Today I’m delving into the multi-sports arena and have traveled to Holborn in London to meet with the Chief Exec of Commonwealth Games England, Paul Blanchard.
In this interview, we talk about how he was brought on board to “strengthen the commercial operation”, the importance of building the Team England Brand and the opportunity that a games on home soil (Birmingham 2022) provides.
THE TRANSCRIPT BELOW WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT. BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING AND THE DIFFICULTY IN SOME CASES OF IDENTIFYING INDIVIDUAL SPEAKERS, WE CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY.
TX: 6.8.19 – Ep 47. Paul Blanchard
HOST: TAMMY PARLOUR
TP: Welcome to a ‘Question of Performance’. I’m Tammy Parlour and in this series I’ll be talking with leading figures from sport and business about what improves, limits and drives performance.
Join me for 20 minutes of discussion, twice a month, to hear a range of views and what it means to be successful, how to cope with failure and what people have learnt along the way.
Today I’m delving into the multi-sports arena and have travelled Holborn to meet with the Chief Exec of Commonwealth Games England, Paul Blanchard.
It’s a small staff but with one of the most welcoming teams I think I’ve visited for quite some time.
I’ve read articles saying that Paul was brought on board to strengthen the commercial operation. So that’s something that I’m particularly keen to explore with him. But firstly I asked him to explain to me how his organisation fits in to the sporting landscape.
PB: The Commonwealth Games England is primarily responsible for delivering Team England to the Commonwealth Games and Commonwealth Youth Games. So that’s our day job really to liaise with the governing bodies and various other partners, to make sure that we can, hopefully, take the best English athletes to the Commonwealth Games, to maximise the success of Team England.
The Commonwealth Games takes place every four years and sort of in the middle of an Olympic cycle and unlike the Olympics where you have Team GB coming together, this is where the home nations break off and compete against each other.
TP: Why did you personally take on the role?
PB: Well it just looked a really interesting role to be honest and multi-sports games is a fascinating environment with the Commonwealth Games, Olympic Games, [unclear 00:01:39] and Asian Games, you know, it’s a really unusual world and I’d got involved previously when I was working for an elite training complex with a number of different sports. And so the idea of dealing with athletics one minute, swimming the next, basketball the next and a para-sport, is really, really interesting. So I really enjoyed a multi-sport environment. The Commonwealth Games obviously a huge event, a major event. I like the international aspect as well. I think any sport or any job or any project with an international dynamic tends to add some interest and so the cocktail looked pretty intoxicating for me.
TP: Your Commonwealth Games England, a lot of the organisations I imagine you work with are UK based. How do you deal with those sorts of boundaries? It must be very complex.
PB: It has its moments at time. So our member association, if you like, is the English association. So if you take athletics as a big sport, UK Athletics are obviously a very important body and they manage most of the athletes that are on the Talent Pathway that are funded and England Athletics is one of the home nations that works with UK Athletics, responsible for the English Talent Pathway.
So, in essence, the English Talent Pathway feeds into the UK Talent Pathway. As I said our member is England Athletics but we need to work with England and the UK and in a lot of cases it might be the same person or a very similar person. So there are some complications but, to be honest, it probably sounds more complicated on paper than when you’re actually in that environment, working with these people, because our environment is quite small actually. Sports a big business but within multi-sport within our members’ sports, they do tend to be small operations that we work closely with.
TP: Reading you bio, your bio says that you were brought in to post in order to strengthen the commercial operation. What does that actually mean?
PB: It actually means generating cash, you know, in simple terms and that’s been my background. I’ve come through a market in a commercial background. I mean you would struggle to find an organisation that doesn’t have revenue generation at the top of its list or very close to the top of its list because sport is an expensive business to fund and support. It is enormously competitive with the number of different sports, bodies, clubs, associations and federations involved and probably, if I’m honest, the sport as a whole, this doesn’t apply everybody, has not been good enough or affective enough in revenue generation. So it’s a key responsibility of mine to make sure that we are funded and that funding will come from a range of different sources and we still get exceptionally good support from Sport England and we manage that relationship, we work very closely with them but that’s part of our funding model and the rest needs to come from commercial sponsorship, from grants, from funds, from supporters and any other source we can really, like most sports and associations.
TP: What goes in to making a strong sort of Team England brand?
