A few weeks ago the IFF has invited stakeholders worldwide to provide feedback on its latest strategy draft. A bold and important move we want to support. Why digitalization and professionalism are essential, what a pan-european Champions League could bring and why we should quit the Olympic dream. At least for now.
First, let me state how much I appreciate this open dialog, triggered by the IFF itself. No doubt, floorball’s development is in the most difficult stage any discipline can be in – high, professional expectations, but still developing structures with very limited resources. Therefore, moving this vessel forward has to be a collective effort.
Writing down ideas about a holistic strategy can quickly end up in a long and endless stream of thoughts. Therefore I’d like to compress my contribution as follows: In this introduction I want to briefly sum up the current situation as well as the discipline’s necessary ambitions. After that I want to focus only on issues, that are either missing in the IFF’s draft or that demand a much stronger enhancement. I will keep my comments as brief as possible, willing to elaborate in case of further interests.
I also want to stress, that none of my comments are meant to insult anyone. I appreciate the great work done especially in the IFF’s office in Helsinki as well as around the world. But I also suppose that it is vital – especially at this very moment – to be as honest and precise as possible. I also claim, although I consider myself being a strongly involved person, that right now I am no member of any national or international body. Hence, I don’t know if any of my comments have already been discussed or even considered.
So first, let’s have an initial look at the status quo: By adding several new national federations the IFF has now expanded to a territory of 74 member states. Its key events, mainly the men’s and women’s World Championships, have become successful projects that can compete with events of much larger federations. Furthermore, the IFF has established valuable know-how regarding administration and organization leading to strong internal processes and structures.
On the other hand, the global growth of the past ten years, especially regarding the number of recreational as well as licensed players, but also in terms of media coverage and reach, has been very disappointing. This development was result and cause at the same to a very problematic sponsoring situation. The IFF is still missing strong partners that would provide important financial resources.
Looking at the official platforms, their content, language and visuals, floorball is far away from being that bold and trendy discipline it claims to be. Especially in context of our demographics, ideas and ambitions of the community, the potentials are far greater than the result achieved.
Bearing in mind all achievements, challenges and potentials, the IFF has to operate on two „branches“: 1) Internally, regarding its existing community and organization, the federation has to look for quality and consolidation. 2) Externally, it’s about quantity and growth, expansion on the level of athlete numbers, media relevance and financial resources. This distinction is essential when prioritizing and connecting measures. Although, at least in the beginning, the first branch might need more attention, both branches have to grow together and intertwine.
UPGRADE your communication
This might be the most obvious challenge of all. The current communication performance by the IFF is… weak, to put it very mildly. Sure, first there are essential tasks to be handled, so the whole structure can work at all. And in fact, there are plenty of communication tools that are useful and valuable, such as live-streams on YouTube, a rich, high-quality photo gallery on Flickr and a practical and well designed app. But when taking two steps back, is this really the face of the innovative, trend-oriented federation aiming at a young, digitally native target group? Actually, floorball should become an early-adopter discipline, trying and daring stuff, conventional sports first need to test ten-times.
Where to start? The website is a heavy maze, user-unfriendly, with many dead ends. First time visitors need too long to grab the discipline and even then they hardly feel any vibe of a dynamic, challenging phenomenon. The situation of the IFF’s social media platforms is even worse. A wild potpourri of reposts and badly curated stuff. No own storytelling, no own visual language. By their nature, such channels count a relatively high amount of followers, but the low interaction is a proof, that the IFF should switch from quantity to quality as soon as possible.
Of course, there are many things more, such as original video content, new platforms etc. Perhaps even issues of internal digitalization, that I don’t see into. However, it’s about a general upgrade and prioritization of this category, about understanding content, targeting, influencing, branding, virality, awareness, identification… and how to build and manage its website as a hub, a “knot” so to say, that gathers and accelerates. I would even say, that the IFF’s poor public communication is the main reason for its bad sponsoring situation. If I don’t know how to sell myself, why should anyone believe, I can sell them?
Stop Imitating, find your identity
This task is about positioning. What makes floorball unique? What are qualities or even simple features that distinguish our audiences from the ones of other disciplines? It’s a major question, that defines what projects and content we shall focus on, what language we speak with. And economically thinking, it’s also a question that defines customer groups relevant for sponsors and partners.
Unfortunately, until today, international floorball, including events and communication, is a lot about imitating conventional disciplines such as handball or volleyball. In fact, imitation is an important strategy of building upon past experiences. It is absolutely essential for moving forward faster and to meet (mostly technical) standards – especially when building an efficient organization or in cooperation with external partners such as media or public authorities.
Is this really the face of an innovative, trend-oriented federation aiming at a young, digitally native target group?
But if you want to make yourself heard and win over new members or fans you have to offer some advantage against your competition. In economics you call it USP (meaning “unique selling proposition”), and actually there are plenty of elements on various levels floorball can build on: On-court for instance, and in contrast to major indoor sports such as basketball, handball or volleyball, floorball doesn’t demand to be tall, as technique and agility play a bigger role. A simple but valuable advantage – one of many hardly or not stressed at all (at least not in the publications I know), but essential to so many kids attracted to indoor sports.
