Nigel Hill Q&A: Gym gets commercial

14 Mar 2019

By: Sport Industry Group

March sees British Gymnastics host its two biggest annual events over back-to-back weekends. The British Championships at Liverpool’s M&S Bank Arena will be followed by the annual FIG World Cup event in Birmingham, which this year faces direct competition from a commercial rival – Superstars of Gymnastics, taking place at The O2 in London. Matchroom Sport, a former partner of the Shropshire-based NGB, has chosen the same date to launch its new sportainment property, with a global cast list that includes gymnastics royalty in the form of the USA’s Simone Biles.

The clash throws a revealing light on the context in which all NGBs now operate as they pursue the holy grail of ‘financial sustainability’ in a competitive commercial environment. It’s a challenge made harder by the growing demands of an increasingly mobilised and empowered athlete community. And in the case of British Gymnastics, which has seen its US counterpart taken to the brink of bankruptcy following a major safeguarding scandal, it’s a challenge that must be balanced with a primary focus on ensuring a safe and positive environment for the sport’s 400,000 members.

British Gymnastics is moving forward by looking to outside expertise, enlisting Reebok and adidas alumnus Nigel Hill as its new Commercial Director in 2017, with support from London-based brand consultancy Earnie, now part of the Threepipe group.

Sport Industry Group sat down with Hill to hear more about the new brand framework and plans to commercialise British sport’s “hidden gem”…

As someone coming in to gymnastics from the outside, what struck you immediately as being the big untapped opportunities within the sport?

I spent 20+ years in sport and entertainment brands on the commercial and marketing side – quite a lot of that with Reebok and adidas, both with clubs and sports / governing bodies and athletes.

From the outside, I thought I could see that gymnastics seemed under-commercialised. 

One thing that was obvious was they didn’t seem to have had a history of attracting significant non-gymnastics commercial partners. All British Gymnastics partners were suppliers of specialist equipment or clothing. 

But the other thing you could also see from the outside was the growth of the sport – in terms of TV viewing figures, social and so on. You could see there was a consumer, fan demand out there. Between the two, it seemed from the outside that there was something missing. So It felt like an interesting challenge.


How different is it now you’re on the inside?

It is different. There are some complexities to gymnastics that I hadn’t expected. The multiple disciplines, for example. Also the rate of change that’s going on. It’s a judged sport and all the disciplines have their own regulations, which are evolving all the time. Because of that, there are a lot of layers. 

Personally, my focus has to be in looking beyond all that to how we connect everything together; and what the real priority audiences are within all that. 


Were there specific, unforseen barriers to how you commercialise the rights and properties?

The sport itself is – certainly was – very focussed on the organisational stuff: safeguarding and regulations and so on. Quite rightly so, because of those complexities. 

They’re also understandably focussed on how to solve the equation of the participation boom. While that’s all absolutely the right thing to do, I started to see how that was stopping them looking outwards enough.

Part of the issue was that the NGB wasn’t actively reaching out, simply because there was so much to do within the sport itself.

I saw [British Gymnastics] as a hidden gem. The location played into that a bit too. Lilleshall up in Shropshire is beautiful but you don’t get many people dropping by. British Gymnastics seemed in its own world – lots of great things going on but not telling anyone outside. Quite introverted is how I’d describe it. Part of my role is to challenge that thinking.


Tell us how you’re trying to shift the brand and the narrative…

It started when we appointed Earnie as our brand agency. We identified that we needed to check our customer proposition.  

The three main headlines that came out of that work were: 1) We have a participation boom, particularly among our core audience of 5-14s. 2) We’re medalling well at the high performance level; and 3) We have this high female bias – roughly 80% in our participation. 

We have three things that lots of other sports would love to have and which give us scope to grow.

The Earnie work has also helped us be much clearer on what our priority audiences are. The obvious one is the gymnasts. We’re here as the current guardians of the sport. We’re all here to make sure the gymnasts have a fantastic time – and a safe time – and can enjoy and access the sport.

Working back from that helps to frame what our role and tone is. All that ultimately led us to the brand essence: ‘power to amaze.’ 

