FRANK LEENDERS: Frank Exchange

frank-leenders-280x240At first opening up to Youtube seemed to be against everything I have learned over the years.

Frank Leenders, FIBA (International Basketball Federation)
Media and Marketing Services Director General

FIBA Media and Marketing Director General Frank Leenders discusses the federation’s permissive attitude towards You Tube while protecting the interests of its broadcast partners and looks ahead to a quantum commercial leap when the World Cup and Continental Cups shift to a new ‘odd year’ cycle from 2019.

Among the livelier debates at this year’s 25th anniversary Sportel Monaco was an exchange between news Corp’s Simon Greenburg and Tomas Grace of You Tube in which the digital video service was accused of encouraging piracy by providing a platform for fan created content, even if its origin lay in material which has been broadcast by rights holders.

News Corp clearly has an angle as a rights holder itself and Greenburg was not about to be satisfied with You Tube’s explanation that digital fingerprinting allowed ultimate rights owners to generate revenue from such ‘pirated’ content.

Sitting on the same panel was a man who has seen the sports media business from all angles and who has a continuing interest in this debate. As head of FIBA’s (the International Basketball Federation) media arm

media arm, Frank Leenders spends a lot of time looking at and weighing up the comparative advantages of a broad range of digital exposure against any potential damage it could do to rights values and relationships with broadcast partners.

That said the You Tube issue doesn’t appear to worry him unduly. In fact FIBA’s media strategy is broadly permissive, a deliberate ploy to create greater visibility for basketball in general and, in particular, the international properties which make up FIBA’s rights portfolio.

That’s quite a shift for somebody who admits to have once been ‘very sceptical’ about the relationship between rights owners, rights holder and ‘mew’ media companies.

“You have to remember I was from the Champions League School where rights were super-protected ad regulated. At first opening up to You Tube seemed to be against everything I have learned over the years”, he said.

That may have changed and been replaced by a more pragmatic approach but while Leenders is happy to work with and utilise the

reach and influence of YouTube he does have reservations about another of the latest developments in the special media space – Vine, which allows short clips of broadcast action to be shared over Twitter.

“I have my doubts about this because the clips are almost live. It is more dangerous if people are able to say, for example, all the goals from a game that could compromise live audiences as well as impacting on broadcaster who have paid for the rights to show them”, he said.

“Like all federations our job at FIBA is to achieve the right balance between revenue and exposure and that’s something which is not always easy.
FIBA needs media sales to provide the financial base for the entire organisation and we are constantly developing new ideas which don’t conflict with our broadcast partners. All of our content is fingerprinted and all of it is traceable. We have an overview and understand what works and what doesn’t. All of that means we have the ability to block content if we want to but most is user generated content produced by people who love the sport and that is beneficial to FIBA”
, he said.

“My view now is that if the content is not live and it is user generated it is not a problem”, he said.

“But if a broadcaster says that it is not acceptable we will cut it out. This has happened in major markets in the past as some pay broadcasters want to protect their exclusivity”.

The concern to protect the interests of broadcasters while spreading the word about the sport is shared by more or less every federation and FIBA has a stable of heavyweight international broadcasters to think about. With Mediaset in Spain, Canal+ in France, NTV in Turkey, ESPN in North America, CCTV in China and Super Sport in South Africa among them, the FIBA footprint is broad and solid and Leenders

Leenders appreciates their value.

“There is a lot of trust in what we do and we are not there to jeopardise the relationship (with the broadcasters or their businesses”.

In fact FIBA media under Leenders has gone further than many other Federations in creating a broad-based basketball portal on its own website by persuading other basketball rights owners, including Euroleague and the Australian Basketball League, to make live content available.

“It is very interesting. This is the only platform where multiple rights holders team up to make live basketball available.
Perform was a major factor in bringing everything together and it makes sense to bundle all the energy because our events are complimentary, Our ( international) competitions are in the summer and the leagues operate between October and May.
I compare it (the basketball offering) to a fantastic shop or restaurant which is hidden deep in a forest without any signs. That means that most people will never find it. But because of this cross promotion people are starting not only to discover where the place is but to come back. There’s a lot of content and people discover it is always open when they come back.

This has been achieved because of the professionalism of all concerned. There have, of course, been issues and some animosity between the various parties but they have all been able to put this to one side for the greater good”, he said.

