A few weeks into the lockdown I spoke with Charlie Boss. Charlie is Commercial Director for Disney’s sports portfolio in Europe & Africa and runs the ESPN office in London.
We talk about how value is created, the importance of immersing yourself in content to understand how a fan thinks, what makes a brilliant commercial deal, how the relationship between brands and sport is changing … and he also gives some predictions for the world beyond lockdown.
ABOUT CHARLIE BOSS
Charlie Boss oversees The Walt Disney Company’s commercial activities in sport across Europe & Africa, as well as leading the ESPN team in London. Boss has been with ESPN since 2013 in a variety of marketing, commercial and strategy roles, while simultaneously serving on the NSPCC Sports Board. Boss is an alumni of the Sports Industry NextGen.
Prior to joining ESPN, Boss worked for rights owners the RFU and The FA, looking after some of the most iconic brands in English sport including England Rugby and The FA Cup.
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: 6.4.20 – Ep 55. Charlie Boss – on creating value
HOST: TAMMY PARLOUR
I: Welcome to A Question of Performance where we talk with leading figures across sport, media and business about what improves, limits and drives performance.
I’m your host Tammy Parlour. I’m Chief Exec of a national sports charity called The Women’s Sports Trust which I co-founded back in 2012.
Each episode is designed to be an expresso shot of insight into a different aspect of the sports industry. It’s a short but focused dip into the minds of some of the most fascinating women and men from across the world of sport.
A few weeks into the lockdown I spoke with Charlie Boss, he’s Commercial Director for Disney’s sports portfolio in Europe and Africa and runs the ESPN office in London.
We talk about how value is created, the importance of immersing yourself in content to understand how a fan thinks, what makes a brilliant commercial deal. How the relationship between brands and sports is changing and he also gives some predictions for the world beyond the lockdown.
The interview was done over the phone for obvious reasons so apologies in advance for the less than ideal sound quality. But let’s start by hearing from him about what he does.
R: So I’m the Commercial Director for ESPN, Europe and Africa. In terms of what that actually means it’s my job to take all of the amazing stuff that ESPN produces around the world, so digital content, live sports, studio programming and use it to create value for fans in Europe and Africa. But also, I guess, bottom line money for the Walt Disney Company.
I: How has your world changed over the past, sort of, few weeks since we’ve gone into lockdown?
R: So the honest truth is day to day it feels very differently, our working lives feel different, our patterns are different. A lot more of my time is spent making sure my people are okay.
From a work perspective, three, four weeks in, three weeks in, I honestly don’t know yet what the impact is. I imagine that’s true for an awful lot of people in the sports industry right now, there’s so much has changed so quickly that the industry as a whole, I think, is taking a step back to try and really consider what it means and how they wanna go forward, which I think is a really encouraging sign.
I think that shooting from the hip at a moment like this would be really risky.
I: Yeah, so you mentioned a moment ago that you work on creating value for fans, money for Walt Disney, value is a really interesting topic how do you establish value? How do you understand worth in your field?
R: So I think the thing about establishing value is to put yourself in the perspective of the person you are trying to create value for, which I know sounds blindingly obvious but actually it’s not the way most of us behave. Most of the time we sit there and go “I have this and I think it’s worth X, Y or Z because of these reasons.” But nothing you have or create is of intrinsic value, the value is totally dependent on what it means for the other party. So what I try and do is think if I am doing a partnership with a broadcaster where does this piece of content, where does this idea create value for them and how much is it worth for them?
The same for fans, I could do…on our websites, so let me give you an example from this strange world we’re in. So on the ESPN cricinfo, which is one of our websites, last week we ran a thing for the first time called retro live. So retro live is ball by ball commentary of games that have already happened, now the value there is entirely in trying to recreate the thing that fans love about ESPN cricinfo which is the humour, the wit, the engagement of our ball by ball commentary and actually isn’t the live sport in that case, right? It’s the personalities behind it and so that’s a great example of creating value from a fan whereas if you took it from the other sector of just what has intrinsic value you go “Well there is no live sport therefore there’s nothing to do.”
I: Do you think there’s value in sport that’s yet to be unlocked properly?
R: I really hope so. Sport is the beginning, I suspect, of a bigger disruption and we are very quick to go that disruption is digital or that disruption is whatever it might be, a broadcast information but sport has an enormous amount it could change, right, I believe. And I think what is happening very quickly driven by digital innovation and how much more connected we all are is that fans have more and more say in their experiences in sport and that’s a great thing.
I: Hmm, hmm. How do we understand what fans are looking for?
R: Well, so actually even the language I was using is a little bit reductive because really you can’t bucket fans together like that, so I think one of the first things you really need to understand is who are your fans? And we are really guilty all of us of at saying our fans are everyone or our fans are 18-60 years old, such an enormous bucket.
One of the things I love about the Walt Disney Company and I really try to take a lesson from is they are forensic about really understanding demographics for their audiences and using those to define what they do. So how do you understand these things for specific fans? It depends on your understanding of those fans, which you can get to by one of two ways. So first is market research and ESPN and the Walt Disney Company are huge believers in market research but there is a simpler way which is just to completely immerse yourself in their experiences.
