Open for business: Nigel Rushman on taking Cuban sport to the world

Rushmans founder Nigel Rushman chats about the company's new role distributing, marketing and co-producing Cuban sports internationally.

Open for business: Nigel Rushman on taking Cuban sport to the world

Earlier this week, Monaco-based strategic sports advisory Rushmans announced a deal to distribute, market and co-produce Cuban sports content and events to the international marketplace on behalf of RTVC, the commercial arm of Cuba’s state broadcaster, RTV.

Described as ‘the first of its type’ and ‘a groundbreaking move’, the deal covers live and recorded content, with Cuba's National Baseball Series, boxing and other sports events staged in Cuba - including next month’s soccer friendly against the USA in Havana - set to be made available to international audiences for the first time.

The new partnership, announced on Monday, comes after Rushmans partnered with LGC Capital, a Cuba-focused investment company, on a 50/50 joint venture earlier this year. In June, Rushmans appointed Hector Villar, a popular Cuban television presenter and sports commentator, to act as a strategic advisor to the JV, which goes by the name of Rushmans Cuba.

Following Monday’s announcement, SportsPro caught up with Rushmans founder Nigel Rushman to find out more about the Englishman’s work in Cuba and what the new RTVC partnership means for Cuban sport.

How and why did this partnership come about?

I have a number of business interests outside of Rushmans. In early 2015, a friend in Monaco invested into some oil opportunities, on-shore oil drilling opportunities in Cuba. He was building that business and floating on the London exchange, on the ISDX market. Cutting a long story short, I said to him, ‘look, I’ve been to Cuba a lot. I knew Cuba reasonably well, did he want some help?’ Yes, he did.

So I got involved with this company, which is now quoted on the Canadian stock exchange, actually. It’s on the TSXV exchange, and it’s called LGC Capital. The ticker code is QBA.V, for Cuba. That company is a business that is purely focused on Cuba and Cuba investments. Because I was doing so much work on that, and spending so much time in Havana, I got talking with some people in Cuba and they asked me: ‘You have this business, Rushmans, you’ve been around sport for a long time, could you perhaps help us to do something with our content and opportunities?’

This is cutting a very long story short because things take some time, obviously. And so we ended up in a situation where RTVC, which is the commercial arm of Cuban television, and Rushmans signed an agreement to market, distribute and co-produce television content around Cuban sport.

Obviously the big sport in Cuba, the national sport, is baseball. Football is growing fast. Boxing is of interest. We are working with RTVC to market these and the first thing we have on sales is the Cuba v USA friendly on 7th October.

How are sales going for that match? What’s interest been like?

Well, we’re late to it, very late to it, because in an ideal world we’d have started work on that four or five months ago. But actually really rather well - it’s quite exciting because it’s an historic match and people are taking it for historic as well as sporting interest. There are a few deals done and a few more to go, so it’s pleasing given that we’ve had a four-week standing start.

Cuban boxers are second in the all-time Olympic medal standings, having won 73 medals in total.

Beyond that match, and besides baseball and boxing, what other events and sports will you be selling?

This is new ground for Cuba and we need to go at the pace that they’re comfortable with. It’s their show and we’re there to help them. We’re going to keep it nice and controlled. We’re all learning. Cuba has it’s own legal system, of course, so we’ve got to go through building a commercial environment for sport that contributes to their sport and they’re comfortable with. So they’ll dictate the pace rather than us.

You mentioned you’ve been going to Cuba for some time. How developed is the Cuban sports industry and what’s it like doing business there?

Commercially, not [very developed], but in terms of the depth of their sport, their sport structures are extremely good. That’s reflected, for such a small country, in their medal rankings in the Olympic Games. I think in boxing they’re second only to the United States, in terms of cumulative medals. They’ve got a very good culture in Cuba of encouraging children into a sport at a very early age and taking them all the way up through the grades until they go through international competition. It’s a really good structure.

Now, in terms of the commercial environment, it’s all new because the government have not yet decided how much international involvement they want. Sport is government-funded. There are some small commercial forays into boxing but this really new ground for Cuba and for us.

