PR supremo Mike Lee was on the 2012 Olympic bid team and we won; not on the 2018 World Cup one and we lost; backed Qatar 2022 … You do the maths: how you spin it is how you win it.
Right now, sport is a huge business. In 2009, the global sport market – including sponsorship, merchandising, media rights and gate receipts – was worth $114bn, according to accountants PwC. By 2013, it is expected to be worth $133bn. And the UK is well placed to cash in, since sport is one of our most successful exports: measured by sponsorship value, seven of the top 10 sports are British in origin. Football is the biggest of these – and England’s Premier League is the most popular competition of all, with an estimated global audience of 2.9 billion people (that’s almost half the planet).
We Brits also know a thing or two about brand-building and reputation management – issues that are increasingly to the fore as sport wakes up to its enormous commercial potential. Sport has a huge media profile and massive demographic reach, so it’s easy to see why corporates want to associate themselves with it and why cities want to host big events – they’re hoping to boost their own brands. But it’s also why sport can involve huge reputational risks (as the sponsors of Tiger Woods and Wayne Rooney will tell you). And that’s where someone like Mike Lee comes in.
Lee is a London-based PR man, who first made his name in sport as spokesman for the Premier League during the 1990s, before moving on to a senior role at Uefa, the European football confederation. Then came the gig that cemented his reputation: as director of communications for London’s 2012 Olympic bid, Lee was in charge of the messaging strategy that proved to be so crucial to the campaign’s success in 2005. In 2006, he left to start Vero, a communications consultancy specialising in the business of sport. He has since helped bring the 2016 Olympics to Rio de Janeiro and, remarkably, the 2022 World Cup to Qatar (England’s 2018 World Cup bid team failed to secure Lee’s services. Guess what happened next?).
So how has this low-profile Englishman – best known in some circles as the partner of controversial ex-chief executive of Lambeth council Heather Rabbatts – become one of the most influential people in world sport?
We meet at Vero’s office, in a nondescript building just off the Strand. Like its chairman, it’s small and unshowy. In fact, Lee couldn’t be further from your archetypal slick, sharp-suited, smooth-talking PR man. He’s quieter, more serious, more guarded – perfectly cordial, but not particularly warm; he never ducks a question, but gives very little away. He doesn’t strike you as a charmer, but as an accomplished operator who does his best work out of the spotlight, building strategies and pulling the right levers, while leaving the politicians to get on with the glad-handing.
That said, Lee is very much a political animal. Born to a coal-mining family in Sunderland, his tribal affiliation to Labour survived a scholarship to grammar school and then three years at Oxford. After graduating with a degree in politics, he went to work for the party as an organiser. He was soon lured to Westminster to work for David Blunkett (‘For a guy who wasn’t the most senior politician at the time, he was very media-savvy,’ says Lee admiringly). He cut his campaigning teeth with the anti-poll tax movement and the 1992 general election. But not even Lee’s efforts could rescue Neil Kinnock. Labour lost and, soon after, Lee took the pragmatic decision to move into the private sector with lobbying firm Westminster Strategy. ‘I was keen to try new things. And I had just become a father, so I needed to earn more money.’
At this point, he stumbled into sport. Soon after he joined, an opportunity came up to pitch for some work for football’s Premier League, then just two years old. As ‘a fanatical football supporter’, Lee was keen to get involved – and promptly won the business for his firm. The brief was a limited one: in essence, to keep the league out of the papers. But, over the next five years, it expanded to consume more and more of Lee’s time. Ultimately, he would oversee all the league’s media and press operations, as well as advising on its commercial strategy and political relationships, dealing with the clubs and promoting its grass-roots efforts.
This was a hugely significant period for English football. All-seater stadia (a consequence of the post-Hillsborough Taylor Report) and the crackdown on hooliganism were already starting to broaden the game’s appeal. The Premier League – and, more specifically, its TV partnership with upstart broadcaster Sky – took the game to a new level. Audiences and revenues boomed, and not just in the UK. ‘English football had some great club brands overseas, like Manchester United and Liverpool,’ Lee explains, ‘so the next step was: can we do that with the competition itself?’ It succeeded, spectacularly. These days, says Lee, ‘if you travel internationally and talk about sport, the Premier League is the leading club league in the world.’ Who’d have thought 20 years ago that a Russian oligarch would one day spend the best part of a billion pounds on one of our top clubs, or that the top players would earn more in a couple of months than most of us earn in a lifetime?
Lee is reluctant to take too much credit for the Premier League’s meteoric rise (as he puts it: ‘I’ve been more influential in other projects’). But he clearly made a big impression within football, because in 2000 he was head-hunted by Uefa to become director of communications, a newly created senior role, based in Geneva. As well as all the media work around the Champions League, the job had a big political angle: Lee’s remit covered lobbying in Brussels, schmoozing the big clubs and wrangling with world governing body Fifa. So by the time London 2012 came calling in 2003, he knew his way around sport’s international corridors of power.
