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Looking back, was it really just an Under 17 World Cup?

Arup Soans
EXPERT COLUMNIST
Feature
397   //    Timeless

Sunil Chhetri carried the winners' trophy of the FIFA U-17 World Cup 2017 India to the podium for final presentation
Sunil Chhetri carried the winners' trophy of the FIFA U-17 World Cup 2017 India to the podium for final presentation

A six-part on-demand series of excerpts from - India playing host to the most attended FIFA Youth World Cup in history. This is the last part. Catch up on part one, two, three, four and five.

To end this series, I’m going to touch upon few areas and stories that go along with them and in retrospect fit in to what author of Good to Great and Built to Last Jim Collins (one of my go-to management men) talks about. Four things that may seem simple enough at first, but go a long way to make an organisation do great things. Collins’ research is based on companies looking to or have lasted a lifetime or more, though his advice, in my opinion, holds good for a time-bound project or event as well.


#1 Set a big, hairy audacious goal (BHAG) or goals for that matter

In part one, I talked about bringing partners on board and setting ourselves a target like no other youth tournament could even imagine. Hoping to raise nearly 50% of our (Local Organising Committee) operational budget through sponsorship was certainly a BHAG.

Never does something like this come easy. We had our set of challenges and restrictions from the get go. When it comes to sponsorship and the ability to promote the tournament through sponsors, there were multiple lost opportunities on both ends. One example of them being, FIFA not being able to engage with Amul since Coca-Cola blocks all things beverage, even milk.

In a conversation with Amul, if they were to come on-board as national supporters, “We sell 25 million packets of milk every day. The World Cup logo could be on all of those packets leading up to and during the tournament.”

Much like Amul, there were many such brands that either could not engage with the World Cup due to a category block by a global partner or missed out on the opportunity due to a short-sighted mindset given that the cost of engagement was higher than normal.

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In the hope of not receiving a legal cease and desist letter, brands tried to be creative.
In the hope of not receiving a legal cease and desist letter, brands tried to be creative.

The end result, of course, ended up being us fulfilling this BHAG we had set for ourselves but also giving the partners, that did see the value and officially engage with the tournament, more exposure than they had asked for. None of this could have been achieved if we did not have any big goals in place and tackled them head-on every week until we succeeded.

At the end of it all, we even had FIFA brag about the exposure they received leading up to and during the tournament.

Bragging rights earned!
Bragging rights earned!

#2 Have meetings that discuss brutal facts

One of the things we successfully implemented was Monday morning senior team meetings, that discussed updates but essentially was brutal facts (sponsorship or lack of it being one of them) and how we as a team needed to tackle them strategically and with a set timeline. This gave us great practice, for lack of a better word, when having to address brutal facts during the daily senior team meetings that included FIFA as well, during the tournament.

A good story to address amongst the many (feel free to reach out to me via Twitter @ArupSoans if you want to hear and discuss more stories) that we had along the way was one that involved spectator concessions and free drinking water.

Of all the functions under the marketing department, spectator concessions was the most daunting. More than VIP protocol, even though the Prime Minister, several Chief Ministers, FIFA President along 37,156 other so-called VIP guests graced the tournament with their presence.

Apart from having to engage with multiple vendors across all the host cities to get the work done, we needed to coordinate with the behemoth Coca-Cola to get their products (free – as part of their contract and paid – that were to be stocked by the concessionaire). To top it, we were faced with a very tricky dilemma quite late in our planning – providing free drinking water to spectators. Even though the rule wasn’t very clear or standard across all venues, it ended up being a brutal fact and was something we needed to find a solution for and find one quick.

The biggest challenge we faced was probably in Kolkata (three levels and sixty thousand plus spectators). The government did provide us with water packets for distribution but like I mentioned about the legal aspect of how FIFA functions, this wasn’t a pleasant time even though all we were trying to do was ensure we had a hydrated audience.

Important to note that due to the nature of the tournament having two matches at the same venue on the same day, spectators could not leave and re-enter the stadium and neither were they allowed to carry their own food and drink inside. All facts we had to face and consider when finally deciding the best and most effective solution while keeping in mind and safeguarding all stakeholder interests.

Full house in Kolkata!
Full house in Kolkata!

Our concessions team along with a very driven volunteer group across all stadiums put in that extra effort to deliver more than what was asked for during all matches. I sit back and wonder sometimes, the experience we gave spectators could have been very different if we didn’t have the people we had, to ensure things got done. Hats off to all those who worked tirelessly to deliver a world-class event and experience for all. Which comes to my next point.


