The Brand Radar: Welbeck Publishing, The FA and creativity in sports licensing

Prompted by the announcement of Welbeck Publishing’s England: The Official History, Start Licensing’s Ian Downes looks at how this kind of launch can create a ripple effect for The FA.

Sports licensing is now firmly on the licensing map and encompasses a wide range of sports, events and teams. Examples of sports licensing programmes range from those associated with tournaments – like the recent UEFA EURO 2020 – through to team-based campaigns such as that associated with the British Olympic team, TEAM GB.

Sports licensing has been around for some time. Some 25 years ago at Copyright Promotions I helped set up a Sports Licensing division and we represented rights such as the England & Wales Cricket Board and the National Fishing Association.

If we glance over to the United States, it’s easy to see the potential that sports licensing has and how it can become embedded in sports fan culture. To some extent sports licensing is a specialist area, with a group of licensees in place who service the market well, building up strong portfolios of rights. FOCO is a good example of this type of licensee – they have developed a fantastic range of football related merchandise that is based around club and international teams.

Ian Downes, The Brand Radar

Licensees in the sports category often become go-to licensees, with rightsholders choosing to work companies that have experience and a proven route to market. This creates stability in the market and builds confidence amongst rightsholders. However, this approach needs to be balanced with an effort on the licensee’s side to invest in NPD and seek out new distribution channels. It has also been good to see licensees such as Funko jump into the sports arena from their more traditional entertainment homeland.

Ian Downes, The Brand Radar

All categories of licensing need fresh ideas and players in them to keep things moving forward. With this in mind it was good to read about a new signing by The Football Association (The FA).

The FA is the not-for-profit governing body of football in England and is responsible for promoting and developing the game. Part of their role is to oversee England international teams across men’s, women’s, youth and disability football. The FA has been quite active in licensing with a lot of their focus around the England teams.

As noted earlier, sometimes licensing programmes in sport – and football in particular – can become formulaic and have very similar component parts. The FA’s deal with Welbeck Publishing Group is a great example of a new approach to licensing a sports brand and to engaging with a commercial publishing company. Welbeck have announced that they will publish the first officially licensed History of the England football team. The book, England: The Official History, is due for publication on October 14th and will feature England’s UEFA EURO 2020 performance.

Ian Downes, The Brand Radar

The FA celebrates its 150th birthday in 2022 and the book is timed to tie into the anniversary. Written by Daniel Storey, the book features more than 250 photos and provides an insight into the England national team in both the men’s and women’s games. It will feature players and managers including Sir Alf Ramsey, Hope Powell, Gary Lineker and Steph Houghton. It sets out to be the definitive history of English football. Developing a book like this seems a really good move by The FA as it’s a strong product to associate with their anniversary and also creates a solid platform to build a wider publishing from.

Publishing hasn’t always been the strongest component of sports licensing programmes, in part because it can be a challenging category rights-wise and is a very competitive space. Competition can come from non-licensed books, but a variety of other types of books too, such as sporting biographies and autobiographies. It feels, in this case, that The FA have made a conscious decision to up their game in deciding to work with a publisher who is comfortable with this kind of book format.

This feels like a project of significance for The FA and one they would have considered carefully. It seems one of The FA’s goals was to create a benchmark work which will be seen as a definitive one that can be updated and refreshed. It is sure to be well received by bookshops and is a book they can build strong displays around. One would expect it to be a title that generates significant consumer PR as well.

From a licensing programme point of view, this will be a product that The FA can point to as one that sets the standard for new product development and it should spur other licensees on. It may also become the centrepiece of a wider publishing programme, but also open up opportunities in other product categories and activities. I can see it inspiring a collector’s programme, an art programme and an exhibition.

Sometimes the value in a licensing deal goes beyond the deal terms and certain products can create a ripple effect for the rightsholder. They can inspire other companies from other categories to think creatively. It’s also important that The FA trusts its publishing partner as a book of this nature is quite labour intensive and will take a lot of time to develop. The FA needs to know that Welbeck will deliver a good product that provides a good return on their investment. Welbeck Publishing is a publisher that has the right pedigree for a project like this, fusing publishing acumen with a commercial drive. No doubt it will inspire others from the sporting world to think about what they can develop of a similar nature.

It’s good to see developments like this one and that companies are thinking beyond standard formats when it comes to licensing. I am sure England: The Official History will be appearing on a few Christmas wish lists this year but will also be bought by other sports licensors curious to see how it has been developed.

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