A conversation with Lucien Boyer about sport and media

Simply broadcasting live competitions is no longer enough

ESSEC Sports Chair Postdoctoral fellow Amr Alem chats with Lucien Boyer, one of the most prominent leaders of the sports ecosystem, about the evolution of the two drivers of his career: sports and media.

Amr: Mr. Boyer, you were a student at ESSEC from 1982-1985, before embarking upon a long and rich career in the sports world. Can you retrace the major steps of your professional life?

Lucien: There is a lot to tell: when I was a student at ESSEC, sports were not an option you could choose, as it was not considered part of the business world. Nevertheless, I was intrigued by big sporting events, because of my lifelong passion for sailing. The Americas' Cup was a global event that brought together the best of the best. The most powerful countries wanted to express themselves through a sporting/technological challenge. It just so happened that the French team was in need of funds and they had created a competition to see which business school could help raise the most money.

Being at that time familiar with commercial phoning, I used my skills to convince people to invest in this project. This allowed me to win the competition, and I was not only invited to go and see the competition in the United States, but I was also offered an internship for 6 months at the heart of this adventure. I was in charge of the commercial issues, especially merchandising.

This allowed me to be at the heart of an Anglo-Saxon universe, which impressed me by the professionalism that we did not yet have on our side, but that the Americans, Australians, Canadians and British had thanks to their experience in this field. I suddenly understood the power of sports events and above all the economic revenues and communication dividends that they mobilize and generate.

I wanted to continue in this field and this experience was consolidated during my activity as a coopérant in Australia, on the occasion of the first Rugby World Cup. This completely confirmed to me that world sporting events could really be powerful in terms of communication. I then decided to enter the sports business, but I couldn’t find anywhere to learn more. I moved into advertising at Saatchi & Saatchi, where I stayed only a year and a half, but that was enough for me to understand the requirements of strategic planning, and the rigor of quantitative analysis and segmentation. I told myself that these are the mechanics and the know-how that could be applied to sponsorships in sport.

My epiphany came one evening when I was watching Juventus of Turin - sponsored by Danone - after a long day spent on location filming an advertisement for Danone. We were producing a TV commercial by Tony Scott where the brand appears only in the last three seconds of the film. At halftime, I got up without watching the commercial advertising break and realized that my entire day’s work could go unnoticed. What seemed more important to me then was to tell a brand's strategic story outside of advertising, at the heart of the show. I shared this idea with my boss who appreciated it, but when he asked: how do you make money? I had no response. I left advertising to find some answers.

Amr: To find some answers, you moved to Formula 1. Tell us about this journey to the top of the Larrousse F1 marketing team.

Lucien: This experience allowed me to be the marketing director of the Larrousse F1 team for three years, to discover the highly demanding requirements of marketing in Formula 1 from the inside. We were present on the circuit with brands with restricted access to classical advertising (oil companies, cigarette brands...) and which have developed advanced visibility strategies via Formula 1. Not particularly proud of that, but I learned from the best in the world, and it just so happened that my former boss called me back to tell me that Saatchi & Saatchi bought a company in the United States that did exactly what I imagined about sport sponsoring. So, they called on me to create their European subsidiary in France for the 1992 Albertville Winter Olympics.

Amr: This is how you created the Lifestyle Marketing Group?

Lucien: Yes, I seized the opportunity and created Lifestyle Marketing Group (LMG) in France, which became a pioneering agency that helped brands understand sports and also helped sports organizations understand marketing, content, and event strategies. Xe were fortunate and it was a great success, and it lasted from 1992-1998, with a team that started with two people and grew to 30 by the end, when we bought it out from Saatchi & Saatchi to become independent. With the 1998 World Cup in France, we became the benchmark agency in sports marketing. It was also an opportunity for us to work with global brands. We then joined the Havas Group to benefit from its global network. LMG became Havas Sport & Entertainment in the early 2000s. We started by consolidating our agency’s concept. Then, it became extremely effective and ready for expansion around the world. One of the biggest clients we had in France was Coca-Cola. They believed in us, and it was the key account to our development, as we deployed worldwide operations alongside them.

Amr: After that, you expand internationally, notably by incubating start-ups and buying foreign agencies.

Lucien: Between 2006 and 2012, we developed or acquired about 30 agencies in 25 countries (e.g., in China for the 2008 Olympic Games, and in South Africa for the 2010 World Cup. In the end, we bought a very interesting agency in Atlanta (USA), ignition, and we became the reference agency for most Coca-Cola activations, notably the operations around the Olympic Torch Relay around the world and the FIFA World Cup Trophy Tour.