If you wanna understand how a WWE fan thinks you have to spend a tonne of time watching WWE content. If you wanna understand how a fan of netball thinks you have to go to the websites, the TV experiences, the digital experiences that those fans use and unless you do that there is no shortcut I guess.
I: What do you think broadcasters are after?
R: What do I think broadcasters are after? So broadcasters’ business relies on giving really compelling experiences to fans. Now I think often broadcasters are the first to get in the firing line for decisions that happen which were like the commercialisation of sport. I remember thinking back to my times at the FA when we moved the kick off time for the FA Cup to 5:15 we were tyrants, right, how could anyone be so sacrilegious as to move the time of the FA Cup final? And it must be because horrible nasty broadcasters want to make more money.
And look I’m not saying that broadcasters don’t want to make more money of course that’s what most of our jobs are but the reason they thought they’d make more money is ‘cause far more people could watch the FA Cup final at 5:15 than could watch it at 3 o’clock on a Sunday. And so really what broadcasters want is to engage as wide an audience as possible with as compelling an experience as possible because that’s what drives their business, right? Big audiences enjoying the content.
I: So going back to your role at ESPN what makes a brilliant commercial deal in your view?
R: So for me a brilliant commercial deal is one where both sides feel like they’ve won and that’s again a slightly roundabout way of answering but we get very focused on what we want in a negotiation but the best partnerships I’ve been involved in are the ones where everyone is left thinking this is a phenomenal deal and couldn’t we do more together? Because nine times out of 10 you do do more but which goes back to that starting point of spending the bulk of your time preparing for a commercial deal or negotiation, thinking about the other partner and what drives their business and what you can do to help them achieve what they want rather than thinking about what you want from the negotiation.
I: Have you seen brands relating to sport differently through the years?
R: Enormously. I think the biggest shift we’ve seen is the idea of brand…well, two big shifts. Firstly, I think a lot of sports investment from brands previously was done very instinctively and often based on the fandom of the decision maker, that was 20 years ago. 10 years ago it got very, very focused on the reach, how many assets can you give me that get my brand out there? And for certain brands that’s still the right way of driving value by the way but more and more brands want to really immerse themselves into the storyline of sport.
I mean, the truly wonderful thing about working in sport is that we aren’t the news, people don’t live or die by sport, we are something that people choose to engage with because they get joy from it. Not all the time sometimes there’s heartbreak or whatever else but by and large sport’s something that brings joy.
So if you’re a brand that wants to unlock that what you need to be is part of what gives fans joy and you don’t get that by being a logo on a perimeter board alone you get that by being a genuine part of the experience in the story.
I: Has there been a deal or a project that’s really stood out in your mind that you look back on and you think, yeah, that was…there’s something I’m really proud of?
R: Oh, that is a good question. I mean, I’m proud of the tonne of the deals I’ve worked on and clearly some of the deals that haven’t worked as well actually that have been fantastic deals where everyone approached it the right way and ultimately it didn’t drive the value we wanted. If I take one that I thought was a really terrific partnership, we partnered with Transport for London for TFL to promote ESPN’s football journalism online around the 2014 World Cup, which makes me feel very old. And the way we did that was providing live score updates on the underground on platforms using the boards that normally say three minutes to your train to south…wherever it might be to Downmoor or anywhere else.
And I loved that partnership because it was creative, both sides thought they were getting something, it was really collaborative. It was much harder to execute than we thought, it was quite satisfying to get there but then if I take a step back the honest truth is it did not do what I wanted to do which was drive more people to consume our content.
So whilst so much of the building blocks was right actually the values didn’t end up proving to be there for us, which is maybe a …
I: Why not? Do you know why it didn’t?
R: My guess is that probably I hadn’t spent enough time thinking about the genuine experience of the fan in that you might well go on the underground where you couldn’t at that time particularly get Wi-Fi to check the football score going on. But in reality if you were a hard core fan who was about to follow more about that match you probably weren’t on the underground at that point you were probably watching it. And even if you were on the underground you then couldn’t actually access the contents till after you left the underground by which point the message was too far removed.
So in reality it probably falls into the bucket of nice stunt versus terrific business ideas.
I: What do you see as your biggest challenges in your role?
R: So I would say that one of the biggest challenges of my role is that essentially we often play the role of the middle man, we’re not the biggest stakeholder or deciding exactly what content is created all the time and equally we’re not the ones buying that content for our own platforms channels. And what that means is that you have to get very good at stakeholder management on both sides, your job is to influence people to create something that does do that, does make that magic moment where everyone has more value and if you take the starting position of two different sides you very rarely get to the middle point by…in a linear way. You have to spend a lot of time thinking about what are the iterations of this to get to the best possible deal.
I: You mentioned stakeholder management, how do you develop partnerships that actually really make a difference?
R: I’m gonna start telling you the most boring reflection of me as a human being you can possibly imagine.
I: Okay, I’m on the edge of my seat.
