As Cuba prepares for an historic soccer friendly against the United States, Nigel Rushman explains his company’s work on behalf of domestic broadcaster RTV and his expectations for the future of Cuban sport on the world stage.
This month the Cuban capital Havana will stage a soccer match loaded with symbolism which goes way beyond sport.
The game, on October 7 at the Estadio Pedro Marrero, sees the Cuban national team face the United States in the first ‘friendly’ between the two for nearly seven decades.
The significance is that although the teams have met before that was in World Cup qualifying, when the fixture is mandated by FIFA. This friendly is a different animal altogether. It speaks volumes of the new relationship that is beginning to emerge between the USA and Cuba since the restoration of diplomatic relations between the two nations which had been severed during the Cold War in 1961.
The intervening decades have seen the two countries- separated by little more than 100 nautical miles but an ideological ocean- starting to build a new relationship. Although a US imposed trade embargo remains in place for the time being, some travel restrictions have been lifted to further the process of normalisation.
Who knows what normalisation of relationships with the United States may ultimately look like or lead to but, according to sports industry entrepreneur Nigel Rushman, sport can play a key role in the process and in the longer-term economic prosperity and global identity of Cuba.
Rushman, who has more than three decades of sports sector experience under his belt and who had worked with governing bodies and rights holders on major sports events worldwide, has set up a specialist division of his company, Rushmans, as a joint venture with LGC Capital, a Montreal-listed company set up to secure investment to develop energy, infrastructure and trade projects in Cuba.
Rushmans’ role is to identify opportunities in the sports sector and the company has taken significant strides in recent months, including the completion of an agreement with RTVC, the commercial arm of national broadcaster and audio visual company RTV, to distribute, market and co-produce Cuban sports content and events – both live and recorded- worldwide.
Appropriately the Cuba vs USA friendly will be among the first projects under that agreement, with Rushmans handling international rights sales, through its appointed agency Pitch International.
“It is an important day for Cuban sport and an opportunity to make a statement about the importance of sport to this remarkable country,” said Rushman who sees Rushmans Cuba as far more than a commercial venture.
“The fact is that it is not primarily about making money or looking for a Fast Buck,” he said.
“Since the very beginning we have been conscious of our mission which is to play a role in helping the advancement of sport in Cuba. In terms of our agreement with RCTV that will involve creating revenue streams from the sales of rights and marketing inventory but what is more important at this stage is that we provide a platform of exposure for Cuban athletes and teams which will get them better known around the world. That will help create a virtuous circle with awareness driving demand for rights and creating revenues which help feed the growth of sport and Cuba’s ability to share world class product,” he said.
For Rushman this is no ‘toe-in-the-water’ exercise. He spends a good proportion of his working life in Havana and has committed to a local staff in the city. In a significant move he has recruited Hector Villar, one of Cuba’s best known and respected TV presenters and sportscasters as part of the team.
Villar is a familiar face on Cuba’s national broadcaster and also works as a TV director. He has covered a wide range of major sports events including Cuba’s National Baseball Series, the Olympic Games, UEFA Champions League, Cliff Diving World Series, X Fighters, Red Bull Channel Cross and the Mexican and Dominican Baseball Leagues as well as UFC events.
In addition to his media work he has significant insight into the workings of the world of sport in Cuba and globally. He has worked on promotions for international brands including adidas, Red Bull and Rexona.
He is credited with helping change the face of sports broadcasting in Cuba over the last decade and his work with Rushmans includes producing and conducting exclusive interviews for Cuban TV with major global football figures such as Raul and Roberto Carlos as well as former Spain manager Vicente del Bosque, ex-FC Barcelona president Joan Laporta and Real Madrid president Florentino Perez.
“We are naturally excited that Hector decided to join the team. He is an important figure in sport in Cuba and gives us a level of access and operational fluency which you couldn’t otherwise expect,” said Rushman.
Rushman describes his Cuba venture as among the most exciting he has been involved in during more than 30 eventful years in sport. His company, which was once absorbed into the London-based sports marketing company CPMA before later regaining its independence, has worked successfully in the event sector providing strategic planning and delivery consultancy as well as delivering crucial on-the-ground services.
Rushmans worked on successive editions of the Rugby World Cup and ICC Cricket World Cup as well as UEFA’s Euros, the CAF Africa Cup of Nations and the Asian Games among many others.
In addition to its event-specific work Rushmans developed significant consultative capability and brought a new approach to project planning and problem-solving by introducing sport to Structured Visual Thinking techniques and strategies which had been relatively commonplace among Blue Chip global companies but almost unheard of as a means of tackling the complex issues facing major sport governing bodies.