At the time of the 2012 Olympics, I moved to London to put HS&E’s HQ at the highest level of international competitions. We won Barclays as a client, which was the naming partner of the Premier League. Our work was completed with brands sponsoring Premier League clubs but also international organizations (IOC, FIFA, UEFA). We have done innovative things like inventing the association between Louis Vuitton and the FIFA World Cup where we present the trophy packed in the emblematic trunk of the brand, during the final match. We also tried to do things that made sense by creating links between NGOs, great athletes, and great brands.

Amr: You then left the world of sports for entertainment. What are the similarities or differences in terms of transferable skills?

Lucien: In 2014, the Bolloré Group took control of Vivendi, which I joined as Chief Marketing Officer in order to deploy the other part of Havas Sports & Entertainment. That being said, I was still involved in sports, particularly through the Paris 2024 bid, which we supported and sponsored. The whole group was mobilized at the time: Universal did the music for Paris 2024, Canal+ and Dailymotion created and distributed content, Vivendi Village associated the Olympics with promotional projects, Gameloft developed a game... So, I was still in contact with sports during that time.

I’ve met some great people along the way, and I’ve always wanted to share the experience I’ve accumulated. That's why I recruited a lot of talented people, especially from ESSEC. They became my colleagues, and many of them are today great professionals in international organizations, in big brands, or in sports marketing agencies. This also led me to take an interest in academic instruction. For this reason, I was involved in the launch of the first version of what was then the ESSEC Sports Marketing Chair through Havas Sports Entertainment which was a founding partner. And here I am, today, also involved in its relaunch, and I am really delighted by this conversation. The first group of students is already very strongly committed, and a second one is being prepared. High quality partners are present and accompany the Chair.

Amr: Even today, in your professional activities, there are still strong connections with ESSEC.

Lucien: In my professional activities, I try to find links with ESSEC. The first one is the Global Sports Week, created to give back to the world of sports what I borrowed from it, and managed by Noémie Claret, a brilliant alumni. The main idea is to connect the stakeholders (federations, brands, NGOs, investors, athletes, scientists...) of the sport ecosystem. We often find that they know little to nothing about each other. This is an opportunity not only to bring them together and to contribute to a greater positive impact of sports in society, but also to define how to prepare sports for tomorrow’s challenges. It is in this perspective that we involve both ESSEC students in the framework of Young Sports Makers and the ESSEC Sports Chair in the preparation of the themes and the reflection on the major changes in sports, in keeping with other industries and the economy in general.

Amr: In addition to that, you are also the Founding & Managing Partner of Inspiring Sport Capital. What is it about?

Lucien: It's a private equity company that I run with my partner Laurent Damiani, dedicated to sports companies that has already deployed €80m in only a year and a half. These are investments in French companies with great growth potential linked to the sports sector, working in services, manufacturing and distribution, equipment, and media rights. After the identification process, we provide them with financial, strategic, and organizational support. Currently, we have a trainee from ESSEC in our team. We will also offer case studies to the ESSEC Sports Chair.

Amr: You also have, to your credit, an ongoing experience in e-sports. How did this commitment come about?

Lucien: This is a fairly new activity for me. I am Chairman of Fnatic. I am not a gamer, but I joined this British team with a desire to understand this booming market and share my experience. E-sports are a model at the crossroads of entertainment and sport. That's what I have been doing all my life. So, these are economic models that are very similar to what we have seen in music with the digitalization strategies or in sports marketing through sponsorship partnerships, content creation, and community management. There is also an investment issue, because it’s a start-up that has to grow, that scales to an incredible extent, with a recent very large capital raising. This intersects with all of my professional experience and at the same time throws me out of my comfort zone. It's a sector that moves extremely fast that has helped me in my continuous learning.

Amr: You said in a podcast recently that “sports are facing huge challenges to transform their product to be - quite simply - competitive”. Is this product about the sport itself in its rules, its staging and realization, or its marketing and commercialization?

Lucien: It is the sum of all these. Sport, in its media dimension, must be adapted to today's audiences’ interests. This very morning (March 26th, 2021), the media brand L'Équipe announced the launch of an Over The Top (OTT) platform that complements the already existing traditional channel. Simply broadcasting live competitions is no longer enough. Other angles must be developed.

Amr: What are the development axes of this platform?

Lucien: From what I understand, there are two pillars: the first one is the Live Stream, which is the main product of sports, and generates nearly all the revenue in terms of rights.

The second one is the part called "Explore", and it concerns everything that surrounds the live aspect: the human and technical environment, and contextualization stories. These contents create passion, intensity, and therefore adhesion. These are the same processes used in the entertainment industry by, for example, Hollywood scriptwriters. This evolution in the way we tell sports stories is something that I think will continue. Formula 1 is a very good example in this respect. It has had a considerable revival of its worldwide audience thanks to the Netflix series, which tells the stories of this sport, from the inside, in a very different way than simply lining up the results of each Grand Prix. It explains the backstories of the actors that we used to see only behind their helmets. All this creates a much greater value for Formula 1, which re-engages with a public that it had lost.

