Former Sky Sports boss Francis joins WePlay advisory board
By Jonathan Rest
Barney Francis, the former long-serving head of broadcaster Sky Sports in the UK, has today been appointed to the advisory board of WePlay, the London-based sports marketing agency.
Francis will advise WePlay on business growth strategy, joining as an adviser to the WePlay board that was formed in late 2019 following an initial round of investment.
The heavyweight board also comprises chairman Simon Cummins, the global head of executive search firm Odgers Berndtson’s sports, media and gaming practice, Olivier Gers, the former chief executive of World Athletics, Adam Bellamy, former chief financial officer of PureGym, and Nick Basing, chairman of Ten Entertainment.
WePlay specialises in helping sports brands to achieve their commercial growth objectives across emerging direct-to-consumer revenue streams, esports, digital sponsorship and e-commerce.
Francis had served as managing director of Sky Sports from 2009 until his promotion in May 2019 to a new global role as chief executive of future sport, with responsibility for assessing international opportunities in the sector under new owner Comcast, the US media giant, and alongside now sister network NBC Universal.
He announced at the turn of the year that he would be leaving Sky, and a period of consultancy work with the pay-TV giant is set to come to an end later this year.
During his time at the helm of the UK's dominant pay-TV operator, he oversaw the acquisition of rights to Formula 1 motor racing and golf’s US Masters and British Open, while ensuring it remained the main TV home of English soccer’s much-coveted Premier League, with a new three-year rights deal kicking in last season, and English cricket, which it has retained until 2024.
Luca Massaro, chief executive of WePlay, praised Francis' "experience, industry clout and knowledge," adding: "The shift towards OTT and other direct-to-consumer sports revenue streams is accelerating exponentially and we have seen it directly over the Covid period, with 220 per cent growth in our OTT business, 140 per cent in ecommerce and over 300 per cent in digital sponsorship.
"We have aggressive growth plans to expand internationally and I firmly believe that Barney can help us to achieve our ambitions for the future, building on a proud track record of year-on-year growth since the agency’s inception."
On what attracted him to WePlay, Francis told Sportcal: "I’ve dealt with many agencies over last 20 years. I liked their approach, how agile they are, the leadership team. At the time they came to me I thought - and with hindsight even more so over the last few months - they are purpose built for the new era of sport.
"If I was on the buy side I’d love the idea of someone coming to me saying 'we are not the old school model of retainer and commissions, we will find new ways to drive additional revenues for you and then get a fee'. They’re not encumbered by old agency paradigms."
He believes WePlay's direct-to-consumer offering will be of particular interest to soccer clubs at a time when revenues are constrained by the absence of matchgoing fans during the coronavirus pandemic.
Francis, who also this week launched an e-bike commerce business with his three brothers, explained: "Everybody is looking at their cost base... In a changing dynamic of consumer habits, going DTC is an obvious thing to do.
"As a football fan, there is frustration you cannot go to the ground, but your passion for your team has not diminished, as Sky’s viewing figures will attest.
"But you're not going to the game, not buying a beer and a programme in the ground, so clubs will be thinking how can we generate revenue out of this fan. And that’s where WePlay come in. They have the data, they know how much you as a fan would normally spend on your club each year.
"Everyone spends money on their passions. That money could now go elsewhere, so the challenge for clubs is how to still get money out of you if you cannot attend the stadium for 19 of 38 league games."
Last week, the European Club Association, the body which represents 246 soccer teams across the continent, appointed WePlay to deliver its digital growth objectives.
WePlay’s list of sports clients also includes Fifa, Spain's LaLiga, France's LFP, soccer clubs AC Milan, Marseille and Paris Saint-Germain, Ironman, mixed martial arts' UFC, motor racing's World Rally Championship and golf's European Tour.