Good Monday morning! This week’s surprise post comes all the way from Merrie Olde Englande, where the intrepid Pippa Cuckson has weighed in on the FEI’s latest WTF move, the signing on of Longines and the unceremonious dumping of Rolex.  (Pippa and I share this characteristic: we both gravitate toward controversy like moths to a light bulb.) I have a few thoughts on the topic myself, which I will post later in the week. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy Pippa’s contemplation of this latest Lego-style meshing of the FEI with the middle east.

Pippa Cuckson:

Occasionally I think life would be more comfortable in public relations, but then I remember the super-human pragmatism and stoicism required. These qualities will be needed in bucketloads on Tuesday if the FEI’s corporate event of the decade – the Longines signing as Top Partner – is to not slide into non-event.

I was as baffled as anyone when the FEI-Longines announcement plopped onto my mailbox on December 27.  I had to read it twice to deduce that long-time World Cup sponsor Rolex was out of the picture, and that there is apparently little room for any other timepiece manufacturer (often a good source of individual event sponsorship –  Cartier, Jaeger Lecoutre and Breitling also spring to mind) within the scope of Longines’ near-monopoly deal.  We learned this was equestrian’s most valuable-ever sponsorship, though no figure was indicated; actual detail available at the contract signing in Lausanne on January 15.   The Christmas shutdown meant this was initially reproduced, un-edited and unembellished, by the largely web-based news organisations still operational over the holidays.

Even in the days of print-only media, no-one wasted time on a major “launch” event when the “launch-ee” was already revealed. That modus operandi is even less relevant with social media.  It’s just not human nature to file away a fascinating new topic until the proponent feels like revealing the next instalment.  The problem for the FEI is that an unfortunate back-story emerged meanwhile. Now, Tuesday’s nightmare PR scenario is that comment sympathetic to Rolex could well eclipse images of the FEI president signing the contract with Longines.

Normally a new sponsor comes in only when the old one has given notice of quitting. I’m not alone in finding it hard to believe Rolex had suffered some sudden aberration after 50-odd seamless years of equestrian support.   It has only just appointed Steve Guerdat as “testimonee”. Rolex has always demonstrated slightly old-fashioned, “gentlemanly” good manners and wouldn’t put anyone, never mind the new Olympic champion, in the embarrassing situation of having to promote Rolex when so many future shows would appear to preclude its branding.

A few enquiries revealed Rolex indeed hadn’t wanted to go. Allegedly, at a very late stage, Rolex heard about the Top Partner negotiations, and were forced to digest that the FEI considered them surplus to requirements. Rolex, it is said, offered to better the Longines offer – purportedly around Euros 120 million over 10 years, an astonishing long period for an initial contract – by nearly 10 per cent, but were not accepted.

I then asked the FEI if Rolex – or any other brand – had been invited to tender. FEI press chief Grania Willis – who most certainly was on duty during the Christmas break – said that “as an established partner of the FEI, Rolex was offered matching rights, but they did not match the Longines offer and therefore agreement could not be reached.”

Rolex has always kept  its own counsel  (sometimes frustratingly so – during the embarrassing disqualification of McLain Ward at the Geneva World Cup finals, no media could draw any comment out of Rolex, who remained spectacularly loyal to the FEI – in public, anyway).  So Rolex’s unprecedented press comment on January 11 about the FEI’s “disappointing decision to end their relationship with our company and chose another watch-making sponsor” can reasonably be interpreted as a sign Rolex feels ill-used and misrepresented.

I don’t know many journalists who can afford the time or money to travel to Lausanne for Tuesday’s launch, where the opportunity to ask the questions everyone wants to ask may well be limited  for fear of raining on Longines’ parade.  While some contractual  matters must, of course, remain confidential,  it would be interesting to know if Rolex has declined in the past to extend its sponsorship – which is admittedly Eurocentric –  to the areas apparently now covered by Longines.  And although this is the most valuable-ever deal, to what extent does it compensate for loss of possible revenues from other sponsors who now won’t come in because Longines already effectively has so many of the  plum events?

The timing of the December 27 announcement was also strange. Was it to get Longines “out there” before Rolex could do anything to hold things up? Or was it aimed at organisers trying to meet FEI deadlines for hosting a Nations Cup who might take comfort in knowing the FEI had a new wadge of dosh?  After all, the 2013 Nations Cup series now bears little resemblance to what was advised last April, in yet another over-hasty FEI announcement.   For those involved with other fixtures, December 27 will have been a nasty shock – notably the Rolex World Cup qualifiers in the western league, and Aachen and Kentucky who have long standing individual deals with Rolex.

I feel slightly sorry for Longines, because some have sourly dismissed this new arrangement as “just more Arab money.” (The Swatch Group, Longines’ parent company, was founded by the Lebanese-American Nicholas Hayek).

Whatever the flaws of the Top Partner negotiations, Longines has its own heritage in equestrianism, sponsoring a raft of individual events since the 1925 Geneva show. Yes, Longines must have formed a relationship with the Maktoum family by sponsoring endurance and horseracing in the gulf, but it’s hardly exclusive –  Longines is long associated with the most prestigious race-meetings in Europe such as the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, Royal Ascot and Baden-Baden, and in the southern hemisphere at Hong Kong, Singapore and the Melbourne Cup.

Of course anyone selling luxury watches or luxury-anything wants to target “new money”. Whether we Europeans like it or not, through an accident of geography it’s the Arabic countries that own the oil and will remain mind-bogglingly rich for our life-times. Arab federations would still be non-starters in show jumping had innumerable Europeans not sought a slice of that wealth and sold them “made” horses in the first place.

Through the alternative of manufacturing graft China now has an affluent middle class that wants to ride and spectate – designer brands must be surely lining up to sponsor for when the Global Champions Tour happens in Shanghai.  Longines has already spotted China as the next big thing – the Longines Beijing [jumping] Masters took place in the Olympic Bird’s Nest stadium last May. Business is business; no corporation can be blamed for making the most of it when handed Pandora’s box by the FEI.

However, whether or not the FEI is over-influenced by its growing Middle Eastern connections, other news that the 2015 World Cup Final has been withdrawn from Mexico caused journalists to joke between themselves “what’s the betting  it will end up in Dubai!?”  The west now has a totally entrenched perception that the FEI is “owned” by the Middle East, which the FEI must endeavour to assuage.

Stakeholders are certainly justified in worrying about the FEI’s sense of judgement and process, as manifested by this latest clumsiness towards a partner. We are regularly assured the FEI strives towards transparency, but 2013 has got off to a very muddy start.