PB: I think success is a key thing. Clearly supporters, people, media and broadcasters respond to success, so we want to see Team England success. I think there is a passion about the England brand and I think it’s interesting because supporters will get behind Team GB at Olympic and Paralympic time but then will split down to get behind the English Team, or if you’re Scottish or Welsh, get behind those teams.
So, success I think is important, having the right brand values and living by them is very important. We are very much about representing the whole of England from a diversity, inclusivity point of view, all backgrounds, all demographics, all ethnicity and that comes together because we’ve got a mix of 70 and 80 in sports that bring together such an interesting mix of people. I think that’s really important and I think it’s very important in today’s society. I think we are a very good representation of England as it is, a sporting representation of England that it is. We want to promote that, we want to support that, we want to endorse that and we want to show how much good that bring.
TP: What do you see as the biggest challenges in order to achieve what you’re talking about?
PB: Probably on a practical level, we liaise with the governing bodies on a regular basis but in terms of the athletes and the coaches and the support staff, we only realistically bring them together a few weeks before the Games. So we don’t have a huge amount of time with the people that do it on the track and support on the track in terms of their coaches and their support staff because normally they are working with and representing their own governing bodies in their own sports. What you don’t want to do is unravel all the very good work that all sports do in terms of their own particular values and what’s important to them and their athletes and largely we think we’re complementary to that but we like to bring that together. So, the biggest challenge we have is actually face time with the athletes, being able to bring them together, being able to get them sort of embedded in what we would like to do and how we think and how we’d like to represented during Games time.
TP: You came on board before the Commonwealth Games 2018 in the Gold Coast and now faced with Birmingham has a host city in 2022. What difference is it having the games on home soil?
PB: Well it’s unbelievably exciting.
TP: Your face has just sort of beamed all of a sudden.
PB: No it’s great. It’s a huge opportunity I think for us as an organisation, for the Commonwealth movement, for our athletes and for everybody involved and so to present the Team and its opportunities in a home environment with the enormous media attention, the enormous support we get, is fantastic.
So, a great opportunity. A bit daunting obviously because we’re very much in the spotlight perhaps more so but when we’re representing England away from home where there isn’t quite the same level of media coverage, particularly as we’re in Australia with the time difference. It’s a lot easier in some respects because you don’t have to travel 10,000 miles to do a recce; 80 minutes on the train and that’s fine and your in Birmingham. A lot of sort of ‘home advantages’; it’s more comfortable because our athletes know the environment, they know venues, they know the climate, they will get the home support. So there’s a lot of pluses from having home Games but also a bigger challenge because we have increased scrutiny, they’ll be a lot more media attention and of course we’re part of a very large group of people in terms of the organising committee partners that ultimately are responsible for the Games. Now, thankfully, it is the responsibility of the organising committee and not ourselves to actually deliver the Games but you will appreciate a project of that size and that scope is enormously complicated and Birmingham were awarded the Games because the Games were taken away from Durban. So, a bidding city normally has between seven and nine years to get their preparations together and get all the construction where required. Effectively, Birmingham has just over four.
Now part of the reason Birmingham were awarded the Games, apart from the fact that it’ll be a brilliant venue, is that a lot of its infrastructure was in place. So there are very few major capital projects which obviously helps with the amount of time you’ve got to prepare for the Games but even so, a project of that size bringing in so many agencies to actually deliver is extraordinally complicated.
TP: Just when I asked you then about the Games on home soil, your face just beamed. Personally what do you get the most buzz from in your role?
PB: There are a number of things, you know, we bring on. We’ve got a great but small team here. It’s great to see them develop. We interact with some fantastic people across governing bodies, Sport England, UK Sport, the organising committee, the federation, and other associations. So you meet some really interesting people. There’s a very collaborative spirit but I think probably the biggest thing, particularly as we get nearer Games time, is we will have a very big team of 400+ athletes, all with a great chance of creating history and that is fantastic and the amount of coverage and the amount of success that we hope that we will have, coming out of that. We will create new heroes and they’ll be people that nobody has ever heard of and suddenly they’re thrust into the media spotlight and that sort of stuff really brings it home, you know, because these athletes deserve it because they work incredibly hard and this is one of probably a small number of really, really big opportunities that they may have in their career to put themselves on a world stage and for us to facilitate that and hopefully create the best possible environment for them to do that, that’s brilliant.
