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After a tumultuous summer in European club water polo a new season is about to start. But nothing will be the same as several withdrawals, including all participants from last season’s Champions League Final Four due to various reasons, this year’s highest club level European competition has a different look. The main reason for this change? Money. The troubled financial situation that is holding Europe, and even the world, in its grip did not let water polo untouched. It even led to a new formed ‘Super League’ but European governing body of Aquatics, LEN, prevented the league from starting this season. Unhappiness and financial problems ruled the summer and even can be heard today. Behind the scenes though, Champions League organizer LEN worked hard in order to deal with all circumstances but did not step in front to react on all allegations about the technical and financial aspects of their competitions. Waterpolo-World talked with LEN Water Polo Manager Marco Birri and asked him to share his thoughts and experiences.
The financial difficult times in Europe had their impact on water polo as well. Several teams have withdrawn from participating in the Champions League/Cup or Euro Cup/LEN Trophy tournament because of financial reasons. How does an organizer feel about these withdrawals and although the time left was rather short, weren’t there any possibilities to offer a solution?
First of all disappointed of course. Although understandable it is a pity if you receive the confirmations of withdrawals, as we experienced with the Russian side of Shturm 2002 Ruza and Vasas Budapest as the latest two examples. But we were aware of the difficulties the clubs were about to face. This is not something from this year, but was around the corner in the past years already. And we truly anticipated on a situation like this. For the past few years our accompaniment has been increased, as we advised clubs and even send them guidelines about how to improve not only management-wise but, more importantly, on the commercial part of our sport. Because there’s the key. Public relations, selling TV-rights and tickets is what still is needed to improve drastically in order to actually gain money out of this high-level competition. So offering a solution and assisting was being tried by LEN for a longer time than this past summer already.
Again, the most important and striking thing in this story are the TV-rights and relation with sponsors. We have to be aware that we are in a critical situation and, although it is difficult, focus on selling our sport. The number one way of doing that is through television, knowing that of course internet is the future of all media. But it requires investments from, mainly, time and money from the club. Yes, money is a difficult issue these days, but it is a matter of management as well. Focusing on the right aspects of our beloved sport. We as LEN meet the participating teams the upcoming season more than ever on that subject. The clubs got the TV-right for this season all by themselves, free of charge! They can just sell it and LEN will not get anything. But it will not sell itself. And that is the main problem we are facing now. We as LEN are continuously advising the clubs, trying to get them realizing how to improve on the commercial part, talking about anything technical aspect of the competition, even want to cooperate in order to improve on that side of the issue as well, but it has to come from both sides in order to be effective. We are willing to talk about any aspect, as obviously was done with the initiators of the Super League, which we made clear in a early phase already that would not allow them to start an own independent league but instead, talked about implementing their ideas into the Champions League. That did not worked out the way everyone planned with the results being known.
Obviously I’m disappointed with this situation, and I’m absolutely aware of the fact that LEN is and not has been perfect. But it has to be clear that we are trying our very best to accompaniment the clubs, holding meetings etc. But even those moments are not a great success. Attending draws or other meetings, organized by LEN and even paid by LEN are normally being visited by just 50 or 60% of the clubs, which stuns me even to this day. Why don’t want to discuss everything that matters if you’re being invited and it will not cost you any money?
The economical situation in Europe is not likely to change within the next months. What is possible for LEN in order to deal with that, especially regarding the European club competitions Champions League, Champions Cup, Euro Cup and LEN Trophy?
Yes, because of that situation in Europe we have to be aware that we can only change things ourselves. And we definitely should, the earlier the better. If we do nothing know, we are about to lose some great competitions, everyone should realize that. What changes? I’ve mentioned the most important things before. The time of choosing to sign a great player instead of creating budget for the longer term looks to be over. There’s just no environment for such decisions these days. If we all can focus on the right aspects, and invest in our sport, I’m absolutely sure that we can grow to new heights, not only with the Champions League but with our sport in Europe in general.
With these withdrawals for the various competitions, how much of an impact can be seen on the TV broadcast rights that has been sold? Is there an immediate less interest for example?
Yes, the situation caused less interest from the TV media for sure. For instance, we did not managed to pull out a deal with Eurosport – our main broadcaster for the Champions League all over Europe – yet, I have to say. It all looks like to depend on a deal we hope to make with two major sponsors. If so, I’m in good hopes and assume that Eurosport could be in for this season, if not I’m sure they will not be. And that would be a more or less dramatic scenario as we then face a season with no general TV coverage. But I’m optimistic we can work things out.
Despite all this, the Champions League still is one of the strongest international leagues in the world and draws not only attention from within Europe but outside the continent as well. Is that a business-wise interesting market for LEN to conquer and what is currently possible for top waterpolo lovers from outside Europe in their desire to see some Champions League or Champions Cup action?
That is actually true and very interesting. We noticed some great interest from, especially the USA, and are very aware that there are parties available willing to join and cover the Champions League in this case. The point is our situation and just not being able to insure either a good internet connection for live streaming, or available TV production which they could use for their own coverage. If that would be taken care of at every game scheduled, I know that we can sell the TV rights for Champions League matches for sure. I sincerely hope to be able to work out that deal in the future as a lot of European water polo fans from outside the continent than would have the opportunity to see these matches at home. Unfortunately nowadays getting images in America is hard and just a matter of following the reports or previous available webcasts every now and then.