Nigel Geach, Senior Vice President of Global Motorsport at Nielsen Sports, has worked in sports sponsorship for more than three decades, chiefly with clients in the motorsport behemoth Formula One. In our latest Sport Industry Insider Meets, Geach reflects on his life and career, from witnessing Ayrton Senna’s tragic crash at Imola to the industry’s seismic shift towards data-driven sponsorship. 

I saw Fred Trueman take his 300th Test wicket.

One of my earliest sporting memories was going to The Oval with my dad – we didn’t know we would be watching such a milestone moment in cricket. Fred Trueman was an incredible fast bowler and we were sitting in the stand on that August day when he took the wicket of Neil Hawke. Back then 300 was a total no-one ever thought would be surpassed. Now there are more than 30 players with 300+ Test wickets!

My first motorsport client was the McLaren F1 team.

I started my first sports sponsorship research company 33 years ago. We have since been bought out by Repucom, who were in turn bought out by Nielsen Sports a few years ago but in some shape or form I’ve been around the sports industry for a good while. When we started our business, I sat in front of thetelevision, counting the number of company logos, writing them down and working out the value of sponsorships. This is where it all began.

At first we mainly focused on golf, tennis and some football, but I thought we had better try to break into motorsport as back then, like now, it seemed they had a bit of money. I literally walked in to McLaren’s headquarters in Surrey and asked them whether they wanted to understand the value of their sponsorships better. That was the start and then we grew the business enormously. It’s a tough industry because you have to be away from family for long periods of time – it’s not all about glamour and flying around the world. But it’s a pleasure to still be involved.

Ayrton Senna’s death shook everyone involved with F1.

Unfortunately, I was at that dreaded weekend in May 1994 when Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger were both killed at Imola. It was a privilege in some respects to be there because it’s a tragic piece of history but it really was a terrible, terrible day. It reinforced that motorsport is not all fun and high jinx and unfortunately we saw that again recently when Formula 2 driver Anthoine Hubert died in Belgium. I always try to be as optimistic as possible and the one thing you can say is when these tragedies occur, a major focus on safety ensues. We’ve seen some amazing changes implemented to make the sport safer over the years.

There is no magic formula for sport leadership.

I think the perfect leader is someone who doesn’t actually exist. Some people excel who were sportsmen and women themselves, some excel who weren’t. I remember thinking for years that organisations like the Lawn Tennis Association or the English Cricket Board would benefit from bringing in someone from the world of business but would a FTSE 100 CEO necessarily be a good chief executive of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club – I’m not so sure.

In large businesses or structures, CEOs usually have little to no understanding of what is happening beneath them. I don’t think that works so well in sport. If you want to fly an aircraft, you don’t have to have been down on the floor, putting the bolts in, but sport is emotional and passionate at its heart. You’ve got to understand that. It doesn’t mean good leaders have to have competed at the elite level but there has to be a genuine understanding of sport. 

McCormack, Ecclestone and Scudamore – these are three of the very best.

When I think about good sporting leaders, these chaps spring to mind. The way we think about sport now from a commercial view began with Mark McCormack at IMG. He was the pioneer for our industry. Then you have Richard Scudamore, who had a vision 25 years ago and went ahead with it to make the Premier League what it is today, a lucrative enterprise and a truly global property – watched all over the world.

Of course Bernie Ecclestone is someone I know well in business and you have to admire how he grabbed F1 and turned it into something that everyone now talks about. He is a true maverick. I remember when his office at Princes Gate in London was just 10 people and he made every decision. He would want to be part of every meeting. His control was outstanding and he managed a very disparate bunch of people with huge egos – big teams like Ferrari and McLaren. Of course he made himself a lot of money, but it was hard-earned.

Liberty Media has big shoes to fill.

They paid Bernie a lot of money for F1 and like any new owner they’ve come in with a lot of great ideas but haven’t always been able to implement them successfully. But Liberty Media have put in a proper marketing structure, a digital social structure – their intentions are good for the sport. It is really important for Formula One to make an impact in North America and having American owners should now help with that. I think F1 is definitely breaking through and all of our research at Nielsen Sports shows that interest is increasing. The Grand Prix in Austin is fantastic and the new race they have announced in Miami will be a great addition to the calendar when it comes off.

Abu Dhabu Grand Prix Nielsen Sports

The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix is a jewel in the F1 crown.

I’ve been to every single race in Abu Dhabi over the past decade and it is a magical experience from a fan and visitor perspective. When it first started, many people were skeptical about holding a race in the Middle East, in ‘the desert’. But the Abu Dhabi Sports Council and Abu Dhabi Motorsport Management really wanted that race and wanted to prove that it could be a success. They have certainly done that. I think the folks in Abu Dhabi have created an amazing set-up and it is always a fitting finale to the F1 season. The international sports-watching public is increasingly discerning and I don’t think many just want to sit on a wet, grassy bank watching cars go around a circuit any more. There has to be more of a package on offer and Abu Dhabi, like organisers in America, have recognised this and acted on it.

Saudi Arabia seems to be the next sporting frontier.

Nielsen Sports is focusing a lot of attention on the Middle East at the moment because there is a tremendous interest in more established markets like the UAE and then the potential of Saudi Arabia. They have got Formula E, the WWE, the world heavyweight boxing;and Dakar Rally, there has been some talk about a Saudi Formula One Grand Prix too. We’ve been measuring sports interest and supporting clients in Saudi Arabia for many years, so we have a very good understanding of the sports landscape there already. As investment in sports in The Kingdom looks set to exponentially grow – as part of Vision 2030 objectives – we’re well placed to support rights holder and sponsor decision makers with data, analytics and advice!

Sports marketing has changed immeasurably over the past decade.

We are in an insights business but where I started and where we are now with Nielsen Sports is so different. Back then, the sports industry was very much run by ex-sports people who dabbled in management and sponsorship companies. It was built on relationships and business was conducted at the chairman’s whim. It was about feelings not facts.

It was a long, hard struggle to get people interested in actually looking at sports sponsorship sensibly but now the industry is more transparent than it has ever been because decisions are made based on thorough research, on data, on analytics. The appetite for evaluating and measuring, for having a strategy for not only brands, but leagues, rights holders – it’s huge.

Quite a lot of our business is still done in Formula 1, but Nielsen Sports also works with practically every major international series; WRC, Formula 1, NASCAR, Indy Car, Formula E to some degree, Moto GP, World Superbikes. You name it we get involved with the rights holders, the teams and the sponsors. All of these stakeholders care deeply about their investments; sport is a massive business now and we’ve helped to bring in more strategic thinking, more accountability. I think we’re definitely in a better place as an industry.