Whether it’s the flagrant circus of a boxer and an MMA fighter on a trash-talking tour before going toe to toe, or soccer stars and grime MCs making joint appearances to promote the wares of music brands and sportswear manufacturers, the worlds of sport and entertainment are converging like never before.
Rights holders from across the world of sport are increasingly seeing themselves as entertainment companies and content providers as much as operators of sporting events. One organisation which already has considerable experience positioning itself in that space is World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) which, since the 1980s, has referred to itself as “sports entertainment” – a soubriquet that neatly surmises the wrestling series’ combination of thrilling feats of athleticism and highly theatrical storytelling.
It makes perfect sense, then, that as part of the WWE’s attempts to boost its commercial profile worldwide it has enlisted the help of Lagardère Sports as its international sponsorship sales agency, an agency far more accustomed to working with traditional sporting properties, among them the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF) and over 100 European soccer clubs.
The deal sees Lagardère Sports taking a step into the world of sports entertainment
Entering the squared circle
Securing sponsorships and commercial partners for the WWE, though, is not so far removed from doing so for those kinds of organisations, says Andrew Pierce, Lagardère Sports president and chief executive, Americas - at least in its initial stages.
“The elements of what we’re doing for them are analogous to what we do with other businesses in that assessment period,” says Pierce. “Then the strategy that we enact based on that assessment is probably different. For our purposes, I think it was a different process.”
Pierce says that the first challenge was “really getting to understand what the WWE has internationally, the kind of impact it has - that was something we didn’t intuitively know as we might with other properties”.
“We knew it was large but we didn’t know how large, we didn’t know in what markets, we certainly didn’t know how the shows correlated to their online and the WWE channel, so it was figuring out the interconnection between that and the positioning there, and how we could add value to that,” he adds.
John Brody, executive vice president at the WWE, says that this level of due diligence was what made Lagardère stand out when the wrestling organisation decided it wanted to engage with a third party for its global sales business. “The tremendous level of interest and excitement from their most senior level of executives made us feel comfortable that they understood us and they were prepared for what we were going to embark on,” he says. “Any time a sports and entertainment brand of the size of the WWE works with a third party, you want to make sure they’re all in. And Lagardère has been all-in since day one - and that starts with Andy Pierce and their senior executives, they’re all in from Australia to London to Singapore and all over the world. We’ve very confident they’re going to help with the incredibly important natural evolution of the sales business to create a global sales footprint.”
John Brody, executive vice president at the WWE and Andrew Pierce, president and chief executive of Lagardère Sports, Americas
Taking a global business local through digital
Brody cautions against this being seen as a sudden push into overseas territory for the WWE, which has operated on a global scale for decades. Instead, he says, it has come more from a realisation that although 30 per cent its overall revenues already come from international sales, that figure could be much higher given the worldwide viewership and under-exploitation of the brand in certain territories - as he puts it, “the globalisation of WWE is not a new phenomenon”.
“It’s not as if we’re saying, ‘Right, we’re going to try an international market now,’” says Brody. “We have a mature global business and we’ve been taking our product all around the world for decades. We put on over 500 events throughout the world every year, and we feel there’s an opportunity across these different regions to really create better or more complete opportunities for brands to market with us and ultimately to help do the most important thing for WWE, which is to put smiles on kids’ faces.”
He describes the WWE as being positioned in a “pivot point” between sports and entertainment, which allows the organisation to leverage both in its marketing campaigns, attracting brands from across the spectrum in a way that purely sporting rights holders have traditionally struggled to achieve. Most notable, perhaps, is the fact that the WWE owns all its own content and can distribute it via its over-the-top (OTT) subscription service WWE Network, as well as having all its so-called “superstars” under direct contract - so is able to give brands access to its entire eco-system. The latter, at least, is somewhere traditional sports are slowly catching up, with more and more rights holders introducing in-house broadcast production and offering fans - and brands - direct access to that content.
“We’re in this unique situation,” says Brody, “where we can connect with sports and entertainment and we can offer leading brands one-stop shop where they can have access to our live events, which we do all around the world, to our superstars, who are part of our eco-system, to our over-the-top content through WWE Network, to our more traditional content through broadcast partners like Sky and throughout that entire ecosystem we can create customised content.
“We are perhaps a little more flexible than more traditional sports properties and that’s why brands have really come to us to launch new programmes, to create specialised content. Some brands who have done that recently with us are brands that we think are the best of the best, blue chip brands like Mars, Nestlé, KFC, AT&T, 2K, Mattel - leading brands all around the world have looked to WWE as a differentiator in how they go to market to their consumers and to our fans.”
An image from KFC's marketing campaign with the WWE
Learning the ropes
Pierce adds that the WWE’s ownership of its content “presents an opportunity [for Lagardère Sports] to do more things without constraints and gives us more platforms to work with,” meaning the question becomes “not just how we approach this, but which platforms we focus on”.
For Lagardère, says Pierce, the collaboration will represent a learning curve and allow the agency to take what it has learned from marketing sports entertainment back to the world of traditional sports.
“What we’re trying to do in general, our aspiration is to be the global solution for brands, for talent and for global properties, and so we have to understand the dynamics of the marketplace, what’s changing, what technologies and new platforms are emerging,” he says. “Certainly we don’t make the distinction that sports platforms are different than the entertainment platforms - a global property is a global property, and the lines are increasingly blurred between sports and entertainment. I don’t think any of us makes a distinction between the WWE and a sports property per se. They’re all global platforms and the expectation for the rights is much the same.”