Peter Draper interview

  • Business
  • Saturday, 23 May 2009

IN 1968, a 16-year old lad quit school to promote basketball and various forms of sports part-time. Joining the work force was not easy for Peter Draper. He was young and had little skills. But what the lad lacked in experience, he made up with unmatched enthusiasm for sports and the outdoors. And of course, there was his easy-going personality.

During his first six years in the job market, the lad went through six jobs, starting with administrative work in a shipping company.

But it was his part-time work promoting various sports events which he looked forward to and put most effort in. A keen sportsman back in his school days, Draper played rubgy, cricket, soccer, gymnastics and all forms of competitive sports.

In his earlier years, it was the spirit of competition that drove him. Later, it was the promotion and marketing of sports.

History has a strange way of showing the way forward. A basketball association saw his enthusiam and hired him to promote the game. Draper stayed with them for a decade and moved on to become marketing director of Umbro Sportswear. He held that position for 13 years.

But it was his next job that launched him into the limelight. In 1999, he was hired as the first marketing director of the world’s most valuable sporting franchise, Manchester United Football Club.

Under his easy guidance and tutelage, Man U became an indisputable global brand. For seven years, not only did he make the football club a brand and a force in itself, Draper also leveraged on the club’s origins. Today, Man U has become synonymous with British culture.

He went “solo” for three years and later became a non-executive director of creative communications agency IRIS Nation and founding partner of his own “passion brands” strategic consulting business.

“I like people. I enjoy the diversity of people I’ve met. I can think of two I’ve fallen out with, but generally, I enjoy people. In the course of my work promoting sports, I work with people bigger and better than I am and I’ve learned a tremendous lot from them. And in the course of time, I turned myself into a marketeer of sports and all that it encompasses,” says Draper.

In the earlier years, while winning was part of the excitement, it was the spirit of competition that drove him. Today, it is the promotion of sports and the revenue that comes with it.

Being a promoter of sports, the young Draper also noticed one thing – the on-field and off-field relationships. There was the friendship and easy banter among the players and the loyalty of the fans who came week after week to watch.

But the relationship stops there. It was as though there was a glass wall between the players and the fans and spectators.

As he looks back on his early days in sports promotion, Draper, 57, says: “I could have done it for free.”

Draper was recently in Kuala Lumpur to speak to a group of 30 CEOs and human resource directors on “Marketing in Turbulent Times.” He was one of several speakers from The London Speaker Bureau to come to this part of the world.

Representing 2,000 individuals worldwide, The bureau provides international speakers for board meetings, corporate events and governmental conferences.

The bureau’s objective is to provide clients the highest level of advice, delivered by individuals like Draper, who have a proven track record of success.

Under Draper, Man U and sports branding and marketing in general has changed tremendously, with the gap between players and fans having narrowed considerably.

The business of sports, which includes ticket sales, branding, advertising and promotions, merchadising and player-fan relationship and a host of other revenue-generating activities, have today taken on a more fluid dimension with the football club being associated with airlines, food and beverages, insurance and other sectors.

Major partnerships include Nike, Vodafone, Budweiser, Audi, Pepsi, Ladbrokes, Western Union, Barclays and AirAsia.

Man U, nicknamed the Red Devils with their bright red jersey, white shorts and black socks, has today become one of the most successful and richest football clubs in the world with the highest revenue of any football club.

It is also ranked as the most valuable club in any sport, with an estimated value of £897mil (US$1.8bil) as of September 2008.

The TV has helped. The box has taken Man U into the homes of fans in the most remote corners of the world, to places where the team is least likely to play. But its games are followed no less diligently.

“I want to turn fans into customers. There is not much difference between sports and non-sports branding. But because of my involvement with sports for some 30 years, I am today using sports as a commercial vehicle.

“The right sports business operates on normal commercial terms. In the case of sports, fans are very loyal. You really have to be bad to be a turn-off. So fans are loyal. While keeping that loyalty is easy, communicating it is not.

“If I were to be critical of sports organisations, it is that they are slow to adopt a two-way dialogue with fans. Playing a good game and entertaining your fans while you play your heart out is one form of entertainment. It is entertainment on-the-field, but that is a one-way dialogue.

“For a club, be it football or whatever, you need to have a two-way dialogue. Make it easy for your fans to communicate with you. It is this that builds a brand.

“It is not just playing a good game. Provide the service. First impression counts. For a start, make it easy for your fans to park their car. Speak to the people who come. Does this not sound like any other service sector in an economy? Let’s take away the sports aspect and look at banking. Make it easy for people to bank with you.

“There is, at the end of the day, no difference between sports and non-sports branding. You are trying to market a product or a service to a client,” he says.

Draper says 10 to 15 years ago, having a two-way dialogue between the club and fans was practically non-existent.

He considers the friendships he has made as among the most significant and positive aspects of his career in sports promotion. And the saddest thing is wasted talents.

“I like to affirm people. I’d like to think I work for people, not the company,” he says simply.

Whether it is colleagues, fans or the Red Devils themselves, there is that desire to reach out, to touch someone else’s life and make a difference with his presence.

He considers the best accolade he received was when his colleagues voted him the person to be stuck with in a lift.

“It’s difficult to talk about myself. Maybe it is the English reserve. That was my greatest accolade.”

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