"Cuba is open for business, but they’ll do it in a way that suits them; in a way that is correct for them and their society."

When this opportunity arose, presumably you went out into the market to gauge the appetite for Cuban sport among overseas broadcasters. What is the appetite like?

It’s been a little more informal than that, initially, because I didn’t necessarily seek this out; they sought me out. I was asked to help and then, of course, we looked at it to see what it could do. The appetite is very good, actually. Look, we’re not selling Bundesliga here, and we’re not selling Premier League, but the appetite for the content, especially in baseball and in football, is pretty good. Boxing is also good but that will be what we make of it.

The thing that I think is particularly exciting is the idea of co-production with RTV and staging events. Cuba is in a very good geographical location in relation to Latin America, of course, and the USA - 92 miles off the straits of Florida: it’s a good location. You’ve got daily scheduled flights now from the US. There are travel exemptions for US citizens going there for purposes of sports events and exhibitions, so they can get in and out of Cuba easily. So it’s a good and interesting time to be involved.

One of the things that I think is often not understood is that many people around the world hear American and US news about what’s happening in Cuba, but Cuba has a different view. Cuba moves at its pace; it’s not dictated by anyone else. It’s a very proud country, rightly so, and they decide to move, I think the saying is, steadily but without pause. The quote from them is that Cuba is open for business, but they’ll do it in a way that suits them; in a way that is correct for them and their society.

US president Barack Obama stands alongside Cuban leader Raúl Castro before Cuba's exhibition baseball match against the Tampa Bay Rays in March.

When do you expect to announce the first round of deals? I’m not sure when the sports seasons start in Cuba, but do you have any dates that you’re working towards?

As I said, we’re on sale with the football now, the friendly. We’ve announced that we’re on sale with that today. So I would think the next announcements about the next things on sale will come out in the next couple of weeks. As for the baseball season, they’ve moved their season to accommodate overseas leagues, so that their club players can play some of those leagues. That, in itself, is quite a new thing.

When will you be back in Cuba and how much time are you spending there?

Week after next. I currently spend about a week a month in Cuba, but that’s increasing at the moment. My next couple of trips are going to be for ten days and 15 days, respectively, because there is a lot to do.

Cuba’s thawing ties with the US are well-documented, but what are the country’s relations like with other major sporting markets?

They are extremely good. They have very good relationships with most Latin American countries, of course. They have exceptionally good relations with Russia and China and Canada - they are their big trading partners. Pretty good relations with Europe. Spanish-speaking countries: they’re pretty good with Spain and La Liga. And there are some reciprocal deals to do, with some rights exchanges and packaging of rights, which will be interesting.

Cuba take on the New York Cosmos in a friendly soccer match in Havana, June 2015.

Presumably you’re hoping to be busy working the floor at Sportel Monaco next month, speaking to potential buyers and doing deals?

Yes, we will be at Sportel. We are working with Pitch International to do our sales. We’ve had a very long and friendly association with Pitch. It’s advantageous for us to do the deals with Pitch because  they’ve got longstanding relationships, they’re strong in football, they’re strong in representative markets where we’re not, they’ve got a good Spanish-speaking team, which is good for Latin America, so we’re pleased to be working with them. The relationship is RTVC to us, and then us to Pitch.

Aside from the rights side of things, are there other benefits for overseas promoters looking to stage sports events in Cuba?

There are, and that’s one of our main thrusts. Cuba is almost like a natural backdrop. We’ve seen the Obama visit, we’ve seen the Pope’s visit, the Tampa Bay Rays going in while Obama was there, the New York Cosmos going in and playing a friendly against the Cuban national team, and lo and behold, the Rolling Stones and even Major Lazer.

It is a natural venue but Cuba can be very picky about who comes and who gets permission, so it’s not a given that anyone can think ‘wouldn’t it be great? We can just go to Cuba and stage this event.’ That happens with their blessing, and that means there needs to be quite a bit of work done in advance. There is a long application process, but I think they’re very keen to stage the right events and we will be working on a programme of those with RTV over the next couple of years.