“You’d like to think that sports that have massive impacts in underprivileged areas would be prioritised, but sadly the priority is always medals, and Great Britain is well down the list in terms of potential for a medal in basketball.”James Gordon
Football hogs the headlines across the media but minority sports continue to work in the background, growing in popularity. This week, I was able to sit down with an old university friend, James Gordon. He’s built a career as a sports marketer, mainly working (“by accident”) in minority sports.
From Rugby League to Non-League Football, British Ice Hockey to the British Basketball League. James has experience across a range of lesser-known British sports and we discuss the start of his career, how clubs can keep fans engaged and his growing podcast.
KW: You started with the website ‘Last Tackle’ (now Love Rugby League), tell me how that came about.
James: I spent a week as a 16-year-old, during the hot summer in which England won the Ashes for the first time in forever, on placement at a company called Fast Web Media, who at that time owned and operated the website 4thegame.com, which started life as the first ever Premier League football website in the 1990s and evolved to being a website that covered the whole of English football.
I spent a week writing features, editing news articles and writing player profiles and left thinking “wouldn’t it be cool to do this for rugby league”. As a massive rugby league fan, and not aware of a similar site for it, I decided to set one up myself, and here we are 14 years later…
KW: Was it always your dream to be a sports journalist then?
James: Yes without doubt. From being about 8/9 years old all I ever wanted to do was be a sports journalist. I wrote match reports on my own junior football games and then I think like most football mad young boys, spent endless hours in my bedroom commentating on my own games (I had Lego football which was apparently not so common, as for some reason my dad would never buy me a Subbuteo set) and latterly video games.
KW: What made you get involved in minority sports?
James: It was an accident really. Obviously rugby league was the sport closest to my heart and that’s how I got going, but when I first started my business in 2010, it just so happened that when I was reaching out to clubs, that an ice hockey team became one of my first clients.
That evolved in to me owning the biggest ice hockey site in the UK, British Ice Hockey, and I’ve worked with several clubs and related organisations since. Then not long after that, the same happened to me in basketball. I started out at Mersey Tigers and they were a client of mine for about a year, and I set up my own basketball site after that which was moderately successful, and then have spent the past three years working with Manchester Giants.
KW: How hard is it for those sports to attract (and keep) new fans?
James: It’s difficult because football dominates the media and of course has endless amounts of money to keep it going. Even if you don’t follow football closely, it can still be on your conscience because it’s everywhere you go. It’s a cultural thing too. Sports like basketball/ice hockey are seen more like events that compete with people going the cinema, for instance. You need more people to care, and it’s harder to get those people to care when it’s not on your conscience as much.
KW: Which clubs do it well?
James: People would be surprised at how big ice hockey is in this country. Clubs like Nottingham Panthers, Glasgow Clan, Sheffield Steelers and Belfast Giants are all get very good crowds (6k in the case of Nottingham), and all those clubs are run very well commercially.
In basketball, Leicester Riders and Newcastle Eagles are the stand outs currently – it’s all about the entire infrastructure though, it’s about having your own facility and being able to attract people to it. For many other clubs it’s difficult, because they have a nomadic existence and struggle to generate revenue because they don’t have control of their own venue.
KW: Is it annoying to see certain sports get preferential treatment when it comes to funding (basketball being the second most played)?
James: The funding situation is frustrating, because you see things like Modern Pentathlon getting £6m or whatever it is – how many kids have you ever seen playing modern pentathlon on the playground? But at the same time, basketball doesn’t do itself any favours in attracting the funding in the way that it’s governed. It’s a mess. You’d like to think that sports that have massive impacts in underprivileged areas would be prioritised, but sadly the priority is always medals, and Great Britain is well down the list in terms of potential for a medal in basketball.
KW: What’s the number one piece of advice you’d give to a sports club?
James: Be transparent. Far too often clubs are run as if they are corporate, private companies and everything is a closed shop. Be honest with your fans, even if you’ve cocked up, because they’ll appreciate it and reward you with loyalty. These are people that you need to exist – you need them to buy tickets, and the more you have, the more likely you are to attract sponsorship.
KW: What’s the key to building relationships with your fans in sport?
James: Patience and longevity. So many clubs in their desperate search for sponsors will hire a sales person and then fire them if they don’t get front of shirt or whatever inside three months. The reality is, these relationships take years to cultivate. The same with fans too.
A new fan isn’t going to become a die hard overnight. You have to look after them, go the extra mile, think about things from their point of view. Some fans go on this journey quicker than others, some fans aren’t interested in becoming die hards, but you have to look at things from their angle.
KW: You’ve got a new podcast out now, how is that going?
James: I’ve gone a bit podcast crazy in the past few months! I think from a personal point of view I felt that it was good to get out there and do some podcasts, because I perhaps underrate my knowledge at times. And then as well as that, it’s a good excuse to meet more people and invite them on for a chat.
KW: Who was your biggest inspiration growing up?
James: You know it’s not something I ever thought about or can remember having. Without wanting to sound too Joe Lycett, I’ve followed my own path in many ways. I don’t think I ever thought “I want to be him”, perhaps with the exception of David Beckham.
KW: What are you most proud of from your career to date?
James: I would have to say that building Love Rugby League from the ground up and getting it to a point where it could sustain me a living and then eventually be sold in to a big sport network. When the site first started, there was probably only my dad reading it and now the site gets nearly 100,000 pageviews per day, so to have started from nothing to get to that point, is pretty humbling.
Minority sports grow, particularly in deprived areas, and it’s exciting to see basketball become one of the most played – despite being underfunded. In recent times, we’ve seen women’s football come out of the shadows of the male game with sell out crowds across Europe.
People like James are important in spreading the message of sport, engaging new and current fans to build the popularity. Social media allows clubs to speak to customers all the time, but it’s the transparency and authenticity (a word that keeps coming up throughout our KnapChats!) that makes all the difference.
Head of Client Strategy