Manchester Magic : Merging Sport and Entertainment for the Ultimate Event



Manchester is renowned as one of the United Kingdom’s premier cities of sport, famed for its hometown Premier League powerhouses, Manchester United and Manchester City. It is also the city which hosted the very first World Taekwondo Grand Prix in 2013, and has since held two more, the most recent being the Grand Prix Series 3.
Everybody who has attended one of the Manchester GPs – be they spectators or coaches, WTF officials or TV technicians – agrees that the Manchester events not only set the original template, they also represent the gold standard of GPs.
The two men behind the Manchester triumphs are Ian Leafe, Event Manager for GB Taekwondo and Vice Chairman of the WTF Games Committee, and his production manager, Andy Ashworth, a producer and presenter with his own company, event-management firm Red Alligator Group.
Leafe recalls the mission statement for the first GP in 2013. “There were discussions with the WTF about creating a flagship series of events similar to what other sports do very successfully to showcase the ‘best of the best:’ this had been an aspiration of WTF President Chungwon Choue for some time,” he said. “The original two founding principles were to attract large broadcast audiences and subsequently, regular commercial sponsorship partners; one tends to follow the other.” There has been progress: The Manchester 2015 GP is being broadcast to more than 90 countries. Even so, when it comes to fully luring spectators and sponsors, “we have a way to go,” Leafe conceded.
The GP must present a packaged product that can showcases the sport of taekwondo in a format entertaining enough to grab the attention of broadcasters, sponsors and audiences. “We want to produce a nightly, exiting TV show that has the beauty of the core sport and a level of entertainment and sports presentation wrapped around it that TV audiences would find engaging,” Leafe said. “What I am trying to do is to create ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ with violence!”
What, then, are the key components of successful presentation and hosting?
The first item on the checklist is selecting an appropriate arena. “You have to pick a venue that is right for the event, and that may seem like a silly thing to say, but it is pointless selecting an arena for 20,000 people if, realistically, you are only going to have 1,000 people in the place,” said Ashworth. “Nobody likes to see empty seats, and I don’t like to see them as a presenter.” Floor space and even height of the arena all play a part: “You get a better atmosphere with a lower ceiling,” Ashworth said. “The noise reverberates around.”
And the arena should be in an appropriate city.
“The venue must not be in the middle of nowhere, so Manchester is ideal for it,” Ashworth said. “A Taekwondo GP would be lost a bit in London, because there is so much going on in the capital and taekwondo is still a fringe sport in this country.” Given the aim of upgrading media pick-up, it is also essential that the city chosen is home to a significant population of media professionals. “One of the original ideas was to take the GP to the media and that is one of the reasons why we are here in Manchester: The BBC in Salford are just a couple of miles away,” said Leafe. “They are showing the GP every night and they have been a partner in trying to guide us in the sport’s presentation.”
Inside the venue, both audio and visual elements need to be fully leveraged – notably lighting, music and voiceover. “With the budget we have got, we try to get the best out of the kit, so it Is important to have a lighting engineer on site,” said Ashworth. “We have a guy that spends two days programming the lighting; our lighting engineer has worked with almost every band going.”
Under Ashworth’s direction, music, selected to instill emotion, is varied. Dramatic music is used for the athletes’ entrance; light-hearted, upbeat music is played during the breaks in the matches so that “the kids in the stands are engaged,” in Ashworth’s words; and for the drama of the semifinals and finals, up-tempo music booms out. “A number of sporting events don’t use music, but it makes people feel good, and if it is pumping, it makes them excited,” Ashworth said. “And if you put on a bit of a tongue-in-cheek piece, it puts a smile on their faces. Sport is entertainment: If you lose sight of that, you lose your crowd.”
Light and sound are synchronized for maximum impact. “For the video replays, we purchased a bit of music – a heartbeat – and we pulse the lights on red,” Ashworth said. “It makes the most of the assets we have on-site.”
