David Owen

Rumour had it that the International Equestrian Federation (FEI) were handing out carrots to Sportel delegates.

As I subsequently discovered, this was not completely true: FEI staff were offering glasses of carrot juice to the assembled sports industry professionals (some of whom just might have been burning the candle at both ends), from a carrot-adorned booth on the edge of the FEI lounge, a popular meeting-point.

No matter: the use of a humble root vegetable, beloved of horses, to set yourself apart in this pulsating 21st century bazaar, where most of the focus is on the latest tech and market trends, struck me as an ingenious marketing gambit.

This carrot-juice offensive was one manifestation of a much-enhanced FEI presence at Sportel compared with the last time I had attended the event in Monte Carlo the previous year.

Twelve months ago, the only evidence I saw of the equestrian governing body was a smallish stand, made out partly to resemble a show-jumping jump, that might have looked appealing in a different setting, but here looked out of place.

IGlasses of carrot juice were among the incentives offered to delegates attending the SPORTEL conference
Glasses of carrot juice were among the incentives offered to delegates attending the SPORTEL conference ©SPORTEL

So what was going on? Was this an initiative of the new boss, FEI President Ingmar De Vos, in situ for less than a year?

Was it perhaps a reflection of the insecurity felt by several Olympic sports since wrestling’s traumatic near-death experience in 2013?

Christian Osterode, the FEI’s senior manager, head of broadcasting and media rights, was on hand to provide an explanation at a short meeting in the show-jumping-jump stand, which had returned to Monaco, lightly modified, for another year.

It turns out that the organisation’s profile had already been raised at Sportel’s spring meeting in Miami, where they used the event to launch a North American league of World Cup Jumping.

“We wanted that launch to be a little bit outside the regular equestrian community,” Osterode explained.

“The timing of Miami was good; it felt like an organic fit to that launch.”

“Also in Miami, we were able to bring in key athletes [such as Jessica Springsteen].

“Many riders have horses in Florida over the winter.”

This time around, according to Osterode, “We thought we wanted to take this opportunity to make people aware we are part of the Olympic family, looking forward to Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020.

“In a usual year,” he went on, “Sportel is a commercial exercise.

“This year we wanted to use it strategically to approach rights-holding broadcasters.”

This was with a view to establishing a point of contact and identifying what the needs of broadcasters are likely to be while they are in Rio and how the FEI can work with them to the parties’ mutual benefit.

Will the broadcasters need athletes made available to them over the course of the Games? What will be the transport and other logistical implications of complying with such requests? That sort of thing.

And the thing with the carrot juice in the sponsored lounge?

That, says Osterode, was about presenting the FEI as an organisation in “a fresher way”.

He goes on: “Equestrian sport is approachable; it’s not stiff.

“It comes with an interesting set of values.

“There are two athletes, one of whom is an animal.

“We are actually more modern than many people might think.”

The International Equestrian Federation have doubled their broadcasting revenues in the last year, they claim
The International Equestrian Federation have doubled their broadcasting revenues in the last year, they claim ©FEI

Osterode credits the previous FEI President, Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein, with initiating the transformation process and “changing the FEI from a somewhat old-fashioned traditional governing body into a modern organisation that caters for the variety of stakeholders involved in the sport…

“There was a lot of groundwork to be done under Princess Haya,” he says.

In her second term, “you could see things started to change”.

Now “we are at an exciting stage where we see all the efforts put into this change are falling into place”.

It sounds like one welcome consequence of the modernisation process has been an increase in the sums the FEI generates from its media rights – which may, of course, provide another part of the explanation for the body’s prominent presence at Sportel during 2015.

“We brought all our media rights and broadcast production business to market last year,” Osterode tells me, characterising the response in the market as “very healthy.

“We were able,” he continues, “to significantly increase the revenues we get from this area” – even if “we are not comparable with the likes of football and athletics”.

Asked to define “significantly”, he replies “more than doubled”.

As he explains, the FEI stuck ultimately with the same partners, agreeing an eight-year deal with the European Broadcasting Union, as well as a long-term broadcasting rights distribution agreement with IMG.

“We want to be seen as reliable and good partners,” he says.

“We feel we have an interesting content offering…

“We know we have to get more media-friendly with competition formats.

“We thought it might be advisable to team up for a sufficiently long time to develop those things.”

If the organisation applies the inventiveness and, in my experience, new-found sense of humour it has deployed in its last two Sportel outings, it should in time succeed in getting its message across.