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Former Sky Sports MD Francis appointed to WePlay advisory board

Barney Francis, the former managing director of the UK arm of Sky Sports, has been appointed to the advisory board of specialist sports marketing agency WePlay.

Francis worked at Sky for more than two decades and served as managing director of Sky Sports for 10 years after replacing Vic Wakeling in the role in 2009. But in January this year it was announced he was leaving, just 10 months after he was appointed chief executive of Sky’s Future Sport division as part of a management restructure following Comcast’s takeover of the broadcaster.

The outgoing Sky executive, who is on gardening leave until the end of the year but has been cleared to take the WePlay position, will advise the agency on business growth two days every month.

WePlay’s advisory board, which was formed in 2019 after an initial round of investment, is chaired by Simon Cummins, global head of executive search and recruitment company Odgers Berndtson’s sports, media and gaming practice. It also features Olivier Gers, former IMG, MediaCom, Endemol and one-time IAAF (World Athletics) chief executive; Adam Bellamy, the former chief financial officer of the PureGym chain of health clubs; and Nick Basing, chairman of bowling-alley operator Ten Entertainment.

The specialist agency uses data insights to help sports organisations to achieve their growth objectives across direct-to-consumer revenue streams. The firm, which has offices in London, Paris and Madrid, has a global roster of sports clients including Fifa, LaLiga, the European Club Association, Paris Saint-Germain, Ironman, PGA European Tour, British Athletics, Ligue de Football Professionnel (LFP), Olympique de Marseille and AC Milan.

Francis told SportBusiness he was attracted to the company’s ‘outcomes over outputs approach’ which focuses on giving clients a tangible solution rather than making suggestions about how they can increase revenues. He said the need for sports organisations to identify new direct-to-consumer revenue streams will become even more pronounced if spectators continue to be locked out of stadiums because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

He referenced the way the agency had worked with Fifa during the early stages of the crisis to market the governing body’s archive on social media as an example of the way the agency could help sports bodies adapt to lockdown restrictions.

“WePlay are a good horse to back given all the changes that are going to ensue [after] the Covid crisis,” he told SportBusiness. “I’ve dealt with agencies for many years and I like the fact that these guys are not a big building with hundreds of people demanding retainers, and all those sorts of things. Their approach is very much driven by going to events [and] sports federations and saying: ‘We can really help you because we think you are under-monetising the interest in in your entity.’”

Francis said he would help to assess business opportunities and “assist with B2B conversations” with a particular focus on helping OTT platforms to market their services and build revenue streams. WePlay’s existing broadcast and OTT clients include ESPN and UFC Fight Pass.

“There are some global OTT players right now that I think could do with WePlay’s support and that’s part of the strategy going forward,” he said.

He explained that the appointment emerged out of a conversation with chairman Cummins in February about the agency’s work helping Serie A club AC Milan to build attendances at its San Siro stadium. The firm drew on research which indicated the Italian city was the fifth most popular travel destination in Europe to develop a marketing campaign for business travellers to attend AC Milan games.

“They had a San Siro that doesn’t reach its capacity and they had people traveling to the city for business who might want something to do in the evenings. They increased footfall to home games by a significant sum that generated a very large amount of additional revenue to them,” he told SportBusiness.

Luca Massaro, chief executive at WePlay, said: “It is absolutely fantastic to welcome someone of Barney’s experience, industry clout and knowledge to the WePlay team. 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 e-commerce 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.”

During his time at Sky, Francis oversaw the broadcaster’s acquisition of rights to sports like Formula 1 motor racing and golf’s Open Championship and US Masters for the first time.

The broadcaster also added a raft of sport-specific and pop-up event channels to showcase its various properties and led a major push into broadcasting women’s cricket, golf and netball.