Foulser: ‘Cost-effective’ bid key to S+V’s solo Commonwealth Games appointment

A “cost-effective” proposal that stripped back unnecessary spending was one of the critical factors in Sunset+Vine being appointed host broadcaster of the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, according to Jeff Foulser, chairman of the UK-based production company.

Sunset+Vine was named on Monday as the host broadcaster of the next edition of the multi-sports games, and potentially the 2026 and 2030 editions, the venues for which have yet to be decided.

The value of the potential three-Games contract is £78m (€86.1m/$98.5m) excluding VAT, as reported by SportBusiness.

Foulser said that Sunset+Vine approached the tender “in a different way to how other multi-sports games are put together”, by placing the emphasis on the creative approach and not basing the bid around the technical delivery.

He told SportBusiness: “One of the big factors you were marked heavily on in the bid was the price. We came in with a good price because we stripped back the layers that we didn’t think we needed and hopefully the fruits of it will be seen on screen.

“We didn’t set out to be the cheapest – not remotely – but we started with the creative side and when we did the numbers to support that then we were quite surprised how cost effective we could be. That’s not to say cheap. This is not going to look cheap, it’s going to look like real high-end, top-quality production but it’s done in a cost-effective way.

“It is vital, and particularly in these times [during the Covid-19 pandemic], that you get the bottom-line number right as well as everything else.”

The tender process was launched 10 months ago by Birmingham 2022 and CGF Partnerships, the commercial vehicle set up by the Commonwealth Games Federation and the Sportfive agency. This meant that Sunset+Vine and other bidders had to lodge their proposals well before the financial effect of the Covid-19 pandemic effect took hold.

However, Foulser stressed that Sunset+Vine’s proposal had always been cost-effective, maintaining that “just chucking more cameras at something is not the answer”.

Sunset+Vine “looked at everything and stripped everything back”, but still intends to put in place “innovative coverage and a very good watch”, according to its chairman.

Foulser cited the example of the minimum of 32 cameras used by Sunset+Vine at the 2019 Cricket World Cup in its role as production services partner to ICC TV, the international federation’s host broadcast arm. The women’s Twenty20 cricket that will feature at Birmingham could be produced with 10 fewer cameras, he said, and you’d “hardly notice the difference”.

Sunset+Vine’s contract entails full delivery of all aspects of the Birmingham 2022 host broadcast, including the capturing of multi-camera broadcast coverage across all 19 sports, plus the opening and closing ceremonies and additional material such as preview series, support programming, highlights programmes and short-form content.

At the games, Sunset+Vine is to provide a range of extra services, including a 24/7 Games Channel featuring the best of each day’s action, plus a multi-channel service consisting of six uninterrupted feeds comprised of a combination of live and delayed action for linear broadcast and digital platforms. The International Broadcast Centre is also to be designed, installed and managed by Sunset+Vine.

Sunset+Vine was also involved in the host broadcast of the 2014 and 2018 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow and the Gold Coast, respectively, but this time the company has secured the sole remit. Foulser said: “The relationships for the last two [Games] were great and worked very well, but we felt we wanted the freedom to do it on our own.”

Sunset+Vine formed a joint venture with Global Television, the Australia-based broadcast services company, to handle the 2014 host broadcast. It then joined Seven Network, the Australian free-to-air commercial broadcaster, in supporting broadcast production group NEP (which bought Global Television in 2013) for the 2018 host broadcast.

Experience in producing major sports events on its own, such as the World Athletics Championships, have left Sunset+Vine in a position to take on such projects alone, Foulser said.

“We felt that this is in our back yard, we know the market very well, we know all the facilities and graphics companies. We felt comfortable that we could put together a strong bid both creatively and technically and, as a business, any profit we keep to ourselves rather than having to share it around.

Jeff Foulser

“That was a risk and there would have been questions asked if we hadn’t got it having gone on our own, but I think we were vindicated.”

On the strategy adopted, Foulser added: “We wanted to approach this in a different way to the way other multi-sport games are put together, which tend to be based around the technical delivery solution. Because we’re a creative production business, we wanted to turn that on its head and say what we want to do creatively and then let the technical side fall in after it.

