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A week in America | 2 June 2023

By Martin Liptrot

By Martin Liptrot

This week Martin strikes up a conversation in an airport lounge and learns way more than he bargained for...

Merseysiders are chancers. Americans are opportunists.

It may be the same thing, but I’m both.

Sometimes you just get yourself into a situation where you can take one of two paths.

You can politely sit there and absorb all around you, or you can dive straight in, feet first, consequences to follow. I favour the latter.

Awaiting my flight home from a business conference last month, I found myself sat in the lounge opposite one of the keynote speakers.

After nodding approvingly at each other – in that unwritten way to say it is safe to approach – we struck up a conversation about the event we had just attended and the challenges it had thrown up.

He is now a leading figure in sport business, backed by a major capital and investment organization, and with a storied previous career as a pro-athlete. If I’m entirely honest, if he hadn’t been at the event, I wouldn’t have known who he was, but fortunately it appears neither did the other lounge occupants. I had a captive audience.

He was relaxed and chatty in a way which probably comes from growing up with perpetual media attention and post and pre match interviews being part of your everyday life.

I’m not a shrinking violet, so thought I’d quiz him on what he knew about British sports and the business surrounding them.

Perhaps I was naive in thinking I may have to explain the offside rule or the nuance of red ball vs white ball cricket, but his eyes lit up when we spoke about the global reach of Premier League soccer, the tremendous potential of IPL cricket, and the increasing interest from American investors in English top tier soccer clubs and the ‘Wrexham effect’.

He asked who I followed and when I told him ‘Everton’, he smiled. It wasn’t a laugh, I promise.

I asked him what he knew of the club and was delighted he was not only aware of the ‘Mersey Millionaires’ history, but also the woeful last few seasons and the jeopardy of relegation currently being suffered.

When I enquired if he thought the business practices and experiences earned in US sport would be transferable to aid Everton’s plight, he doubled down and said, without them, he can’t see how they could survive.

Bring it on, big man.

We chatted for a further 20 minutes, exchanged business cards, and walked towards the gate when our flight was called.

Conscious that this wasn’t a sanctioned media interview, just a professional exchange as an extension of the conference we had attended, I was using all the old media hound tricks and tips to log the insights and info without scrawling notes or recording our chat.

As he turned left to the plush seats and I squeezed into my standard issue one, I grabbed my phone and quickly annotated the highlights.

Here are some very, very unofficial words of wisdom for the top brass at Everton – or any other wannabe club – from one of the heavy hitters of US sports business consulting.

First, he identified the importance of the infrastructure – do you have what it takes to succeed?

Simply, do you have the financial heft to compete at the top table, generate the commercial revenue required, fill a stadium which can realise the experiential ambitions of the club, broadcasters and fans, and do you have the training facilities and club structure which the best players will be attracted to.

I did question this, as I have found many professional sporting events I have been to in the US to lack that rawness which a Derby game, an Ashes test, a Roses battle or a Cup Final can generate, but, as a former pro-athlete he assured me, that is pretty much top of the list for top talent.

Secondly, he spoke about culture and the purpose of the club. This had been the theme at the event, so it came as no surprise, but he shared a private story about why he sought a trade from one top team to another which explained the importance of having values, and more importantly, living them. He talked about clarity of communication, fan engagement and interestingly and perhaps somewhat peculiar to US Sports, the support and encouragement for star athletes to market themselves, build their brands and, as he had, secure their long-term business future beyond the game.

And finally, at least in the way I could recall the conversation as I sipped my warmish chardonnay in a plastic airline cup, came people.

He didn’t say as much, but athletes are fragile, they have superstitions, they are surrounded by private and public voices whispering in their ear, and if it doesn’t feel right, it doesn’t work.

He did talk about the inspiration he got from legends of the club, the coaching and medical staff, and the owners and management. He pointed out that in his sport, only one afternoon a week is spent actually playing the game, the rest is being surrounded by the club, training, teammates and tactical tuition, meeting sponsor obligations and community outreach.

Of course, as he had mentioned at the event the day before, these attributes are transferable to any business – but it was so interesting to hear him talk about them in the context of UK sport and to layer them over my own team’s current travails.

As I switched off my phone as per the angry stewardess’ instructions, I sat back and thought about the difference between US sport business and their more traditional UK counterparts.

I recalled the protests against the owners at ‘the club across the park’, the anger at Old Trafford aimed at the Glazers, and the rumblings across North London from their super stadia when they weren’t winning as much or as quickly as people would like.

As we reached our cruising altitude, it dawned on me that the choice was simple – we could continue to let our national game and sports in general wallow in the thin veneer of the Corinthian spirit, happy amateur owners and their scion running the clubs as play things, or wake up to the reality that without the hard-nosed, rigorous attention to detail, dedication to brand building and dogged pursuit of commercial success, relegation scraps and frustration on the terraces were here to stay.

He got off before me, as is the protocol in air travel, and we didn’t speak again, but I was happy I had taken the plunge to strike up the conversation and ask questions of those with the expertise to make a difference.

How else will you learn?

Author picture

Martin Liptrot

Martin Liptrot is a Public Affairs, PR and Marketing consultant working with UK, US and Global clients to try and ‘make good ideas happen’.

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