And even more can be done off-court. Let’s be bold. All major sports that have reached a critical size have given up control of their moral compass by claiming not to be political (although they are by nature). Either because of corrupt politics, inappropriate salaries, uncontrolled commercialization or by being dependent on stakeholders that don’t share progressive values. But floorball can still be political in a positive manner. What about demanding same team budgets for female and male national teams? What about expecting the use of recycled or biodegradable textiles at WFCs only? What about defining the ecological footprint as a KPI of our development? What about installing ombuds for floorball athletes all-around the world, that can help the IFF to take action in case of wrongdoings by national federations? And what about taking political and social stands not only when it’s so easy just to repost a black square?
But outside of such potential “minefields”, there’s a lot that can be done, too. I was involved in international partnerships of the EHF (European Handball Federation) for some time. Handball’s base might have got old and rusty, but its key products were put into a smart framing. Thanks to its new formats, last year the EHF could close a 500 million € marketing and media deal with two agencies – and we’re talking Europe only. Floorball will never get even close by mimicing – it will only keep the distance. Let’s imitate this professionalism, but also, let’s dare to be different, perhaps even a bit twisted. That starts with choosing a different floor color (perhaps even by reaching out to ASB and their innovative glass floors) and moves over to unique camera perspectives, innovative statistics, wild break entertainment etc.
Create, collect and spread know-how
Here I’m not talking about technical, tactical or any other game-related knowledge. Because to succeed in a global competition, to thrive and to grow, our discipline needs much more expertise in off-court categories, mainly in topics such as digitalization, marketing, sponsoring and many more. At this moment most floorball executives are self-educated enthusiasts, who are imitating processes of other disciplines as good as they can, with a lot of love and dedication. Unfortunately, that’s not enough anymore. We need experts – contractors from the outside, but also catalysts from the inside.
Those people cost good money, because they deserve it… because they bring it in. They help to grow and to sell value. The IFF will need these folks to create smart platform and competition concepts, including marketing and communication strategies, that really make a difference. This work has to be documented as essential blueprints, enhanced by tutorials and templates and actively spread throughout the whole community. And not as “marketing 101” classes, but as demanding, performance-oriented programs.
At this moment, national federations all-around the world have to build all this from scratch, making the same mistakes over and over again, moving forward with the same slow speed. The few bi- and the even fewer multi-lateral cooperations between some countries are great beginnings… but again not enough. The IFF has to gain and then enhance essential skills. And by the way, looking at the most urgent fields of digitalization and marketing, the IFF should really look for young blood in their own organization, bringing in perspectives and routines of its actual target groups.
BUILD pan-european CLUB competitions
So far, international floorball has a common topic only twice a year – a bit at a junior (spring), substantially at senior WFC’s (winter). But to activate its community the IFF needs a more continuous competition. The Champions Cup and the EuroFloorball Tour have failed in activating the community and even widened the competitive gap between the elite and the „challenging” countries. This is a big issue.
A much more effective and efficient format would be a pan-european Champions League. For example, the Top4 would send out their three best teams from each league, all „other“ nations their champions. In August the latter would play group-tournaments (instead of the unpopular EuroFloorball Cup), sending a total of four participants into the next round of 16, where they‘d meet the teams from the Top4. Depending on the available resources of money and time, the next round(s) could be played in another group-tournament mode or already one-on-one. In spring a major Final4 event would be hosted anywhere to close every the international season.
Most floorball executives are self-educated enthusiasts, who are imitating processes of other disciplines as good as they can. Unfortunately, that’s not enough anymore.
There are plenty of other setups for such a competition. However, such a format would create a desperately needed and realistic platform for continuous storytelling. Moreover, it would connect the community and provide an authentic tool with a finally relevant value to sponsors and partners. Other indoor disciplines such as handball or basketball have proven that a functioning European club competition is absolutely essential to create economical and cultural values.
Furthermore, such a competition would enhance the cultivation of floorball “stars”, relevant international personalities. Sure, people know Ruud and Wijk and Kotilainen, but their real influence is rather limited to their leagues, which are internationally invisible, and to WFC’s, that take place only once every two years. But continuous storytelling needs personalization – it triggers identification, which enhances motivation. And of course, stars create content, something floorball desperately needs.
It’s likely that the Top4 federations or at least some of their clubs might oppose such a construct – mainly because to them its economical value will not be immediate. Frankly, perhaps investments might be needed in the first three to five years. But these clubs have to understand that their international relevancy (the fundament of any future fortunes) will remain this ridiculously low as long as floorball doesn’t build such a platform.
