The alpine ski world cup season starts on Saturday with the women's giant slalom race in Sölden, Austria. The highlight of the '12-13 winter sports season is the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships in Schladming, Austria in February. FIS President Gian Franco Kasper took time to talk with SBD Global Staff Writer HJ Mai about what fans can expect from the '12-13 season, the progress of construction for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi and the organization's challenge to increase safety.
Q: What are your expectations for ‘12-13 winter sports season?
Gian Franco Kasper: We have a world championship season ahead of us. In three out of four years we either have world championships or Olympic Games, and this year is one with word championships. We will have four big world championships this winter. We will start in Canada in the province of Quebec with the Snowboard World Championships. Then we will have the Alpine World Ski Championships in Schladming, Austria. This is followed by the Nordic World Ski Championships, which consists of ski jumping, cross-country skiing and Nordic combined, in Val die Fiemme, Italy. And in March, we will hold the Freestyle World Ski Championships in Voss, Norway, which is close to Oslo. In addition, we will have junior world championships in all our events and not to be forgotten int’l competitions that are controlled by us. During the upcoming winter we will oversee almost 7,000 events, which is once again a new record. Included in those almost 7,000 events are 330 world cup events that are all live broadcast on TV, however, not all of them in every single country. You can see it is an extremely tightly-scheduled season that is ahead of us. We expect an exciting season, especially due to our world championships in great places that will certainly put on an amazing event.
Q: FIS has already sold out all of its sponsorship and hospitality packages to the Alpine World Ski Championships in Schladming. Has there always been such a rush on those packages, or is this an indication for an increased interest in alpine skiing?
Kasper: In general, it has always been like that, however, we have sold out our packages quite early this time around, also for the Nordic World Ski Championships. This is in part due to Eurovision, which holds all rights including the marketing rights, teaming up with a new agency that helps simplify the work and has better connections. However, since Eurovision has become the rights holder, the sale of sponsorship packages has been roughly the same. In addition, local organizers receive national sponsorship packages that they are allowed to sell. Overall, the sale of sponsorship packages has been going relatively well at all world championships, the prices have increased at the normal rate, and it is nice to be able to always count on our “old” partners that return year after year. It is a good sign for us.
Q: What is FIS’ major selling point in negotiations with potential sponsors for its events?
Kasper: First, I have to say that we as FIS only sell title sponsorships. Everything else at world cup races we leave to the organizers. However, two-and-a-half to three years ago we founded our own marketing agency together with two other big agencies, Infront and Tridem. We are the majority stakeholders of the FIS Marketing AG. The result is that many sponsorship deals are now signed on a global scale, meaning not for an individual event. For example, we have 70 alpine ski world cup events this winter, but that does not mean we have 70 different sponsors. Instead, we have certain sponsors that buy season packages or just for part of the season. This concept has proved to be effective. The reason why we again and again team up with our “old” partners is that we highly value our partnerships. We always kept our pricing reasonable to make sure that we generate the same amount of revenue the next time around. We have tried to increase our prices in a linear fashion, this is true for marketing rights as well as TV rights, and it has proven to be successful. We certainly could get more money, if we would sell each world championship individually and not over several years. We might would be make more money in a certain year, but we have to deal with new partners that do not necessarily know what is going on, especially in regard to TV coverage. If you have a 10-year deal with Eurovision, the whole thing simply becomes much easier and simpler.
Q: You recently returned from an inspection trip to Sochi, and you were reportedly worried about the construction progress. Is this true? And if yes, what’s the reason for your worries?
Kasper: I’ll travel at least twice or three-times a year to Sochi, therefore I see the progress of the construction. You have to realize that what was developed step-by-step in the Alps and in the U.S. over the past 200 years, Sochi has to build in five years. This automatically leads to the biggest construction site in the world. The progress is obvious, and I’m 100% convinced that everything will be perfectly completed when the Games start. What I criticized especially was the ski jumping area, which is still missing a lot of things, and will host a world cup event in December. I just had to put a little pressure on the organizers, so they will complete certain constructions such as a judge tower by the end of November, or if that is not possible at least build a temporary tower for the event in December. In addition, I criticized the low number of people who will be able to watch the competitions up on the mountains. This only applies to mountain events due to the limited transportation capabilities and the addition of new events that make it really crowded up there. Those are certain things that we are not thrilled about, however, I do not have any worries that Sochi could not be ready for the Olympics. President Putin [Russian President Vladimir Putin] holds his hand over Sochi, also financially, and if you know that 35,000 workers work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, I think we do not have anything to worry about. However, for the test events this winter, it will be a challenge to get everything ready in time.
