Eating The Big Fish: How New Governing Bodies are Sport’s Latest Challenger Brands

Eating The Big Fish: How New Governing Bodies are Sport’s Latest Challenger Brands  

Casey Harwood: Commercial Director; Engage Digital Partners

We love to hear the opinions and thoughts of our network, and here are the thoughts of Casey Harwood, Commercial Director of Engage Digital Partners. In this piece, Casey looks at how sports’ challenger brands can – thanks to the increased prevalence of Private Equity in the sector – ‘Eat the Big Fish’ successfully.


Adam Morgan’s 1999 book, ‘Eating The Big Fish – How Challenger Brands Can Compete Against Brand Leaders’, remains as relevant today as it was then. Today, the agent of change has been the democratisation of content, with COVID19 accelerating it, combined with the new dynamic being brought to bear by Private Equity.

You don’t have to look far to see how this trend has been headlining over the past year or so; following a successful stint in F1, CVC is increasingly invested in rugby. Similarly, around 20 private equity firms have expressed an interest in a $300m stake in the Bundesliga; whilst the powerhouse that is Silver Lake, the technology investment specialists, is involved in a range of interests from UFC to City Group.

Successful rights holders in today’s market are the ones which have invested in a measured, content-led fan engagement plan, monetising it along the way to give greater self-sufficiency in an OTT world and thus converting to higher valuations in the future.

In these interesting times, the saying that ‘hungry stomachs make for keen minds’ has rarely been more apt, but far from being a negative force in driving commercial & financed backed partnerships – sometimes between surprising bedfellows, what the brands entering these partnerships are learning is that 2+2=4 or more; whatsmore this isn’t just about Private Equity.

One sport which is the standard bearer for this is horse racing. Given its footfall – the largest in the UK after football – where were the ‘hungry minds’ here? In short, several rights holders realized that despite the sport’s scale, access to data and off course focus, the betting companies were doing a better job engaging fans’ hearts, minds…and wallets, and action was needed to reclaim its market – by working together.

The initial journey in redressing this came in the form of World Horse Racing (WHR), a joint venture between VRC, Ascot, Goodwood and the Breeders Cup. Focussing on D2C digital platforms, despite having no direct access to the uber-valuable live rights or instant highlights, the World Horse Racing Channel is now the fourth largest digital social channel in the sport.

The team collaborated on creations that went beyond the congested delayed-highlights packages that are the mainstay of so many digital strategies. By delivering fresh, audience-friendly long and short-form content, WHR is gaining followers at double the rate of its rivals, including and Sky’s At The Races. With 200,000 fans & subscribers added in 2020, WHR will be the frontrunner in the sector in less than three years from launch.

This has been achieved through a strong blend of content, stakeholder alignment, seed investment and the right agency partners. The Hong Kong Jockey Club (whose annual turnover is a staggering $30bn) has now joined the partnership; a reflection on the potential of a global push in 2021.

What underpins all brands in the challenger space in sport is that each one has an outstanding handle on its own data … and private equity & investors value data very highly.

As we move into 2021, expect to see more ‘new or quasi’ governing bodies arrive on the landscape as the marriage of challenger brands and investment becomes more mutually attractive.

Be assured as this happens, the days of standard-issue TV, highlights-masquerading-as-digital-content and the ROI on content seen as only as a simple ‘minimum guarantee’ are over.