Lagardère Sports enters the ring as WWE takes new international sponsorship approach
By Simon Ward
World Wrestling Entertainment, the USA-based wrestling entertainment series, has appointed sports marketing agency Lagardère Sports to handle international sponsorship sales for its events and various media products going forward.
WWE has until now relied on its international network of offices to market its assets outside the home market, but has concluded that the timing is right to bring in a specialist agency to enhance these efforts.
Under the arrangement announced today, Lagardère Sports will be responsible for providing global sponsorship support and analysis, devising an international sales strategy and leading sales on the ground in all territories except USA and China, where there is already an established agency.
Lagardère Sports was chosen after WWE went to the market seeking the best partner to capitalise on the opportunities presented by a series which stages 500 global events per year and offers programming available in more than 650 million homes in 20 languages.
John Brody, executive vice-president, global sales and partnerships, at WWE, told Sportcal: “We had dozens respond, including many of the leading agencies globally, and some focused on regions.”
However, he added that Lagardère Sports was the “clear winner,” citing its international reach, with offices in more than 70 cities and 1,600 employees worldwide, and the enthusiasm of its senior leadership team, including Andrew Pierce, Lagardère Sports' president and chief executive, Americas.
Brody said: “We were looking for the infrastructure and ability to support us around the world and the commitment WWE would receive the attention and desire it deserves. You want to make sure they [the agency partner] understand it and nurture it in the way you do.”
WWE, which is based in Stamford, Connecticut, has enjoyed an upsurge in its international business in recent years, generating $129 million in 2016, an increase of 10 per cent on the previous year.
Meanwhile, total sponsorship revenue has quadrupled since 2010, with consumer brands such as Mars, Nestlé, KFC, Mattel and 2K all seeking to tap into a property that touches both sport and entertainment and has a gender-diverse following (60-per-cent male and 40-per-cent female) and, with PG content, a relatively young and family-oriented following.
However, it was felt that a major agency was required to help maximise WWE revenues on a global basis, supporting the series’ international offices in London, Mexico City, Mumbai, Shanghai, Singapore, Dubai, Munich and Tokyo.
Brody said: “We see a huge opportunity for growth. Seventy per cent of our content is viewed internationally while only 30 per cent of our revenue is international.”
He continued: “When we see this opportunity, we need boots on the ground and best in class and this is where Lagardère comes in.”
The agency’s level of commitment is demonstrated by the fact that it is already five months into an assessment of WWE as a property as it seeks to fully exploit the commercial potential on offer.
Pierce said: “WWE is a global brand but is looking for international sponsors, as they already have a robust domestic programme.”
On the market analysis, he said: “The metrics were significantly higher than we guessed as outsiders… We said [to WWE]: ‘You have something here that brands don’t comprehend. You have assets that are underappreciated and are significantly higher in terms of fan engagement than anyone would guess.”
To some extent, Lagardère Sports’ task will be to convince potential sponsors not convinced that WWE, with its staged events and larger-than-life personalities, is genuine sport and/or the right fit for their brand.
Pierce said: “That’s part of the challenge. But our approach is this – deal with the facts, which are 650 million touchpoints, and define what WWE is. Is it sport? Is it entertainment? Part of our job is explaining what it is, but what it is is terrific entertainment."
The major selling points include sold-out shows, international TV coverage from more than 70 broadcasters and a healthy licensed products business.
Citing the experience of sending people unfamiliar with WWE to the shows, Pierce claimed there is a unique platform for sponsors to reach a truly engaged audience.
He said: “How can you get to 19,000 people on a Monday night, young, old and in between, a much more attractive demographic than you would think. What we found, and it’s a profound observation, is that people are sitting there transfixed, not even looking at their phones.
“We’re trying to translate that to a commercial programme. That hasn’t been done. The pure demographics and metrics tell an overwhelming story, and it’s about connecting these brands to the fans.”
Sponsorship packages WWE has traditionally sold sponsorship on an event-by-event basis, with a focus on its flagship property WrestleMania and other major pay-per-view shows such as Royal Rumble, SummerSlam and Survivor Series, but now sees an opportunity for longer-term relationships.
Brody said: “Everyone understands what goes on in the ring and it transcends easily in all parts of the world. We believe that it’s about educating the marketing executives in the landscape that we’ve got a robust, diverse, family-oriented portfolio.”
He added that the partnership with Lagardère Sports will only strengthen its “360-degree, one-stop shop” offering and provide a consistent approach across all markets, notably Europe and Asia, where WWE has particularly large followings.
The agency will converse with international WWE broadcasters, including the UK subscription TV operator Sky, and German free-to-air commercial broadcaster ProSiebenSat.1, on opportunities around long-running TV formats such as Monday Night Raw and Smackdown, while also seeking to harness the strength of the online product.
Brody pointed out that WWE has more than 800 million social media followers on 17 platforms, is the number one sports property on YouTube, with 12 billion views of videos in the last year, and has 2 million subscribers worldwide for its over-the-top WWE Network service.
Stressing the variety options open to to sponsors, he said: “If you want to do a digital package, we can do that. If you want to limit it to an event, we can do that. If you want to do a link-in with [Irish WWE star] Sheamus, we can do that.”
Pierce claimed that the first target for Lagardère Sports would be brands that already advertise around WWE programming on international TV networks, and it would seek to marry up the opportunities across various platforms.
He said: “There’s been sponsors of local things, but not a connection regionally and globally. This is very much a natural evolution, it’s a rising tide and it’s a case of connecting the dots.”
It is seen as particularly beneficial to the agency and sponsors that WWE owns all of its commercial rights, making it simple to cherry-pick assets and build tailored campaigns that reach the right audiences.
Pierce said: “We certainly intend to link the in-arena opportunities with the digital. Since they own 100 per cent of the rights, we expect flexibility in the packages we’re able to offer.”
He added: “We’ll look at what they’ve done in the US, and what has been successful. We have a consulting group that advises brands on their sponsorships and, in terms of a macrotrend, we’re in with millennials. The macrotrend is towards sponsorships done right with modern engagements so they’re modern partnerships, not old-time sponsorships.”