the interest of understanding what competitors might offer. Little is also investigating the impact of a straight knockout format for the Europa League, given its potential appeal among supporters.

“And we simulate all of this,” she adds, “looking at club coefficients to see what the range and the average of all the coefficients are, so that we can get a really strongly detailed opinion on the quality of the competitions as well.”

Carrie Little, the Team Marketing strategy manager, consults with her counterparts at Uefa on scheduling and competition formats

Formats are one thing, but where the secondary competition has struggled to date is in developing its own identity. “It’s a very easy claim with the Champions League: if you win it, you’re the best club in Europe,” says Crouch. “I think we’ve got to find what the claim is for the Europa League that makes it unique. It can’t just be that it’s the second-best competition in the world – it’s got to have something unique that it talks about that the Champions League can’t.

“One of the things that we said is that the Champions League might be the best of Europe but the Europa League is the breadth of Europe. I think there’s a natural distinction between those two things. It’s whether we want to work with Uefa to push that further, or whether we want to push a different differentiation between the two competitions.”

Team has developed different sponsorship structures for the Champions League and Europa League. TV rights, meanwhile, are sold as separate tenders but are sent to market at the same time.

“A lot of the broadcasters that we sell to will not necessarily look at the individual products but they’ll look at the midweek proposition – Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday – and if we would not have the Thursday, it would still sell very well, but then the Europa League would suffer from that,” explains Thomas Schmidt, Team’s managing director for media rights.

“The Europa League essentially benefits massively from the dynamics we can create with the Champions League, and benefits from the fact that broadcasters say, ‘Why both? Well, I solve my problem through all the week, and if I’ve got some domestic league on the weekends, I’m basically there.’ So that’s why we argue fiercely that you should keep it together.”

Citing the example of England’s Premier League, where top ratings draws Manchester United and Liverpool have dropped into the second-tier tournament in recent seasons, business affairs director and former Sky Sports buyer Oliver Holland notes that broadcasters do not want to pay “top dollar” for the Champions League only for rivals to show bigger-name teams after collecting Europa League rights “on the cheap”.  There is value to those channels, he adds, in being able to tell the “full story” of a European club season.

And in some markets, such as Turkey and Russia, Europa League rights are closer to parity.

Team business affairs director Oliver Holland and managing director for media rights Thomas Schmidt

TV rights: there and back again

“You tell me,” jokes Schmidt, “but my impression is always that a lot of people in the industry and outside have the impression that, actually, what Team does is, we send out an email and then we wait next to the fax machine for the money to come through.”

Team’s TV sale process matches the three-year length of Uefa’s rights terms. Typically, a year is spent in a preparatory phase, with two years then spent selling. Uefa and the clubs took longer than usual to agree on the access system for 2018-21, with the top four teams from the top four leagues granted automatic Champions League spots, so the sales phase for that cycle began around six months late – in December 2016, rather than the summer.

“We sell in 180 plus territories and end up in two years with around 250 plus deals and contracts with over 150 broadcast partners,” says Schmidt. “Logistically, it’s an amazing exercise and a very, very complex exercise to crack through in two years – now we have to do it in one and a half.”

There are around 30 “highly specialised” staff working on the Team sales operation. New salespeople are bedded into support roles in their first cycle to learn the Team culture. They come from a broad range of backgrounds – though none, Schmidt says, are “sports marketing sales shark” types – and all of them are based in the Lucerne office. That means a lot of expensive travel, but also ensures contact and consistency across the agency.

A commercial affairs team, under Holland’s supervision, is “across everything, and all communications and recommendations to Uefa go through them so that we give something that’s consistent in approach, in style, in quality”.

As Team is only going to market with a single product, Schmidt says, there is “no conflict of interest” in its discussions with broadcasters. “When we go out and sell rights,” he explains, “we never go: ‘Here’s the Champions League; if you have €120 million just pay us €100 million because we have some swimming as well.’”

The one-year preparatory phase begins with commercial concept development, led by Crouch, in which sponsors and broadcasters’ input is assessed and inventory is allocated between the two sets of available rights. Then sales policies are derived from an evaluation of legal and regulatory frameworks.

A “global narrative” is developed about the competitions, highlighting what is new and exciting about them, with the storyline adapted in each market according to local tastes. Then contractual documentation is prepped, along with sales materials and presentations.

The sales staff travels continuously throughout. In total, the preparatory year will see over 300 market visits take place, with over 1,000 pre-sales meetings conducted.

The Team offices in Lucerne, Switzerland are bedecked with Champions League and Europa League iconography throughout

The sales phase is also split into three sections. Pre-sales sees market visits continue, with the team encouraged to “sense check” any intelligence discerned by that point on the ground. Meetings with prospective buyers are used to build trust, identify any prospective rationale for purchase, and hone in on any potential leverage.

Team works out its expectations for each market but, as Schmidt explains, exact prices are never specified, not least as that would carry the risk of giving broadcasters the impression they have been misled should the market pan out differently or irrational bids come in.

“All you can do is get people to trust in the process and trust that it’s fair,” says Holland.

The tender phase often sees a Team unit “set up shop in a hotel” in each territory, presenting to each bidder in turn. This is an opportunity to present to chief executives and senior figures, and inject some late urgency.

This is also the point at which the client will become engaged. Whereas in sponsorship discussions, Uefa is updated regularly, Team is given greater autonomy in TV rights sales as a way of controlling the flow of information.

“We’re keen and Uefa is keen to not send mixed messages, and essentially stay out of it, which allows us to build the dynamic that we need to build in order to get results,” Schmidt says.