In my view, a third pillar should be added to L'Équipe's OTT platform: this one should be called "Share". Today, it is essential to imagine that we no longer consume sports simply by tuning in to a live stream, but it is increasingly important to share with our community our feelings and thoughts about the competitions. Yet this most visible, most important, most penetrating part of the sports “product” is still considered as not economically significant in the business of sports rights.

If we take the example of Roland Garros, we can see that its audience is growing older over the recent years. The average TV audience is now largely over 50 years old.. Where are the other fans? Not in front of their TV sets, but on-line, on their social networks, exchanging the best moments through very short - and quite sufficient - posts to follow the results. This year, Roland Garros will be broadcast, in part, on Amazon Prime Video. It's an OTT that will bring an approach with more "Explore" content than a linear channel that caters to older people.

If we think about rights, it would be normal to follow what is being done in entertainment in terms of intellectual property: live action should be worth less, everything around them should be worth more. I would even go as far as to say that it should be sold as a finished product, controlled by the rights holders, like - for example - Disney controls the Mickey Mouse product. We would have, then, a more balanced business model because we would end up with something other than the essential of the income coming from a TV contract and the rest being very secondary (or even free), since it is often regarded as promotion.

Amr: In this market, there are premium rights and catalog rights. What developments do you foresee for them?

Lucien: Catalog rights will become more and more valuable. This is exactly what happened with music streaming. I am convinced that hybrids will arise between live premium content and catalog content. If we take the example of L'Équipe, catalog rights could be used for digital communities to prepare them for the live broadcast on the premium channel. Correspondences between the different broadcasting media will therefore be noted.

Amr: Isn't there a risk that the “extra-sports” will take over “the sport itself”?

Lucien: It depends on what we mean by these two terms. Sports are not defined exclusively as the match and the performance. Sport is all about the context in which it takes place. For example, the IOC has integrated the Olympic Flame, and the protocol of the athletes’ presentation in a very symbolic way ... These are not sporting things as such, but they add value to what happens on the field. Sport is not merely sport, and we should be happy that it is also the support of social commitments and values. The “extra-sports” is not necessarily “anti-sports”.

Amr: On the demand side, isn't there a threat to broadcasters, in that rights holders can now create their own platforms?

Lucien: Yes, the risk exists. Traditional broadcasters have to find a [new] role in relation to the possibility of rights holders having their own channels. Collaborations will be developed, rather than competition. We will not be able to prevent the rights holders from wanting to better control their own stories and therefore wanting to better contribute to their own productions and not just sell rights. They will then become more co-producers and show-runners and not only “right-holders”. For the Formula 1 series, Liberty Media (Formula 1 Management) is co-producer with Netflix, producing its own content to complete the offer for fans: this seems to me a trend that cannot be stopped. On the other hand, sports organizations have to reach out to fans beyond their core target audience thanks to the generalist aspect of traditional channels and pure players.

Amr: There is, in this market, something called "the winner's curse". How can broadcasters be sure that they are not overvaluing the rights they buy?

Lucien: For Mediapro, many observers calculated that their equation was impossible to achieve. I don't think that there is a curse, but rather errors of valuation and a lack of foresight based on hopes for new models that did not necessarily concern the winners but instead the new entrant. This was the case, first with Orange , then with Altice and then Mediapro who fantasized about potential results that never materialized. Spotify in music, and Netflix in the audiovisual industry have demonstrated that the market works with volume logic, and extremely low unit price thresholds, to recruit subscribers. You can isolate one or two premium products in the subscription, but the access prices must be attractive.

Amr: You often talk about transposing the Spotify model to sport. How could this be done?

Lucien: Spotify is a common entry point where you can find, on the same playlist, offerings from local bands, a back catalog, and global blockbusters. In sports, at the user experience level, broadcasters would do well to think about common products than competing ones. Common (and much more powerful) platform strategies will have to emerge. This can come from the sports players or the media themselves. I will take an example that speaks for itself, even if it's not the same size: Canal+ is a publisher through its Premium channels, but it’s also a distributor of its competitors (BeIn Sport and Eurosport) through MyCanal. A large part of the sports offer in pay TV format can be found on it. In the same package, it could be then possible to find L'Équipe or to have access to Netflix sports content ... We can imagine a whole aggregation of streams that are operated by different rights holders, but which constitute for the final consumer just one single subscription. The rights holders or the broadcasters would then share the total income.

Amr: What should the sports-media relationship look like in the future? What advice do you have for students interested in this topic?

Lucien: I recommend to the young students of ESSEC who are interested in this to remain attentive to the evolutions of media as well as of sports, in that their two fates are intertwined. Beyond the content they offer, the media and the big digital platforms are becoming trading points, too. For its part, sport must continuously reinvent itself to better meet the expectations of fans. There will be, for sure, a hybridization of the models and interests.