#3 Get the right people and steer them in the right direction

In the book Good to Great, the author talks about a Flywheel effect - a huge heavy flywheel that is set in one direction and requires a lot of effort (literal push) to make its first revolution. On completion of that revolution, it will always require a certain amount of pushing until it reaches a point of great momentum in a consistent direction and eventually hits a point of breakthrough.

We as an organisation reached that breakthrough on completion of the first match day across all venues. The pushing needed to continue post match day one and very well did, though getting to that point of breakthrough in our case needed three plus years to coalesce every single person to works towards achieving a common goal.

One thing our project director always reiterated in larger team meetings, “There is only one thing we will not stand for, and that is anyone saying ‘It is not my job.’ At the same time ruthlessly prioritise.” This resounded across all corners of the organisation and created a culture to work together, harder and get more out of oneself in any and every scenario.

Always having the mindset to leave a lasting legacy and give a unique experience to everyone involved was not only restricted to spectators but also to all the people involved behind the scenes.

A simple yet great example of getting out of one’s comfort zone and doing more than what was asked for was the Kochi volunteer centre. Covered by FIFA.com as well, the volunteer centre in Kochi was turned into a vibrant art-filled space that gave all those working there a sense of energy and positivity to carry on working tirelessly until the close of that venue.

Art-filled Kochi Volunteer Centre
Art-filled Kochi Volunteer Centre

Throughout our journey to get to the point of breakthrough, every stakeholder needed to be tactfully dealt with using smartly crafted bargaining chips that eventually led to us moving in the right direction together. Needless to say, delivering an event of national importance also required a worst-case-scenario thought process, which my last point briefly touches upon.


#4 Practice productive paranoia 

A comparison and perspective that I enjoyed giving people when it came to budgets was one that compared our entire operating budget of the tournament being less than half of just the opening ceremony budget of the multi-sport event hosted seven years prior in Delhi.

Given that a worst-case-scenario could have been us not raising any money at all through sponsors, we needed to think through each day what our back-up plan would be if that were to happen. Productive paranoia like this helped us achieve more than what we set out to.

A closing example comes from the FIFA U-17 World Cup India 2017 Final Day. A day definitely one for the ages (nine goals on the night). Four of the best teams in the tournament from three different continents. Brazil versus Mali (Place-off for third place) and England versus Spain (Final).

Given that Kolkata had just hosted a semi-final, the venue team (including vendors, police, volunteers, etc.) was overworked and tired, yet needed to find that last boost of energy to take us all through the finish line. The final-day tickets were ones that were probably sold-out first, during our multiple-phase release of tickets. As expected, the final match ended up being the highest attended match of the tournament with 66,684 spectators.

We knew the operations on match day was something we didn’t need to worry about too much other than the fact that the state Chief Minister, FIFA President along with FIFA Council members were to attend the match.

The actual worry was summed up in one sentence by a FIFA executive during our trophy presentation rehearsal the day prior, “It all boils down to this one moment, when the winning team lifts up that Trophy. We definitely do not want anybody on stage to fall through it or fall off it for whatever reason. That final photo with the confetti in the air will be one for the history books.” Much like the fear or paranoia I mentioned in part-three about not filling the stadiums, this was that final fear that ensured we got everything covered to the last ripple on the carpet covering the stage.

In the words on Collins, “Fire bullets to calibrate. Fire cannonballs to go big.” That’s exactly what we did.

Three Cheers to India 2017!
Three Cheers to India 2017!

The stage did hold up. The emphatic winners England jumped high-in-the-air, not knowing at the time that they will remain in history as the winners of India’s first FIFA World Cup and in all likelihood the most attended Youth World Cup ever, always.

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Arup Soans
EXPERT COLUMNIST
Arup Soans is an expert in business strategy, sports marketing and new media. Apart from being a Sports Business Consultant to the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) and All India Football Federation (AIFF), Arup was the Local Organising Committee of the FIFA Under 17 World Cup India 2017 Head of Marketing, managing a team of 45 people. The committee was responsible for hosting and staging the tournament across six cities in India. The 17th edition of the tournament ended up being the highest ever attended FIFA youth competition. Armed with twelve plus years of professional experience, Arup has worked at New York based Major League Soccer and Perform Sports Media. Arup was part of the Organising Committee for the Commonwealth Youth Games in Pune, India. He was also part of senior management teams at organisations operating in the IT, retail and marine industries. Arup is the first Indian to hold a master’s degree in sports business from New York University.
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