Where the 2015 Women’s World Cup Missed the Net

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I feel a bit guilty about that headline — for one thing, I’m an unabashed supporter of women’s soccer.  There are so many phenomenal things about it – the athleticism, the purity of the game (way less drama) and the metaphor it provides that escalates almost immediately every discussion of the game to a discussion on gender equality.  In act, I’m not really referring to the women’s world cup missing the net, but rather the organizers – FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association’s Organizing Committee (and a few public entities as well).  But that probably wouldn’t have caught your eye as quickly….so with apologies, here goes:

By so many measures, the 2015 Women’s World Cup was an incredible success.  An expanded field of competitors (from 16 to 24).  A bigger tournament (from 32 to 52 matches).  And eye-popping television ratings in the U.S. (besting NBA playoff games, MLB world series, and, gasp, even the 2014 men’s world cup final).

It’s certainly a time to celebrate.  But also time to begin the post-event performance analysis.  Elite athletes share one trait – continually raising the bar for themselves; “What must I do to stay on top?  Did I exhaust my potential or can I go even further?”  are frequent refrains in their heads following even their most exceptional performances.

Given that that Canada currently ranks #2 for sport hosting in the world, and the CSA is musing on a Men’s World Cup bid for 2026*, I’d like to offer up a cursory analysis of where we can – and must – do better.

Sponsorship, Suite Sales and Merchandise Sales Fell Short

While no one has hard numbers yet, there are plenty of indicators that none of these areas of revenue generation were what they could have been.

Sponsorship

The previous host, Germany in 2011, signed all 6 available National Sponsor slots at an estimated USD $5 million each, a full 15 months ahead of the tournament start.  This meant the organizing committee had more capital to work with and more time to work with those partners to encourage their  ‘activation’ or use/leverage of their sponsorships.    When this is done in advance, it builds momentum, drives tournament awareness and supports healthy advance ticket sales.

By two months out from the opening ceremonies, the FIFA 2015 Organizing Committee had sold 2.   And neither of those partners had begun to activate, leaving a void in the promotion build up.  Several longtime Canadian Soccer Association partners declined to become sponsors of the tournament.  As those decisions predated the recent FIFA debacle, it would appear that either the price or the sales effort didn’t resonate sufficiently.

At the 11th hour, a third was added.  But that deal turned out to be more of an Official Supplier role than a Sponsor, meaning lower dollars.  And as a B2B company, somewhat less compelling activities around the event, more corporate hospitality and less street-level fun.  Interestingly some of that fun was provided by non-sponsors.   Canadian Tire/SportChek’s Jumpstart, a CSA sponsor who declined a direct World Cup partnership, held a public pick-up tournament in Vancouver’s Gastown (and perhaps in the other host cities as well?) and ran an ad campaign during June featuring Canadian women’s and men’s national team players.   And non-FIFA, non-CSA sponsor, Nike did a fantastic guerrilla marketing experiential program with the Nike Underground zone in the CBC parking garage in Vancouver.  They were even so bold as to run a wrapped double-decker bus touting the venue.   As sponsorship goes, it feel short on sales, leverage (except for non-sponsors) and on rights enforcement.

What can we learn?  Sponsorship must be gauged in the bid phase and pursued/secured early on in operations.  It is the revenue engine that drives every other aspect of the event operations.  Granted Canada had no contenders for this host bid, but with a healthy stable of corporate partners for the national association, and for the popularity and appeal of the sport itself, not to mention the national and international exposure, I’d hope there is a good post-mortem on why those CSA sponsors didn’t step forward when the ultimate opportunity to capitalize on their years of investment in soccer presented itself.  Given that women make 85% of household purchasing decisions, this was an occasion to align with the driving economic force that women have become in showing unfettered support for the Women’s World Cup.

Suite Sales

Suite sales are tough – but it appears there was no dedicated strategy and the sales personnel infusion came too late; the effort too light.   We couldn’t find definitive total numbers for Germany (though we did see they sold 28,000 packages over the 32 matches) to say whether Canada fared better or worse, but it was disappointing and a little disheartening  to see those mothballed suites.  Imagine if they’d gotten creative enough to sell a la carte suite tickets to all the US fans that streamed into Vancouver for the final?  When it comes to premium and group sales for large events, it may require a Plan A, B and C to ensure that bums are in seats – and with a tourney like this, a contingency plan if the host country isn’t in the final.

My vantage point for much of the tournament was Vancouver, where I attended all 9 matches.  I make it a habit to note the suite occupancy at every sports event I attend (much to the annoyance of my husband, who often asks if I can just watch the game without counting seats).  Not only were roughly 60% of suites unsold, they were actually boarded/papered up – an odd move that only drew more attention to their vacancy.  Roughly two months prior to the tournament opening I was contacted by an outside sales rep who had been brought on to bolster suite sales.   As it happens, I told him, I work with several organizations who have a collective reach to roughly 150,000 women business owners.  I’d be happy to distribute the information as I felt the tournament was a great backdrop for business hosting and corporate team-building for them.  The rep never followed up.

The takeaway here may be for FIFA – while MATCH Hospitality manages this for them and Olympic Games and has done for some time, it seemed that a lack of local presence early on to develop and drive uptake of suites left some high-dollar returns unseen.  I had the sense that the local host city organizing committees were focused on individual tickets sales and were leaving the suite sales to MATCH.  In the 12 months leading up to the tournament, I saw no pursuit of these sales at business networking functions or via targeted emails to organizations prior to that one outreach call 8 weeks out.