It gives us a platform that works across all our stakeholders: gymnasts, clubs, and administration.

It’s helped give us a bolder, more confident proposition and a more buoyant external tone – as well as a more exclusive position in the marketplace.

What impact have you seen so far?

‘Power to amaze’ is not an external strapline, but rather a brand essence. We’ll be starting to roll it out across our events this Spring.

It’s also informed our commercial proposition, which has three main threads. 

One is around community. We have extensive reach into clubs and leisure centres nationwide, with a membership touching 400,000. You can imagine who we’re pitching to there. It’s uncluttered compared to other brands.

A specific challenge for us, compared to other sports, is that we have this participation boom. We can’t ask brands to come and partner with us to help us grow participation because, frankly, we can’t accommodate the existing demand. So what we’ll try and do is add facilities and coaches into it – to help us fill the pipeline.

The second area for partnership is innovation. It’s a complex sport and a judged sport, which can be hard to follow. From a viewer point of view, we think there’s a real opportunity for some innovation in terms of how the sport can be watched and engaged with remotely. Similarly, some coaching innovation can be brought in – around motion capture: flight, impact and all the biomechanics. It’s a really interesting area we’re testing out in the marketplace – and could work for a B2C or B2B.

The third area, which everyone agrees on externally, is that we have access to really engaging and interesting content in gymnastics. From behind-the-scenes to clubs to gymnasts – there’s a whole thread. The partnership opportunity there has felt really strong and there’s so much we can do. Gymnastics already benchmarks really well against other sports on social media, particularly Facebook and Youtube. It’s partly because the sport itself is so dynamic, but also because there’s so much interesting behind-the-scenes stuff. We’re investing internally in that and we see it as a key thread to partnership.


Are we talking Netflix-style programming partnerships?

Aspirationally, I think there’s some really interesting longer-form content around gymnastics, which might lead to different types of media partnership to deliver. But the short-form social content already delivers high engagement figures. The Nielsen study identified it as a really strong part of our commercial evaluation. There will be opportunities for us to acquire revenue around that content – either from a sponsor or by helping us deliver it.


Your audience skews very young in gymnastics. How does that impact or limit your approach?

Part of the reason for the historic under-commercialisation is because we hadn’t zoned in to the audience enough. Obviously, because of the audience, there are certain sectors we couldn’t and shouldn’t go to. It’s much easier if you start with the audience and our Cartoon Network and CBBC Gym Stars partnerships are great examples of recognising who that audience already is. That gives a clue to where we’re going and is also a relationship that’s helping to amplify the sport. 

The [Cartoon Network] Powerpuff Girls relationship is about bringing characters into the sport. They will be at the British Championships, for example. It’s bringing a new dynamic that I think could be really interesting. We’re meeting with them next month to take to the next stage. 


How has the fall-out of the USA Gymnastics safeguarding scandal impacted your approach here in the UK?

We have to be aware of that backdrop – and it’s not unique to gymnastics, as we’ve seen with some of the safeguarding issues raised within other sports here in Britain. 

From the commercial side, we’re open with partners about the rigour of our own programme. Transparency is key in those discussions. But equally we need to be ready to challenge partners to meet our standards in areas such as diversity and inclusion. The last thing I want is to have a partnership that doesn’t fit the sport or vice versa. The next few choices are critical for getting the right, mutual fit.


In the aftermath of the move to decertify USA Gymnastics, there was a lot of discussion in the US about who ‘owns’ the gymnastics brand, especially with the athletes taking an ever-more vocal and proactive role. How do you work athletes within your programme?

We see it as a triangle: at the top, there’s gymnastics as a sport, then “British Gymnastics” as an organisation and a brand; and gymnasts, athletes, are the third part of that triangle.

From a commercial point of view, we’re exploring some joint initiatives [with the gymnasts] with a revenue share opportunity, because we work directly with their agents and advisors.

