National governing body’s chief exec. talks to AW about the changing sponsorship situation and how UKA being in a good place post-2012 is no accident
The chief executive of UK Athletics is a strategic thinker, with long-term planning and the bigger picture constantly at the forefront of his mind.
This becomes obvious as AW quizzes Niels de Vos about the post-London 2012 environment. UKA is in a good place, he tells us, and it’s no accident.
Insurance company Aviva’s long-term and generous support of the sport might have come to an end last year, but De Vos claims the sponsorship situation is anything but bleak. Generally, he says, the market is depressed due to the ongoing recession, but he adds: “We’re in a really good place” – and he puts together a compelling argument to explain why.
For one, Aviva did not simply walk away. A new and reduced post-Olympic deal was offered to UKA, but De Vos turned it down, gambling on gaining more money long-term by building a family of smaller sponsors.
There was, however, a twist to the plan. Back in 2010 De Vos deliberately secured the dates of the 2013 London Diamond League meeting on the anniversary weekend of the Olympics opening ceremony. The stadium should, in theory, have been undergoing a rebuilding process at that stage, but De Vos figured there was a small chance it might be available. He turned out to be right and at the start of this year, when UKA realised they could stage the Diamond League in the Olympic Stadium, they decided to expand the meeting into three days to capitalise on it as much as possible.
The result? “We will make more (revenue) out of that three-day festival than we would have made if I’d renewed the Aviva deal,” says De Vos, following the amazing Friday in late April when tickets sold out for the first two days in 75 minutes flat.
He explains: “When we put our Diamond League dates together I specifically wanted them on the anniversary dates, despite the fact the builders, in theory, should have been in. Once we knew we could go in the stadium in late January/early February, we switched our strategy and thought we needed to blitz the event. Plus, we have secured Sainsbury’s as a major sponsor, also giving ongoing Paralympics support for a long-term period.”
He continues: “So now in future we might have someone else supporting cross country, someone else supporting track and field etc. Also, Sainsbury’s are bringing athletics into their stores (this summer), in the same way a store might be dominated by Comic Relief on Red Nose Day. It’s fantastic for our sport – I don’t think we’ve had that kind of support ever.
“Aviva made an offer (the numbers are confidential) so we had a call to make. Would we take that or do we try to pitch ourselves at 75-80% of what we were pre- Games? And the latter is the decision we took.”
But how about the numerous changes in personnel at UKA since the Games – surely staff movements can’t be predicted and therefore form part of his long-term planning?
De Vos says the loss of head coach Peter Eriksson is a “personal tragedy” that could not be planned for, but says he anticipated most other major changes, such as the departure of Charles van Commenee, and prepared for them accordingly.
“We knew there was a good chance Charles would go,” says De Vos. “We knew that right from the start. He had an incredibly draining role – 24 hours a day, seven days a week for four to five years and to then kick on and do two cycles is very difficult.
“So Neil Black didn’t appear from nowhere as the performance director. In 2008 he was the head physio. After that he effectively became Charles’ No.2.”
De Vos points out that the “No.2” has in many cases been promoted to the No.1 position in a certain area at UKA. “My job is that we don’t react to events but plan in advance and staffing is absolutely no different,” he says. “You want the No.2s to want to be the No.1s otherwise you stagnate.”
The medical team is another example and De Vos says the current sports injuries squad worked under former chief medical officer Paul Dijkstra. “We were always likely to lose one of them,” he says. “It’s a natural cycle of events. What we’ve got now is a really strong balance and it takes time to get to places and it often takes four years. Also, you may have seen changes you want to make but you don’t make them in a year of the Olympics.”
Power of hindsight
So far, so good. But is there anything De Vos have done differently if he could wind back the clock? “I’d like to have the luxury of only being able to concentrate on the Olympics,” he suggests. “If I could rewind the diary then I would focus on London 2012 in isolation and not worry as much about how we’d be judged at other events.
“Other sports that don’t have the glare of publicity can do this. But athletics has something every year and it’s probably an unrealistic expectation to expect all of our athletes to perform at their top level all the time.” By saying this, he hints that perhaps in the run-up to the next Olympics the governing body will try not to get too side-tracked by the pressure to perform well in anything other than the 2016 Rio Games and 2017 IAAF World Championships in London. “If we do a little worse in Moscow this summer than expectations, then it’s possibly not a bad thing because (for us) it’s all about 2016- 17,” he says.
Finally, what has been the most pleasing “punching the air moment” for De Vos during his six-and-a-half years at UKA (pure athletics performances aside)? He gives an interesting answer. “Monaco in November 2011, when we won the bid to host the IAAF World Champs,” he says. “It was an astonishing success in face of unlimited funds from our rival Doha. It’s scandalous how little money we spent on it, but it was a massive team effort to win and it affects and validates so many things that we do.
“In a race, when you climb and descend a hill you then look for the next one to aim for. Winning the bid gave us the anchor five years out to ‘go again’.”
» The full interview with Niels de Vos first appeared in the June 13 issue of AW, which is available here