Gers blames 'pre-existing commercial framework' as he resigns from IAAF
By Callum Murray
Olivier Gers today resigned after just 17 months as chief executive of the IAAF on a bad day for athletics’ world governing body, after Sebastian Coe, its president, was separately singled out for criticism in a report on doping issued by a UK parliamentary select committee which accused Coe of giving “misleading answers” about doping in Russian athletics.
In a surprisingly forthright statement on Gers’ resignation, the IAAF quoted him as saying: “Whilst I am sorry to be leaving, the pre-existing commercial framework makes it difficult for me to apply my talents and fully leverage the assets of the IAAF in the way I would like. Given my stance, I have resigned so the IAAF can pursue a different commercial strategy for the sport.”
The explanation appears to be a reference to the IAAF’s long-term deal with Dentsu, the Japanese advertising giant heavily involved in sports marketing, which ties the governing body’s hands commercially until 2029. In 2014, the IAAF raised eyebrows by once again signing off on a 10-year extension of the commercial partnership, in which Dentsu operates as the worldwide marketing and licensing partner for the top-tier IAAF World Athletics Series and as the distributor of media rights on behalf of the federation outside Europe and sub-Saharan Africa.
The existing deal, which is also for 10 years, does not expire until 2019. It is thought that the new deal is worth around £14 million ($22.6 million) per year to the IAAF. The IAAF said at the time that the long-term renewal brings “continued financial stability” to the federation, allowing it to “move ahead with its development and promotion of athletics globally while at the same time providing a long-term platform for Dentsu to continue its successful commercialisation of the IAAF’s leading events.”
Nevertheless, many commentators expressed surprise that the federation would commit itself to an agency for such a long period. In an exclusive interview with Sportcal in December 2016, shortly after his appointment, Gers said that his new administration had no intention of attempting to renege on the deal, but added: “We’re talking to Dentsu about being more active [in the exploitation of the rights]. The previous regime [at the IAAF] was more passive. They’re [Dentsu] welcoming those efforts.”
Gers continued: “We haven’t worked enough with partners in the past to maximise their sponsorship. We have to go beyond the world of billboards and posters, it has to be a world of engagement, of reach, of ‘cool marketing’. We never had the facility in the past for our partners to do this.”
However, there has been little sign of the ‘cool marketing’ that Gers advocated, with Dentsu’s iron grip ensuring that a small group of Japanese companies continues to occupy the positions of official partners of the World Athletics Series (Asics, Seiko and TDK).
Gers insisted in today’s statement that much has been accomplished in his short period leading the organisation, citing: “outlining a new strategic plan for growth, bringing a new leadership team in place to achieve this plan, securing broadcast and digital rights to expand audiences for the sport, innovating audiovisual coverage of the sport with the creation of IAAF Productions as evidenced by the recent World Indoor Tour, changing processes at the Monaco Headquarters to better serve the sport. With the team now in place I am confident the organisation is in the best possible hands to drive growth.”
However, one source close to the IAAF took a different view, suggesting that Gers had created internal friction over his marketing ideas and had clashed with the ruling Council over his appointment of officials who were regarded as outsiders in the sport. Moreover, the source suggested, the IAAF is "lucky to have Dentsu."
France’s Gers emerged from a background of working with brands for the likes of Publicis and IMG after the IAAF conducted a six-month search for a first-ever chief executive involving over 200 candidates.
Gers, who was appointed as the IAAF faced a major doping and corruption centred on Russian athletics, said at the time that “the IAAF is at a challenging and exciting junction” and is “a multi-million dollar business that needs to stay relevant, build its fan base and re-establish trust.”
He added: “Sitting at the heart of the sport are the athletes and their remarkable achievements. Bringing the global athletes and their fans closer together through technology is the ultimate goal to driving the business of athletics forward and I believe my commercial, marketing and digital experience will help to achieve this.”
Coe said today: “I would like to thank Olivier for the work he has done particularly around putting a strong team in place at the IAAF, developing a strategic plan and securing broadcast and digital rights to expand audiences for athletics globally.
“Coming off the best world championships we have ever had [in London in 2017], having established a set of reforms that solidly underpins the governance of the sport and having established a solid foundation for growth, we will move forward with the innovation that will bring in new fans and new partners.”
Coe told a select committee in December 2015 that he was “not aware” of specific allegations of corruption in Russian athletics before they were made in a German TV documentary in December 2014, but the select committee report said that “it stretched credibility to believe” that Coe was not aware “at least in general terms” of allegations that the IAAF’s own ethics commission had already been asked to investigate.
Gers will continue in his role for the next three months and the IAAF said that it “will be recruiting a new CEO in due course.”