But we know many gymnasts have their own platforms and audiences outside of British Gymnastics, and they’re free to pursue those commercial opportunities to supplement their funding. I don’t see that as an issue whatsoever. If anything, we want to encourage that. It’s integral to that triangle and we don’t want it to be competing or separate. If anything, it’s more the gymnasts asking us about where the commercial partnerships are. They want more because they know a better-funded sport will help them. 

There’s a natural tension because they’re their own people, and they have their own IP and brands, but what’s pleasant here is that the athletes and the NGB understand there’s a mutual value in working together.

Going forward, when a partner wants to activate with our athletes, we will look to cut the gymnasts in to that arrangement. But because there’s not a lot of money in the sport, we need to be fair in the way we do that – and distribute the opportunities differently than a purely commercial organisation might do. That’s moved quite a lot in the 18 months I’ve been with BG. The next stage of our partner programme is going to be important in that respect.


How do you view the emergence of rival commercial rightsholders / properties, such as Matchroom Sport?

They operate to a separate framework – which is less considered, because they don’t need to be. Taking my BG hat off, I can see how it can help amplify the sport. We’ll see. Temporarily, it might distort things – giving some gymnasts an unnaturally high profile. I’m sure neither Matchroom nor us would’ve planned to put events on the same day – it isn’t helping anybody in term of maximising the audience.

Putting my BG hat back on, I’d much prefer that commercial revenues are channelled back into the sport through our not-for-profit organisation. We’ll certainly be emphasising that relationship to partners in terms of our commercial programme.


How big is sponsorship as a revenue stream for BG?

There are three main pots: 1) government funding – and we’re not as reliant as others because of 2) our membership scheme that touches 400k a year. The third area we call “others”, which also includes our shop, VIK, education programmes and so on. 

Funding and membership are already strong but in terms of 3), we absolutely need to strengthen our commercial income over the next four to five years, not only because of the funding uncertainty that all sports have but also because of broader economic uncertainty, which is the highest I’ve ever known. It’s highly appropriate for us to diversify our revenue streams so that we’re able to protect the sport and deliver for gymnasts. 


As a sport that enjoys a huge Olympic boom every four years, how does that cycle affect your planning?

One of the incongruous things is that our high performance success has mainly been driven from the men’s side, but our participation is driven from the female side. While there’s a relationship, it’s maybe not as direct as we might think. 

In general, we plan like a private sector organisation. 

The new brand work will also help us deliver more consistent media activation. We’ve already started on a regional level with Run Communciations.

Part of the issue is there aren’t that many high-profile mediatised events in gymnastics. We get great viewing figures when they’re on but the tough nature of the sport means we don’t have monthly events. We need to find a way, through content and stories, to help bridge the gap. So we’ll move away from an event focus to find other ways to ensure our content appears more regularly and that fans can access it more regularly.


How do you work with other Olympic NGBs on the commercial side? Where do you stand on the idea of packaging up your respective rights?

There’s some interesting exploratory work and idea sharing going on with other NGBs, which I can’t really talk about yet.

There’s a question about whether we could achieve more if we pooled resources – that’s the strategic question we’re all grappling with. But we understand the audiences are all slightly different. Team GB is great at getting to the four-year sports fan, with the Rings and the TV, but they’re not as well placed to reach the super-fan who wants to understand how Max [Whitlock] did that [pommel horse] move and so on.

It’s about clarifying the audience thing and which part we play best in. It needs to be part of the commercial discussion, because [potential] partners need to know what rights access we have.

Personally, I try to look outside of sport, or Olympic sport, for inspiration. Content and innovation are where it’s at. The Netflix series ‘Sunderland til I die’ is a great example. It captures the club, the city, the emotions. You could watch it as a non-football fan. Liverpool FC also do some great behind-the-scenes stuff. Football in certain areas has really raised the bar. 

We also have people within our own sport. Nile Wilson is phenomenal. With his YouTube channel he’s found a tone that really works for his audience – and he has 1m + subscribers. 

Audience expectations keep rising in terms of how and when they watch things. We need to be prepared for that – and there are some exciting things about gymnastics that fit [this development] really well: short bursts, dynamic moments, and  pleasant, engaging people as well. It’s a clean sport that plays very well into [this dynamic.]