R: So the sports industry group launched a thing called Next Gen in the PlayStation at the time with Barclays a few months ago to pick a number of young and up and coming business leaders of which I was one of the first group. In fact I had the distinction of being the oldest ever Next Gen, which I guess now makes me an old gen and part of that experience was a round table session with Loughborough University and we were each asked to describe our biggest asset or strength in one inspirational word. And some of the things people said were moving and beautiful and you felt like they had real purpose. And it got to me and I said ‘stakeholder management’ and there was this just massive silence in the room as I portrayed myself as the least exciting of the leaders there but yeah.
I’m a huge believer that it’s the most important building block in any relationship is your ability to manage your stakeholders and, kind of, bring them on a journey with you. Every meaningful compelling partnership I’ve ever had has its starting point when you finish the deal whatever that looks like for the sake of argument signing the contract. By the time you’ve executed it, executed it well, it should be very different. And that’s okay you don’t need to worry about the fact that what you wrote on a piece of paper under the time pressures you were at and the economic pressures you were at isn’t what gets realised, what matters is that you have relationships with the people you’re dealing with that create the best anchor.
And at times you will all lose sight of that notion of value, your value, fans value, because you’ll go down a warren hole so related to your personal circumstances or professional circumstances and you need good stakeholder management to draw people out of that and to draw you out of it too.
I: I was going to ask what could go wrong, what might some of those potential pitfalls be? Anything else other than going down that rabbit hole as you say?
R: Yeah, I think the biggest pitfall is to become blinkered and I think the second that happens it’s very easy to get frustrated. There’s so many times in one’s professional life and probably in your personal life you get to a place where you’ve ended up in a position you don’t fully agree with yourself but you’ve got boxed in there by the journey you’ve been on and you feel like going backwards and stepping back, it’s like retrenching in a way that feels uncomfortable and it’s the most important thing in the world to be able to just call out yourself and say “You know what? I’m not happy where I am right now, I need to do something about that.” And if that means an apology or even pretending you acknowledge a mistake it can move things forward immensely.
I: So what’s success for you?
R: In my role, I mean, one of the wonderful things about [unclear 16:06] world where success is complicated, right, if you prefer the FA or they have an awful lot on their plate they need to grow the game, they need to develop the after leagues and the elite side of the game. They need to develop the coaches, their referees, their volunteers and to raise money to do all of that that’s pretty complicated.
Ultimately success at the Walt Disney Company is two things, so one is you have to make money and I’m unapologetic about that it’s really helpful clarifying your staff to know that everything you do ultimately has to be profitable.
But secondly we have a mission to serve the sports fan anytime, anywhere and I take that really seriously, so if at the end of the day you’ve made the experience of sports fans better and earned some money along the way we’ve done a great job.
I: Well before I ask you some quick fire questions just any trends you observe in the current marketplace or any predictions for the future? I know that’s a really weird question at this time but anything you’re observing?
R: That is a…you’re right, a particularly hard question in the third or fourth week of…
I: Of lockdown, yeah.
R: That said what I suspect will happen at the back of this is that a lot of those trends and there are tonnes out there that have been talked about, their success or failure will get accelerated. So, I wouldn’t claim to be the smartest guy around on whether block chain will change events experience and ticket buying or whether digital viewing experiences will change in home or in venues. What I would say is that the test of those things will happen very quickly now because ultimately we’re likely to see less money floating around the sports industry for the next few months maybe even years and that will force us to arrive at strategies really quickly and to learn, yeah, succeed or fail really quickly as well.
I: Hmm, interesting. Okay, I’m just gonna end with some quick fire questions.
What did you eat for breakfast?
R: I had bran flakes which is really boring.
I: Favourite piece of kit?
R: Again this is gonna really look bad on me I love my Microsoft Surface Pro it’s just I use it all the time.
I: Hey no judgements here. Sporting hero?
R: Gianfranco Zola.
R: So I grew up in Hong Kong and the first football match I saw live was a Chelsea, West Ham game, my family are West Ham fans but I just fell in love with Gianfranco Zola and he remains…I try to keep a sense of professional reserve when I’ve met famous people he is the one person who when I met when I was doing the FA Cup working on the draw my voice broke when I met him.
I: Did you ask for his autograph?
R: No I didn’t, I was too scared. I almost, like, I didn’t dare.
I: Do you regret it?
R: I do, I do regret it.
I: Greatest passion outside of sport?
R: Greatest passion outside of sport? So, if I was doing the public relations friendly answer I’d say my family which is hugely important to me, I’ve got two young boys. And in terms of what I spend the most time doing probably watching junk TV, I’m a huge consumer of television more than is healthy but I love the distraction it brings me.
I: And last one best performance enhancer?
R: Coffee. I cannot exist without coffee.
I: You and me both.
R: I don’t think it’s possible.
I: Brilliant, well thanks. It’s been great talking here today, Charlie, thank you very much and best of luck in the lockdown.
R: Thank you so much, Tammy, I’ve loved it.
I: Thanks for listening. You can follow the conversation on Twitter, Facebook and also don’t forget to subscribe online to aquestionofperformance.com.