This was the role where Lee clearly found his true calling. The success of London – and Vero’s subsequent achievements with Rio and Qatar – made him the pre-eminent authority on how to run a big bid campaign. So what’s the secret formula? ‘It’s not a template. There are certain things you always need to think about. But how you apply them, and how they vary – that’s the art.’ Strong leadership is a prerequisite, he says; the replacement of struggling bid chair Barbara Cassani with Lord Coe in 2004 proved to be a turning point for London, after a sticky start. Good lobbying and media relations are important too. But, above all else, says Lee, it’s about narratives.
‘The whole idea of Vero is that great communications have to be based on great narratives that are truthful. You have to be able to think and work strategically; you need to be sitting at the top table, thinking through brand and reputation issues and developing plans.’ This, more than anything, is what sets Lee apart. So much of sport-related marketing is tactical (‘promo PR’, as Lee calls it sniffily). Lee’s great strength is as a strategist, working out what that crucial point of difference is.
For 2012, the focus was on legacy: regenerating a deprived area and inspiring a new generation of young people to get into sport. But, for Lee, this was part of a bigger picture: ‘We wanted people to think: the London guys are interesting because they’re thinking about the next generation of viewers for the Games; they’re thinking about the needs of different stakeholders; they do the best films, the best PR; they’ve got the most energy … A lot of this is about creating the right buzz.’
Narratives can be about addressing an area of reputational weakness too. Rio had failed to win the games by focusing on its carnival atmosphere and the historical significance of bringing the Games to South America. So Lee concentrated on the boring stuff. There was talk about Brazil’s economic stability (he even wheeled out the governor of the central bank to impress delegates), its investment in infrastructure and its efforts to improve security. ‘We were saying: it’s a bold, historic decision to come to Rio – but it won’t be a risky one.’
A narrative may be about identifying relative strengths: with Lee’s campaign for the 2018 Winter Olympics, the aim is to portray South Korea as a new market and regional hub for winter sport in Asia, as opposed to the mature markets represented by Annecy and Munich. (SK’s previous, Lee-free campaign, for the 2014 Winter Games, had suggested it could broker a peace between North and South Korea – ‘yeah, right’, Lee scoffs.)
Lee may have surpassed himself by convincing Fifa to take the World Cup to Qatar – a desert country that has no real heritage of the game and where it’s too hot to play football in summer. Nobody gave Qatar a prayer. But Lee’s team worked hard at getting the international media onside – even if that meant exposing the Qataris to western-style questioning. ‘We never shirked a question,’ he says. ‘Israel; alcohol; the heat. People were surprised Qatar was so much on the front foot.’ Clearly, it paid off.
Vero works with all kinds of organisations involved in the business of sport. Lee recently advised New England Sports Ventures during its acrimonious takeover battle at Liverpool FC, for instance. Here the reputational challenge was to distance itself from the previous US owners and establish its credentials as a thoughtful outfit with a proven track record and a long-term view (so far, so good).
And he represented Tottenham in its battle with West Ham over the Olympic Stadium’s future, a brave move for two reasons: one, Lee used to be on West Ham’s board; and, two, Tottenham wanted to knock the stadium down, slightly awkward for someone so involved in creating 2012’s legacy theme (unusually, he lost that in round one; an appeal is in, though).
Lee got a bit of criticism for that campaign, just as he did over Qatar. Critics accused him of being nothing more than a hired gun. Lee begs to differ. ‘I tend to work on things that I do believe in,’ he insists. ‘Reputation matters a lot. So it is right that you should have to defend your client list.’ But where does he draw the line? How does he know today’s Qatar won’t be tomorrow’s Libya? ‘We don’t live in a perfect world, so you’ve just got to make sure you work in the right way, with the right people.’ Isn’t it annoying to become the focus of attention? ‘If you’re going to be involved with campaigns like these, you can’t hide in a corner. I don’t seek publicity, but you can’t dissociate yourself from the bid; you need to give something of yourself.’
Despite the risks of getting involved in sport, it’s hard to see corporates (or cities) losing faith. ‘Sport can deliver a global audience, gets a disproportionate amount of media attention, and it’s relatively recession-proof,’ as Jim Glover, CEO of Chime Sports Marketing, puts it. Although sponsors are getting much smarter now about what they expect to get out of it, says Glover: ‘Companies are defining their objectives in a much more rigorous way. They’re focused on getting a return on their investment’ – whether that means cold, hard sales, or softer metrics such as improved engagement with the brand.
Either way, the rise of Lee is symptomatic of how sport has changed. There’s so much at stake commercially, the power lies not with those holding brands’ purse strings, but with the guardians of their reputations.
By James Taylor