“We wanted to reinvigorate the way the coverage was done and empower the people working on it more than has been done in the past.”

Along with the “big lift” provided to the company during difficult times for the production industry, Foulser admitted to a “bit of relief” in securing the Commonwealth Games contract.

He remarked: “You spend a lot of money on these bids, which you have to do, and it was a very long process. It was incredibly rigorous which we understand as it’s government money and you have to commit a lot in terms of resource and money.

“It would have been quite bruising in many ways had we lost it. Pride is one thing but it would have been an expensive bid to have lost. But if you want to play at these tables then that’s what you have to do.”

The process was “fair and well run”, Foulser said, insisting that “had we lost I’d have said the same thing”.

Processes to recruit facilities providers, including outside broadcast (OB) vehicle suppliers and graphics providers, are now set to be initiated by Sunset+Vine.

‘Not phased’ by uncertainty over 2026 and 2030 locations

The appointment of Sunset+Vine for the Birmingham 2022 games includes an option to extend the agreement to the 2026 and 2030 editions but the venues for those games remain unknown, making planning any associated costs difficult at this stage.

The CGF recently gave Hamilton in Canada a September deadline to secure the necessary government backing to bid for the 2026 Commonwealth Games. In recent times, the CGF has also been keen to highlight the economic boost the games can offer hosts. In May, it published a report touting an average economic impact of £1bn for the Commonwealth Games this century.

Under the terms of the host broadcast deal, a ‘host broadcasting master services agreement’ has been entered into between CGF Partnerships and Sunset+Vine, while a services agreement has been put in place between Birmingham 2022 and the production company. CGF Partnerships has the option to re-appoint Sunset+Vine in 2026 and 2030 subject to the consent of the relevant host city and the successful delivery of the services in 2022 (and then in 2026).

Asked about its potential role at future games, Foulser replied: “We don’t have qualms about covering events anywhere else in the world. Commonwealth countries tend to be pretty safe places to go to so wherever it is, I think we’d feel comfortable.

“We’ve covered cricket all round the world in India, Bangladesh, Australia, South Africa and Zimbabwe, and we covered the World Equestrian Games in North Carolina last year.

“We’ve done lots of events all over so it doesn’t phase us at all. It’s just a question of getting your planning right and getting the right facilities partners.”

He added: “It’s encouraging that it’s a possibility of a three-games deal but we realise we have to deliver this one [Birmingham 2022] first and then if we do it really well, I think we’ll be fine for the next one and the one after. We’ve got the mechanism in place to make this a multi-games deal but we’ve got to deliver this one and in the best possible way first.”

Staff return to work

Speaking to SportBusiness in April, Foulser revealed that around 100 of the company’s 130 full-time employees had been furloughed in response to the Covid-19 pandemic that brought production of live sports events to a halt.

The move affected Sunset+Vine’s staff at its Hammersmith headquarters, at the Stratford-based production facility of pay-television broadcaster BT Sport and at the company’s Scottish and Welsh operations. Higher earners also took pay cuts to ease the financial pressure.

Sunset+Vine is now going through the gradual process of ‘unfurloughing’ staff as live sport returns. English Premier League football returned on June 17 and Premiership Rugby is to resume in August, with the company producing live coverage from both leagues on behalf of BT Sport. Foulser also expects the Caribbean Premier League to resume next month, allowing Sunset+Vine to reprise its host broadcaster role.

He observed: “The whole aim of the furlough scheme and salary cuts that we had to make were to conserve cash and keep the business going. Clearly wins like this make a big difference because money starts to come through the door from them.

“Clients like BT [Sport] have kept on paying us. They’ve provided the most incredible support. We would have found it difficult not to make people redundant had it not been for BT.”

During the shutdown, Sunset+Vine continued to produce pundit-led football and rugby union programming for BT, adapting the format and production workflow accordingly.

Speaking in the wake of the Covid-19 hiatus, Foulser said that Sunset+Vine was “fortunate” to have a “strong balance sheet and plenty of cash in the business” given it’s part of a group of companies (the Tinopolis Group).