TP: You talked a couple minutes ago about increased scrutiny. What do you get most criticised for?
PB: The criticism tends to be levelled at the organising committee. So whenever there is perhaps any issue around Games time, you saw it with London, you saw in Glasgow, it tends to be aimed at the organising committee because the transport is not working properly or there might be some interruption to services. From our point of view, the criticism will come almost certainly if we don’t deliver success and at the moment, three years out from the Games, it’s too early to judge exactly what success is in August 2022 but clearly success is primarily medals and personal bests and major achievements. It think it’s also, and I think this is important, we want to deliver success in the right way. You know, we want to compete, we want to compete hard, we want to succeed but at the end of the day you want people to go away and go that Team England they’re a good set of athletes, they’re people we want to talk to, they were respectful, they carried themselves well but, hopefully, in a lot of cases they were unbeatable.
TP: Talk about success. I’m interested to understand what matrix you look to in order to know if you’re sort of achieving what you’re wanting to achieve.
PB: There are a number of things. I mean ultimately much closer to the time there will be a target, whether that’s a medal target or whether that’s a position in the medal table, will largely depend on the landscape and the environment and an awful lot can happen between now and then. So, realistically, it isn’t particularly relevant trying to put definitive matrix on that.
TP: The matrix that you judge yourself on, are they similar ones or are those organisational?
PB: That will be part of it and probably that will be the highest profile one but we would also look at the way we would manage the budget for instance and how we do that. Team satisfaction is enormously important, so that is satisfaction levels that athletes report and coaches and team leaders, so we will do a huge team survey at the end of it and look very much from a point of view of hopefully it’s a success and hopefully we’ve scored very highly but an element of that will be about knowledge transfer because whatever we do there’s bound to be areas where we can improve, so how do we improve on that. But we want to get satisfaction levels high.
Our positive working relationship with stakeholders is absolutely critical because we are completely reliant on the governing bodies to provide athletes, coaches and team leaders. Sport England are a funder; we will have other partners, we’ll have to work closely with the Federation and with the Organising Committee. So that matrix is complicated but it’s generally collaborative but again, a measure of our success would be at the end of that: Are the relationships still positive and the feedback we get from those, again saying Commonwealth Games England, they’re good people to deal with, they’re professional, they’re sensible, they’re pragmatic and they deliver on what they said they were gonna do.
TP: I have asked a number of people that I have interviewed what they think is the point of sport? What’s sport for? It would be really interested to know what you see as being the point of sport.
PB: I think that’s a really interesting question and not an easy one to answer actually. I suppose it depends on who you are. Clearly, if you’re an athlete, the point of sport is success and that success then will hopefully lead to other areas. I think sport has a number of key things that it delivers on. It is enormously important for inspiring and motivating people, both hopefully at an activity level but also at a national pride level, and inspiring national pride in the right way I think is really important. I think it allows people to deliver personal success. That’s easier for an athlete; you win a medal and that’s successful but behind the athlete there is an enormous team of coaches, officials, supporters, physios and nutritionists and everything else. So, there is an important industry there and provides a lot of work and opportunity but it also provides them with the opportunity to deliver success because if ultimately the athlete or the team is successful, you have played a part in that. So it’s the classic [s.l. cleaner 00:05:37] putting NASA on the moon type of approach, then everybody involved in an athlete or a team, if they achieve what their role is to do, then the team or the athlete will potentially be successful.
There are a number of other things. Clearly it is an area that will generate, as I said, physical activity; mental health is an important aspect at the moment. It’s difficult for us, you know, we focus on medals but we can see how the industry and success in the industry, an inspiration in the industry will help across a number of social issues as well.
So I think it’s a complicated question which I didn’t answer very well but I think there is a range of reasons why we do sport and probably arguably the one I haven’t mentioned which is extremely important, is very enjoyable.
TP: Do you do sport?
PB: I do badly.
TP: What is your sport?
PB: I play a bit of cricket and a bit of bad golf but I’m a huge enthusiast and I’m a bit of a geek when it comes to sport and stats and results and I really enjoy watching it and because you’re in this sort of multi-sport environment, I get a lot of pleasure out of watching, you know, athletes one day, basketball the next and netball or hockey or whatever it is. So that’s good. You don’t get completely sort of pigeon-holed with one sport.
