• Sam Greenfield

Six steps to a truly sporting negotiation

In the glamorised world of high stakes commercial sports deals, the success or otherwise of a single contract can have a disproportionate impact on a club or individual sportsperson. In some cases, a poor deal with a sponsor, player, supplier or ticketing contract can quite literally make or break a club.


Negotiating the terms of such contracts is often a lengthy process that takes place in an atmosphere of extreme competition, high pressure, and sometimes aggression. To those on both sides of the table, it can feel like they are in a game that no-one can afford to lose.

It’s not surprising therefore that these pressures can often create behaviours that most of us would be ashamed of elsewhere. And that pattern of extreme pressure and extreme behaviour is one that tends to be repeated in professional sports clubs throughout the world, despite the differences in structure and personalities. Cash is king and the need to be wearing the mask of the hard-nosed negotiator can feel like the only way to succeed.


But is it the only way? I’ve been involved for most of my sales career with UK football clubs and have experienced my fair share of difficult negotiations. Over the years, I’ve come to recognise that there are six distinct steps we can take to help maximise success in this challenging arena, while keeping our cool.


1. Collaborate for the long-term and don’t give anything away for free!


When anyone walks into a negotiation we have broadly two extremes of approach – competitive or collaborative. Unless you are at a market stall that you never intend to visit again, a collaborative approach will generally tend to achieve more value in the long term.


For sports-club commercial execs who are dealing with prospective sponsors, collaboration should be at the forefront of their thoughts and strategy. With an eye on a long term partnership, they should be aiming to build a trusted relationship.


It can be easy when operating in a cut-throat environment to equate collaboration with weakness, but this does not have to be the case. Remember, in deals with multiple variables, there are always opportunities for win-win. But don’t ever give anything away for free. Make the other side work for your concessions. Perhaps a sponsor wants ten hospitality tickets for every home match – fine, but don’t just hand it to them – ensure you receive something in return – additional cash, better payment terms, a reduction in LED advertising minutes. If you’ve done your research, you’ll have a clear understanding of what the high value items are to them, so use that knowledge to your advantage when trading.


2. Research and prepare for difficult times


An added complication for the sports exec is that events that happen on the pitch affect events that happen in the meeting room. Clubs travel through cycles – winning cycles and losing cycles, and the power shifts accordingly. And that power shift can happen quickly – seemingly overnight the phone stops ringing and meetings dry up.


In these hard times, we need a plan. A large part of that plan should be researching your counterpart. Who are they? What are they likely to want? What pressures are they under? How do they typically behave? What’s high value to them? Information can increase your power. When you’ve done your research, you may realise you have more power than you think.


Use this information to develop a clear plan for your negotiation. What will you negotiate? How will you move? When will you move? How will you share the value? Knowing your plan gives you greater control and greater confidence – both further sources of power.


3. Be adept at listening and questioning


All the best negotiators are first class listeners. Often your counterpart won’t understand the value of listening, just talking. For you, that’s great news. Negotiators are detectives - there’s a clue in everything that’s said. And back-up expert listening by asking expert questions – the questions that illicit information which can benefit you. What information do you need to gather about the counterpart? This is absolutely imperative for a club when speaking to potential sponsors – get this bit right and you’re half way there.


4. Stay in control

Once you become too dependent on the positive outcome of a negotiation, you’ll begin to lose your ability to say no. So, if threatening language is being used by the other side, don’t give in to it. And if it’s all just too much and you begin to feel uncomfortable – both with the behaviour around the table and the position of the deal – you must take time out. Yes, easier said than done when you’ve got the CEO breathing down your neck to close new partnership deals, but you’re far better off pulling out of a deal than signing something that you’re unsure of – the consequences are likely to be disastrous for both you and the club.


5. Be patient


Time can also be used to push you into a corner. Maybe there’s a deadline in place which you need to meet. Again, if you’re at that deadline, don’t be forced to shake hands if you’re not happy. Simply state that you need more time to get to a position that you’re happy with. It’s highly unlikely that, at the stage of negotiating a contract, that the counterpart will pull out of the deal. They may indeed threaten such action – but don’t fall for it.


6. Open appropriately


Opening bids are a much discussed element of negotiating. We tend to believe that making the first move is the best way forward. By making the opening bid, it can often mean that the subsequent negotiation happens somewhere close to that opening bid. Whereas, if they open first, it’s sometimes extremely difficult to drag the negotiation towards you – you may end up having the entire negotiation around your breakpoint, which isn’t where you want to be.


But remember, if you do make the opening bid, open appropriately high. Opening extreme can be damaging, both to your own credibility and to the relationship as a whole. This can impact negatively on trust before the deal is even done and any future support you may need from the sponsor may be hard to find.


In summary


In complex, pressurised situations, we need as many tools as we can use to help us to keep on track. The world of commercial sport is definitely up there with some of the most challenging industries. One last tip. Use the trick of regularly summarising where you’ve got in your negotiation. It helps to bring a moment of pause in the proceedings. And is another good way of ensuring you have a firm hold over the battle for power.

Wishing you all the best in your next big game!