Influencers Football Uefa

Uefa's marketing & sponsorship chief on taking Champions League coverage to the world


By Stephen Lepitak, -

February 6, 2018 | 9 min read

Footballing body Uefa is on a mission to grow football engagement in an ever-expanding media environment. This ambition has seen it look to new platforms and territories to deliver more value for premium sponsors aligning their brands to the various competitions it now hosts, not least the Champions League and the European Championship.

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The movement of the Champions League television rights from ITV and Sky to BT has meant only pay-to-view audiences in the UK have been able to watch the competition live for the first time. It's a huge shift, however rumours persist of Facebook and Amazon’s interest in bidding for future broadcast rights for football competitions which would lead to a whole new viewing experience. And earlier this year, long-time sponsor Heineken extended its ties with the Champions League, pointing to a partnership that creates equal benefit.

Sponsors for 2018-21 will include Santander and Nissan while Kia Motors is a sponsor of the subsidiary competition, the Europa League.

With all the potential coverage, the marketing and sponsorship opportunities are plentiful, and Peter Willems, the man charged with heading up the activation of those deals, is eyeing up how to reach new and more invested audiences, with the introduction of relevant influencers just one method being trialled via a partnership with freestyle soccer skills channel, F2.

Willems says:“Our objective is to reach that younger target group and we collaborate with them [F2] on different projects. We brought them to the [Champion’s League] draw in Monaco and it was eye-opening how popular they are. You walk [Lionel] Messi on the red carpet, followed by [Christiano] Ronaldo, followed by someone from F2 and to specific people they were more popular than the first two,” he explains.

The Champions League campaign with F2, run by the in-house Uefa marketing team, includes the line; ‘Train like a champion, play like a champion and party like a champion’ and offers competition prizes such as training with professional footballers for a day, as well as some of the F2 stars next to the organisation’s headquarters.

Of the partnership, he explains: “Monaco was the first time we collaborated with them – you try a lot of things to see how it works and with them it works particularly well. That was the start of working together and showed us how F2 could cover the Monaco draw from a different perspective and how they could connect with a different audience and we felt like we could work well together.

“For them it is also not so obvious to come to the red carpet – so we bring something to them and we will promote what they do as well. It’s not so easy to reach a massive audience through Facebook but through the Champions League we have 63 million – they also understand that there is a bit of power. This is a collaboration,” he adds.

Influencer marketing has also shaped Uefa's #WePlayStrong campaign, created by FCB Inferno in May to tackle the misconceptions of women’s football.

Asked about the difficulties being experienced by some sides of football when it comes to securing large sponsorship deals, he declines to discuss the lack of sponsorship deals for the World Cup being run by Fifa, although he says that the counterpart world footballing organization is working hard to be seen as ‘a new Fifa’.

“In general, sponsorship is doing well but there is a lot of opportunity out there. The very premium rights are still doing well with the Olympics – the World Cup is another story. Champion’s League and the Europa League are still doing well and the Premier League in general is still doing well, although maybe not from a title sponsorship,” he explains although he is wary of how long that will be the case.

“We should not be blind that sponsorship will do well for all time, therefor it’s for the people in charge of sponsorship to define what the future is. The popularity of the competition will always be there but because it’s getting so dispersed, numbers will go down. What can we do? I believe in data. Can we, as a sponsor offer brands very in-depth contact with specific fans? I believe very strongly in that and then it’s about finding other things – such as Uefa going with influencers to target other fans.”

Willems also encourages sponsors to use their deals to greater effect and to make the most of the opportunities they buy into.

“In the end, sponsorship must work hard. When you put yourself in the shoes of these brands, they are paying a lot of money, it would be almost criminal that they are not pushing us. Sometimes I think that some brands pay us so much and do so little with the opportunity. We should be pushed and I want to be pushed and that is why we are looking at the different touch points because at the moment sponsorship has become a lot about data and realizing that viewership and awareness is good but that they need something more. We are going down the funnel. The days of big sponsorship staying at the top of the funnel are over, but it’s still very important to boards. It’s about what we can do at the bottom of the funnel to help sell products and in that knowledge with the fans, that is one of the steps.”

Willems is also realistic that the move of live rights streaming Champions League from ITV to BT will mean lower overall ratings but also a more involved audience who are willing to pay to watch the matches.

“Brands still want to sponsor the Champions League, but we have to go more in depth,” he adds. “For the sake of argument, if ITV were to give you 5 million viewers and BT were to give you 1 million, I can live with that, but I then want to dive into that 1 million. That’s where the future of sponsorship will be, a bit less on the pure viewing numbers but more in-depth for the target group that I want to know more about. I need to be able to reach this target group better, I need to be closer to them and I need to be able to communicate directly with them. That’s what I think Uefa can still offer on a touchpoint, because we are also in competition with Facebook when it comes to targeting as there is nobody better. Amazon and Facebook are the masters of targeting. You could easily say that you want 100,000 people of a certain age group but what we must make sure of is that we can do the same while bringing things that Facebook cannot offer – that is the future of sponsorship.”

He adds that the broadcast of football has evolved from free-to-air initially through to pay-TV and now with Facebook and Amazon becoming potential players, the platforms are involving themselves, which creates more competition and likely a price increase in turn.

“From a marketing and revenue point of view – what will that bring? But on the other hand, these platforms are where the youth are. The jury is about out for me but first they need to come; no big platform has bought real, big rights. They have tested here and there but it will be interesting when they really come and what that will do long-term. I also believe that the strong premium sports brands will survive. The Premier League does not have one match in the world that is on free TV and look at how popular that continues to be. The Champions League is a very strong brand and I believe in the long-term that strong sports brands will survive regardless of the channels they are on.”

Finally, Willems discusses the opportunities around expanding the broadcast of Uefa’s competitions internationally to new regions and reveals that Asia is the next place he is looking towards, although America is still of interest too with the continued growth of the MLS and Women’s Soccer as well.

“The revenues we make in different countries is a barometer of the popularity of the sport and you see that revenue in America is going up. It’s growing but I don’t have a full plan for developing Champions League in the US. What we’re doing is the first stage of developing over the next two-or-three months around growing Champions League in Asia. That’s growing and next year we may do one for Africa and again for America, but first we are looking at Asia. It’s not sponsor-led but the fees that sponsors are paying us are internally paid for by different regions. It’s not just Pepsi Europe, it’s Pepsi Asia and Pepsi Africa too – everybody must chip in – and therefor these regions want to know what is in for them. In Asia the Champions League airs at 3am in the morning, so we are working with our sponsors for a plan of growing the Champions League in Asia.”

Football is the world’s sport, and Uefa plans to take it’s competitions and supporting sponsors to it.

The Drum Marketing Awards are open for entry until next Friday, 16 February.

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