A Plan B might have been outreach to local companies suggesting they sponsor a girls’ team or charity organization’s ability to see the event from the rarified view of a suite and gain the dual benefit of a tax receipt and the shiny glow of supporting girls’ soccer.  Food for thought when the suites aren’t filling up as expected in our next round of hosting.

Merchandise

Merchandise was a complete headscratcher.  PanAm Games have had items in the Toronto airport for at least a year.  Grey Cups do the same at least 4 months out– with gear acting as a promotional tool for every inbound passenger.   Even the Canada Games in Prince George had a selection of tees, fleeces and hats waiting for you at partner retailer Canadian Tire and SportChek and around town.  Every impression was a reminder the games were coming.  Locals are prompted to think, ‘I’d best to get my tickets’ (and maybe a logo travel mug, too.)   The array, designs and abundance of 2010 Winter Games items had perhaps spoiled us.  But the complete absence of merch at any of our usual retailers was confounding.  Imagine if all those Alaska cruise visitors had stumbled on 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup caps as they strolled through Gastown.   With a family of 5 coming in from the US for the tourney, I scoured Vancouver for something I could send ahead.  Attending the Opening Game in Edmonton, I thought I’d come away with the first grab of goods direct from the stadium stand.  Couldn’t get near it.  Not a prayer.  And I’d come to watch the game after all, not stand in a merch line.   So when I finally found myself in front of the goods, and with a strong buying intention, an unfortunate, and I would argue unnecessary, obstacle stood in my way.

Germany 2011 booked roughly USD$4 million from their merchandise sales in 2011, a tournament that saw 845,711 tickets sold across 32 matches.    In stadium and event operations-speak, that works out to a $4.73 merchandise per cap (spectator) ratio.  I hope it turns out well, but among the 15 people I attended a combined 10 games with, we collectively bought one $25 ballcap.  So while a hardly a scientific way to explore this, it works out to a $ .60 per cap on merch.  And I think a big opportunity was missed to sell to those who weren’t attending games – whether they were tourists passing through or locals who wanted to pick up a memory.

The real surprise here?  FIFA’s primary merchandise partner for global tournaments is a Markham, ON based company!  So I have to feel we lost out on two fronts here – suppressed merchandise revenue in general, but the tax income and effect of a Canadian company reeling in those sales.  This merits a full on look, but given that scrutiny of FIFA is a moving target on every front, we probably won’t be able to forensically break this one down.  We CAN however plan well for the next opportunity – again, in the bid and planning stage, examine the models of past successful events and direct the appropriate resources and manage timelines to capture this revenue stream.

 

Economic Impact

Again, we were fortunate to have the 2010 games and the strong BC Business Network put together by RBC and the Province to help local suppliers and service businesses understand the procurement needs and tourist traffic they could expect.  And more importantly, running a number of events, workshops and online resources to help them assess and capitalize on the opportunities the Games presented.  The Toronto 2015 PanAm Games went a step further, reaching out to diversity suppliers specifically (women-owned, minority-owned, aboriginal-owned and LGBT-owned companies) and reporting on their progress regularly – an impressive effort that can and should be emulated.  Even the Canada Games held in Prince George ensured that the local area companies had the guidance to tap into contracts with a strong business engagement program through Initiatives Prince George and other local economic development agencies.  Sadly, the 6-city Women’s World Cup did not.

Seeing this, Women’s Enterprise Centre (of BC) did its best to educate and advise potential suppliers, traveling coast to coast running workshops, online webinars and publishing several articles and resources via its Supplier Diversity Canada website and through partner organizations.   There was also a year-long, targeted marketing campaign directed to the many inbound soccer federations, international broadcasters and FIFA sponsors and official suppliers, but without the direct involvement, support and specific procurement information provided by the organizing committee on what was needed, by whom and when, it was difficult to pinpoint opportunities.

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It became clear that much of the information was either not forthcoming from FIFA itself, or that contracts were being handled either offshore or at the last moment, leaving little opportunity for Canadian companies to gain sufficient insight or have a realistic chance to bid for business.  Finally, with few sponsors putting forward any significant ‘activation’ it appeared that contracts were quite limited in quantity and scope.  This could have been an outstanding occasion to create a real economic opening for Canadian businesses, and to showcase the quality and strength of women-owned businesses in particular.

This could have been an outstanding occasion to create a real economic opening for Canadian businesses, and to showcase the quality and strength of women-owned businesses in particular.    For many a contract might have represented a first international business deal, or a significant reference client propelling them onto larger clients, but the limited amount of communication (coupled with the limited activity of sponsors) meant that an important element of ROI for Canada was missed.

 

 

 

Guaranteeing Shots on Target

In short, we need to look hard, in the bid and even the bid consideration phase, at what events will provide beyond the tourism dollars (hotel nights, bar and restaurant uptick).  If tourism is the only sector to benefit from hosting, then we may be best off just amping up tourism marketing budgets, rather than seeking out sport and event hosting occasions.

We need to include a business engagement and procurement facilitation program with every sport hosting bid going forward.   Every host city must look after not just its tourism sector but its core businesses as well, and take advantage of the opportunity to showcase them when the world is watching and visiting.  Canada has a rich array of service and good providers who can meet every need of a large-scale international event, whether it’s halal catering or multi-language mobile app development.   And we have proven models and tools to support this.    This is money left on the table.  Let’s stop doing that.

 

Agree? Disagree?  We’d love your comments on this post.  And we’d love for this conversation to be amplified.

 

 

 

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