Q: Ski Jumping Race Director Walter Hofer recently hinted at a possible world cup event inside a football stadium in Warsaw. How likely is it that such an event will actually take place?
Kasper: Such events have occurred every now and then, but Warsaw now had the idea to use an existing football stadium, build a jump tower outside of the stadium and locate the landing area inside the arena. It actually is not much different than a regular ski-jumping stadium except it is a football stadium. It is definitely an interesting idea, and it would get the fans closer to the action. It is not a new idea, but it is new that it is in Warsaw and that the athletes would jump into the stadium. It is a great advertisement for ski jumping, and it does not need a whole lot of preparation. However, it is still a long way from a funny idea to hosting the actual event.
Q: What is FIS’ top event in regard to revenue and audience numbers?
Kasper: It highly depends on the level of competitiveness of the individual nation. If you just look a few years back when Alberto Tomba was still skiing, the stadiums in Italy were completely overcrowded, and the enthusiasm was magnificent. After Tomba retired and no new champions followed, the overall interest and TV coverage started shrinking. The audience numbers are highly dependent on how successful a nation’s athletes are. We are simply lucky that our stadiums are sold out.
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However, there are new nations, Poland in ski jumping for example, that 10-15 years ago hosted events but nothing more, then in the case of Poland a ski jumping superstar appeared on the scene, Adam Malysz, and all of a sudden we needed additional security personnel to keep the people out of the stadiums. Globally, our audience increases by 8-9% a year. However, it varies between the different events, in freestyle skiing it less and in alpine skiing and ski jumping it is more. We just know that freestyle skiing, with the exception of ski-cross that is very popular with broadcasters, does not attract the same audience as a downhill race in Kitzbühel, Austria.
Q: What is FIS doing to attract people to its lesser-known sports such as Nordic combined?
Kasper: With Nordic combined you hit our sore spot. Nordic combined has always been, as long as I can remember, our problem child. It is not just a problem of Nordic combined, but of all multi-event sports such as heptathlon. Those sports are highly interesting and generate huge audience numbers during world championships and Olympic Games, but during the regular world cup season the audience numbers are relatively low. I think Nordic combined is a perfect example for how dependent an event is on the performance of athletes. When German Nordic combined athletes were competing for victory, ARD and ZDF covered the events live and also showed highlights in magazine shows, which led to high ratings. If this is not the case, the ratings drop drastically, and that’s exactly Nordic combined’s problem. We are now trying to, whenever possible, tag Nordic combined along with ski jumping or cross-country ski world cup events, which automatically leads to a higher media presence and therefore benefits organizers as long as they can provide the necessary facilities. This is one possibility of how to promote Nordic combined. Overall, we have a large number of support programs, targeting especially developing areas such as Asia, where we have supported China for years, Mongolia, Cyprus and many more. We spend €23M ($30M) annually for support programs in so-called developing countries.
Q: The majority of FIS events take place in Europe. What’s the reason for it, and does FIS try to establish more events outside of Europe?
Kasper: Yes, we try to establish more events outside of Europe. We also provide coaches to the different countries in order to help develop their own athletes that can compete internationally. However, it takes years of experience through national and international competitions until a country can host a big event. Take China for example, we have started hosting cross-county ski world cups there, which are very popular, and in freestyle China has already won Gold Medals. This means we have been successful, and our concept works. The 2018 Olympic Winter Games will most-likely create a winter sport boom in South Korea. In addition, we also host events in Australia and New Zealand, as well as in Argentina and Chile. Those countries are in the southern hemisphere, and therefore the interest of TV networks to broadcast these winter sport events in July and August in the U.S. and Europe is very limited. In the countries itself, the events have gained some recognition, but we have to acknowledge that those countries are no typical winter sport countries.
Q: Since you took office in ‘98, what has been the biggest challenge?
Kasper: The biggest challenge is to promote skiing as a whole. We have huge campaigns, such as “Bring Children to the Snow,” and many more that target the youth with the intention to bring the youth to the sport. Today’s youth rather sit in front of a screen or plays with its electronics than exploring nature or playing sports. Another challenge that concerns us on a daily basis is the safety of athletes. Deadly accidents happen from time to time despite our almost daily developments in the areas of safety measures and skiing equipment. There will never be a 100% safety guarantee in skiing, but we have to keep improving and keep the risks as low as humanly possible. Economically, we are relatively satisfied. I don’t want to say it comes by itself, but it almost comes by itself.