“The fact is that while the warning -up of relationships with the USA is clearly important, Cuba has proved that it is not reliant on the US. The country has traded successfully with most of the rest of the world through the embargo so its relationship with the US should not be seen as the be-all-and-end-all,” Rushman said.
“What fascinated me about this country is its massive potential, particularly for a nation of only 11 million people.
“Of course LCG Capital’s remit is a broad one and extends into many areas of Cuban industry and commerce but sporting prowess has become one of the key parts of ‘brand Cuba’ in the eyes of the world and we felt that developing the sports sector at every level would not simply deliver huge benefits in its own right but would make a major contribution to the economy and society of the nation and the way it is viewed by the rest of the world,” he said.
Sport has been a national priority since the Revolution. Cuban athletes have won 65 finals at the last three Summer Olympic Games where they have been particularly successful in athletics, boxing and other fight-sports. Baseball, in which Cuba won the Silver medal at the 2006 International Classic, is a national passion.
The national sports culture is supported by an effective youth development infrastructure and a huge public appetite for top level sport. Earlier this year the New York Cosmos soccer team played in Havana while US president Obama was in town when the MLB Tampa Bay Rays played and beat the Cuba national baseball team.
Rushman clearly sees this confluence of national passion and sporting excellence, particularly in boxing, baseball and athletics, as a major opportunity and he certainly believes that sport has a major role to play in driving the Cuban economy and creating a new focus for national pride and international brand-building in the years ahead.
“Cuba has a superb sporting heritage and harnessing the passion, talent and commitment which has driven the country to success at the Olympic Games will be central to plans for future development,” he said.
“These are exciting times for the country which is poised for tremendous economic development in the years ahead. Sport will not simply be a beneficiary of that development, it will play an important role in the process.”
“Sport can have a positive impact on the country on so many levels. Take tourism for example. Cuba is geographically well positioned and has a wonderful climate for much of the year which could make it a tremendous destination for sports events and training camps.
“Once those elements of the sports economy are in place others, such as tourism and associated service industries, will also receive a significant boost.
“There is such a lot happening in Cuba right now but, in media terms, there had never previously been a strategy in place to take the content which was being created here to market. In the past it was all about responding to requests rather than active sales and marketing.
“As I was already involved in Cuba through my work with LCG Capital it seemed logical to take Rushmans’ expertise in the sports sector and make that available to help Cuban sport and I feel privileged that we are now being able to do that in practical ways.
“This country has a great sporting heritage and, despite the embargo, sport here has managed to thrive in many ways. What we are seeing is Cuba emerging from a sort of enforced hibernation, ready now to take its place on the world sport stage.
“It is a country where baseball is the national game and a generates sense of national pride. Some of the biggest stars in US and Japanese baseball are from Cuba and there is a hunger in the country to follow those stars. We also believe there is a hunger from overseas audiences to see Cuban baseball being played and to be able to see the next superstars in the making,” he said.
“People will come to appreciate the quality of sport in Cuba and we will work closely and carefully with RTV to help them improve the quality of their output for the world market. That is not a reflection on the skills of individuals or the vision of directors – after all Cuban broadcasters were chosen by Host Broadcast services to cover the boxing at the Olympic games in Rio because of their proven expertise in that sport.
“What is needed is more equipment and better facilities and we will work on co-production deals which make those available so that the sport coming out of Cuba matches up to the best media content in the world in technical as well as athletic terms.
“Right now the rights to Cuban sport may not be worth a fortune but we will help to grow their value and they will bring in much-needed currency and equipment. That will also help upgrade facilities, increase interest among young people and drive engagement with sport and attendance at events,” he said.
As Rushman and his team look ahead to the Cuba v USA soccer clash the entrepreneur also has other things on his mind. Significant investment and decades of knowledge built at the coal-face of the sports events sector have been poured into the development of iAccredit.me, an on-line, cloud-based self-service accreditation system designed to take the hassle and much of the cost out of what has previously been an essential but complex and time -consuming fundamental of event management.
It is the result of a two-year development process and fuses advanced software and banking-grade security with Rushmans knowledge.
“Effective accreditation is critical to the safe and efficient management of sports events of any size and its importance has been heightened by rising security concerns,” said Rushman.
“iAccredit.me enables event managers to set up their accreditation project in minutes and start receiving and processing online applications immediately. It is set to change the way that events operate their accreditation. For 20 years we have watched events struggle with an expensive and labour intensive process. Now there is a better way,” he said.