FIBA’s media strategy has been developed over the years since the collapse of Swiss-based ISL meant that the federation was more or less forced to take its rights back in house and review its options.
Interestingly, Leenders was briefly with ISL, around the Italia 1990 FIFA World Cup but moved on to join the set up at TEAM Marketing – founded by old ISL hands – to develop and implement the broadcast

and commercial strategy which helped turn the UEFAS Champions League into a powerhouse of the sports media sector.

Beyond the exposure / income conundrum, FIBA has continually focused on other key issues including ways of presenting the game to a global audience to best effect. This has been achieved by acting as host broadcaster for its Blue Ribband events -, the men’s and women’s World Cups and promoting the highest standards for basketball coverage and presentation through its FIBA TV Academy.

“As host broadcasters we work with the great professionals we have in house as well as appointing directors. The academy is an online initiative which we have invested in to make sure that all the groups involved around the world are brought up to a higher level.”

But Leenders has been in the game long enough to understand that even the best pictures and presentation are not enough to guarantee the sort of audiences FIBA craves. And that a more fundamental shift is required.
That comes in the shape of a calendar changes which will see FIBA’s major competitions shift to ‘odd’ years after the Rio Olympic Games. The result is that the World Cup will be held in 2019 and in a four yearly cycle thereafter with the Continental Championships moving to 2021.
It’s an important change for FIBA and for their broadcasters on a number of levels, not least that it moves these key events out of the shadow of the FIFA World Cup and Summer Olympic Games giving greater visibility to the competition in the broadcast schedules.
In addition there will be a change to the pattern of qualifying competitions with teams playing home and away fixtures during breaks in the league season, something which Leenders says will add tremendous visibility to the national teams.

“The outcome will be that we will be able to sell rights in four year cycles and guarantee broadcasters at least 20 games featuring the national team”, he explained.

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These changes come off the back of an “excellent” men’s World Cup in Spain earlier this year which was won by the USA.

“We were delighted with the arenas, 80 per cent of which were full, and the organisation by the hosts. But there now needs to be a quantum leap and the new calendar will play a part in launching basketball to a new level”, he said.

The fact that nine countries are currently being considered as potential hosts for 2019 says a lot about the interest that international basketball is capable of generating and Leenders and his colleagues are determined that they should take the steps necessary to ensure that such a fantastically popular sport realises its full potential at every level and not just through the media lens which is constantly focused on the NBA.

So did Leenders bring much with him to the NBA from TEAM Marketing?

“At the end of the day you have to learn as you go along and then apply the things that work”, he said.

“You can’t just say that because certain things work for the Champions League they can be used everywhere. One of the things we work on is finding links between sponsorship and TV.
The fact is that the sponsorship market is polarised and extremely challenging because of the domination of football. In many ways it is easier to sell something for $50 million than $50,000.
Yet basketball has so many string points both as a sport and as a commercial vehicle. For one thing it is far more genuinely global than other Olympic team sports such as ice hockey, rugby, and handball. They are all great sports but they are not global in the way that basketball is”.

He said explaining that basketball is the world’s second most popular team sport after football and number one in some key markets including hugely attractive markets like China.

“Basketball needs to exploit its value and that means we need to work in different ways in different markets”.

One thing Leenders is certain ab out is that the competition from FIBA does not come from the NBA which tends to hoover up global attention or even from Euroleague.

“We have a super relationship with the NBA because we share the same interests”, he said.

The NBA supports the USA team sent to the World Cup by US basketball and has been extremely supportive of the competition itself. They did a lot of promotional work for the World Cup and all the games were available on NBA TV”.

Since joining team in 1992 Frank Leenders has become one of the most experienced property-side executives in sports media.

“I was one of the first of a young group to join up and it was a fantastic experience”, he said.

While he is no longer one of the young ones and has become a senior figure in the industry, the challenge and the sense of excitement and appetite for the challenge remains intact. As a Dutch national he also knows that promoting basketball and its media value in his homeland is a tough call.

“While basketball is big in many European countries such as Greece, Turkey, Spain, Italy, Russia and in the Baltic nations, places like Holland and the UK need work. As challenges go they don’t come much bigger than that”, he said.

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