Bids are then evaluated against price and financial security, with bidders strongly encouraged to pay upfront or seek a bank guarantee. Factors such as promotional commitment and production expertise also come into play. The next steps are to accept an offer, enter a second round of a tender – possibly with a reworking of the packages available to stimulate demand – or put the market on hold in the rare event the offers made are unsatisfactory.

If an offer is accepted, tri-party negotiations begin between Team, the successful bidder, and Uefa. “Speed is quite essential, we find,” says Schmidt, for whom a prompt process and communication with unsuccessful bidders stops confidence from being eroded.

At the peak of the cycle, a new market closes every three days. By the end, around 1,500 presentations have been made, and 3,000 tender documents distributed.

Once the sales process is complete, the account management operation comes into the picture back in Lucerne. Operational contacts are established, and broadcasters are invited to pre-season ‘induction workshops’, which are of particular value to newcomers. Support is offered on technical set-up and broadcast sponsorship implementation, with Team remaining in close contact through the season to ensure assistance is available and vital obligations are met.

Prospects for the 2021-24 Uefa sponsorship cycle are already being identified by Team Marketing

The future

With meetings taking place between Team and interested parties every few months, the sales staff are typically highly aware of any interest from incoming parties.

“Whether we then react to this or change our model is a different question, and I think, rightly or wrongly, we’re probably not seen as the most innovative in the field,” concedes Schmidt. “So we’re not launching OTT [over-the-top] services; we’re not splitting up rights into different transmission techniques. It’s a very simple system. But we need to be aware of the development. We need to be sure of the rights and the way the packages work for OTT players, as well as for traditional broadcasters, telcos, or indeed Amazon.”

That platform-neutral approach has still allowed OTT players to participate, with DAZN in Japan an early example. What Team is not in a position to do at this stage, despite entreaties from some of the leading digital powers, is split off the streaming rights from the rest of the package – especially in those markets where pay-TV broadcasters are seeking exclusivity. Major global changes to sale strategies, in any case, require the approval of Uefa.

Nevertheless, establishing regular contact with any and all potential buyers means the agency is well placed to capitalise on shifts in the marketplace.

“All the social media platforms,” Holland says, “which may be something for 21-24, by that stage, we’ll have been talking to them for a decade at least.”

According to Schmidt, it is not yet clear if Team “can quantify how much money” OTT players like DAZN are bringing into the market, “but they definitely help the competitive dynamics”. But the real impact could come if tech giants like Amazon, Apple or Google make a serious entry. After talks in the current cycle, Schmidt expects Amazon to “be there” when sales begin for 2021-24, and believes the consistency in worldwide delivery and appeal of Champions League coverage will be “perfect” for companies operating on a global scale.

“And I think they will come to that conclusion, ultimately,” he adds. “It’s just a question of when.”

A direct live rights buy is not the only way into the marketplace for the digital giants. Holland points to Facebook’s agreement to carry live Champions League games from Fox Sports in the US, and the social media deals that BT Sport has committed to in the UK to show its highlights to as wide an online audience as possible. That could, he believes, lead to fuller commitments down the line.

There seems little doubt, as Schmidt puts it, that “after pay-TV and telecoms, Silicon Valley will drive the price” of Champions League and Europa League rights. Technology will likely influence future cycles in other ways, with everything from digital substitution boards to VR and AR and AI under evaluation. But the model that Team uses to measure the success of Uefa’s product will then have to progress in kind.

“How do you tell the old-fashioned audience story in a new media world?” says Crouch, positing the question that will determine how effective Team’s work will be in the years to come. There is a need, he explains, to create measurements that go beyond the understanding developed over decades of linear TV.

On those terms, between digital fragmentation and the widespread migration behind the paywall, the cumulative worldwide TV audience for the Champions League has fallen from 4.4 billion to 3.6 billion. The audience reach figure, however, has held steady, and the likelihood is that not enough is understood yet about how the competition is faring on digital outlets.

This is of particular concern to sponsors. Team is working with a range of boutique digital specialists like Mole in a Minute, The Insights Distillery and SnapRapid, to improve its assessment of partner exposure on social platforms. Crouch also points out that audiences on pay-TV are likely to have higher levels of commitment.

The media ecosystem, nonetheless, has changed completely in the past decade. Where once a straight line could be drawn through clubs to rights holders and on to content creators, publishers and distributors before getting to the viewer, now the fan sits amid a plethora of global publishing platforms.

Over the summer, Team hired former London 2012 head of new media Alex Balfour as its senior consultant on digital strategy. As well as finding adjustments where Uefa can improve its online performance, Balfour will be charged with finding out what place digital should have in the rights released for the next cycle.

“How do we embed digital into our commercial concept?” asks Crouch. “The commercial concept that we broadly follow was invented back in 1991. It’s been added to and adjusted and shaped but it’s still, fundamentally, a commercial concept that was invented and built in ’91. We’ve got to try and work out whether we can add to that concept and integrate digital easily into that, or whether it needs something more radical.”

Team’s relationship with Uefa has been a long one and, at the time of writing, one Europe’s clubs have been asked to extend through a new memorandum of understanding. The continuing adaptation of its remit, Graham admits, means that it can be difficult for Uefa administrators to fully understand the full breadth of the agency’s responsibilities.

“But at the end, what we say to the staff is that no matter what happens with all the different senior people at Uefa, the one thing we keep doing is delivering,” he says. “If we keep hitting the numbers, if we keep adding value, if we keep having the sponsors and the broadcasters still saying positive things about our involvement, then surely that’s a difficult thing to walk away from if you’re Uefa.”