TP: This hasn’t been the only role that you’ve had. I suppose the other thing I’m interested to know is if you look back at your career, something that you’re most proud of.
PB: Good question. I was pretty proud of taking the team to the Gold Coast actually in 2018. That was not an easy project and we managed that.
TP: Why wasn’t it an easy project?
PB: Well to take a team of the size that we did, which was around 390 athletes, 10,000 miles into a hostile environment, to take on the Australians and compete effectively in the way that we did, I think was a success. I think looking back there’s been a couple of things that would stand out. I worked at the Oval where we sorted of completed transformed Surrey County Cricket Club and the Brit Oval as it was then. Overhauled its operations, its finance, its commercial operation, we were partly responsible for the development of the new stands and some of the new facilities there and that is now a world class operation. It was very exciting times at the Southampton Football Club, particularly when we got to the FA Cup Final. Unfortunately, Arsenal turned us over on that day.
But arguably my biggest achievement was probably way back in the day where I was involved with the development of American football in the UK, working for the Scottish franchise, where our team the Scottish Claymores hosted what was then called the World Bowl which was the sort European equipment of the Super Bowl. We put 40,000 people in to Murrayfield to watch a sport that most of them didn’t know really what they were watching, this was back in 1996, and we won the game as well. That was a major achievement, both from a sporting success point of view but also from a commercial and marketing point of view. To drive a sport which was very much in its infancy then, to put on a major operation in a relatively short space of time and get a crowd of 40,000; it was big at the time.
TP: So what drives you? What’s success for you?
PB: You have sort of short-term and medium term goals and a lot of my goals now are looking forward to Birmingham and it’s difficult to look beyond that. I mean that’s obviously the big thing coming down the track but I’m getting to the stage now in my career where I get a real kick out of developing young people and actually bringing people through and the Commonwealth Games England we’ve had a number of people through in the last few years that have very successfully contributed to the Gold Coast campaign and are now moved on to other projects. A number of those are working on the Tokyo project with either BOA and BPA. I like training people, I like bringing people through, I like giving people the opportunity. I think we probably select quite effectively. One of my key traits is building the right team, you know, we’re relatively a small team, so you’ve got to have the right sort of team dynamic and team spirit. I think between myself and the rest of the team were pretty good on that. When you look at that you think, yeah that’s great, we’re doing okay there.
TP: I just want to end up with a few quick fire questions. What did you eat for breakfast?
PB: Shredded Wheat.
TP: Favourite piece of kit which could mean anything?
PB: Well probably my iPod which is just about to run out of space with 119 gigabytes on the music.
TP: Wow. Sporting hero?
PB: Now that is really difficult in my world. Probably Ian Botham.
PB: Well he was such a talent; he changed the face of the way the game was played. He was a bit of maverick and I like that sort of slightly anti-establishment approach. I’ve met him subsequently and he’s really a nice guy and that sometimes a risk where you meet people that are sporting heroes and they suddenly let you down, and he just seems to have a decent attitude.
TP: Most useless piece of advice you’ve been given or given to somebody else?
PB: Whether it’s advice or not but in the past I’ve asked about how I might deal with a situation and I have been given a text book to have a look at. I don’t find overly helpful really. So I’m not a great theorist, I’m not a great one for reading about theories. I like practical solutions…
PB: …and actually operate in a real dynamic. So people pointing you to a text book has never worked for me and I don’t do that. So sometimes maybe I’m giving out the wrong advice, whereas a text book might be helpful but I’ve never found it useful.
TP: Greatest passion outside of sport.
PB: My wife and my dog.
TP: What sort of dog?
PB: It’s a working Cocker Spaniel.
TP: Lovely. Last one: best performance enhancer?
BP: Well I think short-term first thing in the morning it’s coffee but I think longer term it is about having the right team around you, so there’s a sort of a mental physical stimulus to actually perform. When you look around and you say I’ve got a great team here and I want to support them and they support me, and that drives you on I think.
TP: Brilliant. Well thank you very much for talking with me today, Paul, I appreciate it.
BP: It’s a pleasure. Thank you.
TP: Thanks for listening. You can follow the conversation on Twitter, Facebook and also don’t forget to subscribe online to a Question and Performance.com.
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