Ashworth himself is a key segment of the production: As the GP MC with a mike, he is – literally – the “voice of taekwondo.” Voiceover is critical, given that many audience members may be unfamiliar with WTF rules. Ashworth delivers a “dummies’ guide” to taekwondo, repeating key messages. “I have to put myself into the shoes of somebody who knows nothing about taekwondo,” he said. “I probably repeat the message, ‘If you are new to taekwondo …’ again and again. The second time they will take it in, by the third time, they start to get it and feel more involved.”
He also varies his tone of voice. “When we do video replays, my voice drops so by the third day, when I say it, everyone goes, ‘video replay’ in a low voice,” Ashworth said. “It’s a bit of fun!”
All these elements need to combine so that there is never a dull moment. “Everything we do with the GP has a joined-up approach in terms of show and sport merging, second-by-second,” said Leafe. “Something is going on, there is something to see all the time, even between the round breaks and between the matches, and we make the most of the key exiting moments – the video replay, the golden points. It is not rocket science!”
When it comes to presenting action, one guiding principal is simple: “TV audiences do not want to see back-of-house operations,” Leafe said. Manchester’s field-of-play layout and camera positioning were heavily based on BBC suggestions.
“The core principle was for it to be ‘clean’ as the standard taekwondo competition has the reputation of being a bit cluttered, with a lot of people walking around, somewhat like a market: you are not quite sure where the action ends and the crowd starts,” Leafe said. “We placed the coaches directly behind the LED boards so that the view from the camera was the athletes, the (sponsor) branding, the coaches and the audience with nothing in between to spoil that magic view. That’s the ‘money shot.’”
Sponsor brand exposure is a key issue. “Various ideas were tried and rejected: In year one, we had chasing logos and fancy little things going on,” said Ashworth. “The feedback from BBC was they wanted static logos; scrolling, not moving around.” In a miniature version of a Premier League football field, standing electronic ad boards were set up around the periphery of the center ring: This is considered best-of-breed positioning to showcase sponsor logos without being obtrusive. Sponsor messages also run across the LED screens between the athlete entrances.
Spectator engagement in Manchester was aimed largely at youth, with an area beside the stands set-up for visitors to punch dummies and kick paddles. This was designed for the local schools, which bought children in to attend the event. “GB Taekwondo has got merchandize across from the kids area, and you can’t pass there without them queuing up to have a go,” Ashworth said. “They can show off in front of their peer group and the coach can say, ‘You have good technique,’ and that – implanted in the brain of a young child – might make them think, ‘I can do this.’” For a minority sport this is important, Ashworth maintains. “Everyone plays football everywhere, but adults have to have a bit more commitment to take kids to a taekwondo class,” he said. “Anything that gets them to consider the sport of taekwondo cannot be a bad thing.”
Leafe reckons that the GP is an excellent opportunity to market taekwondo to the younger generation. “Look at any movie or cartoon, the kids of today are the ‘Kung Fu Panda’ generation and we have to find a way to tap into that,” he said.
One issue with the GP Series now is that the format is not fully consistent from country to country. “With any international event series in different countries, the level of consistency and quality is going to vary,” Leafe said. “But actually, most of the time it is not about the budget or the skill sets, it is actually that there is no coordination from one event to the next, so we get different layouts, different fields of play and different priorities.”
One challenge the WTF now faces with the GP Series is to create a format that will look, sound and operate the same wherever it takes place. “I think we have the blueprint, and over the last three years and at the various versions of the GP in Manchester and overseas, we have seen a lot of innovative ideas,” Leafe said. “The issue now is creating a model that can be replicated around the world.”
But why would a city or Member National Association want to go to all the trouble and the expense of putting on a GP? The answer is that this investment will upgrade the local taekwondo talent pool – because there really is such a thing as “home town advantage.”
“There has been 25 percent uplift from the (local) GP in results, compared to if it is abroad,” said Ashworth. “Of course, it does not always work, but we are talking about an average: the London 2012 Olympics proved a lot about home advantage.”