Follow real potentials of strategic countries
One might say, no news. But this one is about being precise and strategic. Sweden, Finland, Switzerland or the Czech Republic are essential to floorball’s identity, they write the only glamorous stories we can work with – but to floorball’s growth they’re actually kind of irrelevant. The IFF has focused on some obvious key markets next to the TOP4 already in the past and has invested huge resources – in time and money. But today we know, it’s not just about the population of a country or its international sports-political relevancy. It’s about its real potential to embrace floorball and about the strategies how to trigger that.
Germany is a grateful example. At first sight, it complies with all the criteria – over 80 million inhabitants, big purchasing power, high international relevance (even heading the IOC), affinity to floorball due to its field- and ice-hockey history. But on the other hand, a massive competition (not only) in the indoors sports category, an exhausting federal system, very poor indoor sports infrastructure and low-degree of institutional and personal digital literacy. The latter points don’t mean, this country is lost. It just means different strategies have to apply here than for example in the Czech Republic, where 40×20 indoor halls stand on every corner, or in Sweden, where digital administration is even enhanced by the government, not slowed down.
Then, in almost every German school, and there are over 30.000 of them, some floorball sticks set is available. Unfortunately, teachers think its some kind of kid’s plastic hockey equipment and not a real discipline. Therefore, all German development efforts should aim at activating this massive potential, educating schools and providing connections to clubs or regional federations. For any financial support the IFF should demand such a focus and specific programs. Another issue: In terms of marketing, the German Bundesliga, today a very solid competition, often with hundreds of fans in the halls, a high athletic level and almost semi-professional clubs, has not even a website to market itself. The IFF should not only demand the promotion of the most valuable product but also support federations with digital kits and education to be well equipped for demands of today’s communication.
To boil it down, there should be public (!) strategies on how which country is being supported in its development, what challenges have to be tackled and how successful are we. It’s vital to profit from the development of other countries, but also to understand under which conditions they succeeded and failed. At this point we’re closing the circle to a stronger demand to create, collect and spread know-how. And in this context “spreading” doesn’t mean to work through issues twice a year at some internal workshop, but to brief all floorball developers in the world.
BE HONEST about statISTICS
The IFF, event organizers, national federations, clubs… actually almost all stakeholders have a very “flexible” approach to statistics. Sure, it’s always nice to add some extra fans, so you can claim to have broken someone’s attendance record (even if it’s kind of ridiculous to look at an empty hall and being told you see 2.000 people). Or to find a creative model on how to grow your members (even though it’s just the players’ grandmas), so you can easier get access to some fundings. But this imprecision is causing harm to floorball’s development by biasing important data.
If we don’t know the true numbers, we don’t know the true development.
The thing is, we need KPI’s (Key Performance Indicators). Numbers about attendance, members, licensed players, recreational players, demographics but also about the discipline’s digital reach and interaction. Such data say a lot about the success and failure of development strategies, they let us know, which measures work and which don’t, which projects should be enhanced and scaled and which closed. Unfortunately, our current numbers are far away from being reliable.
The best example is the IFF’s member statistics list, perhaps the most important KPI database of all. Although the column states “licensed players”, many federations count all their members (even the grandmas) while others don’t. Sure, it can be a tricky task, as some federations don’t even license their players. But then this has to become a standard procedure, unavoidable to be full member of the IFF. However, this is just one of many examples. If we don’t know the true numbers, we don’t know about the true development.
Emancipate yourself from the Olympic dream
Yes, it would be amazing and it would give floorball a massive boost. But the constant fairy tale about becoming a soon(-ish) part of the Olympic program has become a frustrating and never-ending chase for a dangling carrot. I remember the Olympics of 2020, this (or now next) year’s event, as being already one of the “possible” floorball editions, claimed many many many years ago. From today’s perspective, a bad joke.
But the point is, getting into the Olympic program is a very tricky endeavor. You have to build structures and reach milestones that cost you of resources you might lack elsewhere. And when you reach those milestones, nobody guarantees you anything. The Olympics pretend to be a modern and progressive platform, but the IOC’s decisions are usually based upon economics, traditions and relationships – which are the reasons why esports might succeed much sooner than us or why we still have to watch ridiculous equestrian competitions (dancing horses for example).
The most realistic way to get a foot into the Olympic door is to participate as a test discipline. But this usually happens, when a hosting country, based on its own interests, recommends your discipline – something that will not happen to floorball as long as none of the top four countries would host the games. Unfortunately, due to the disapproval of their respective populations, this might take many years, perhaps decades. But postponing floorball’s Olympic dream again and again is not only frustrating, it also harms the credibility of everyone involved.
I’m not saying to give this dream up. No matter what horrible politics have been happening behind closed doors for too long now, the Olympics can be a fantastic platform – for sports (also by providing elementary financial income) and for humanity itself. But let’s change the narrative. There are more important tasks at this very moment than to make our sport suitable for multi-disciplinary events. And if we do our job properly in other areas, we might become a member of the Olympic family even faster.
Support positive professionalism
It has always been a huge leap forward when a federation, national or international, installed full-time employees. This means, that not only these folks have more time to bring floorball forward. Actually, the most important thing is, that suddenly it’s not just about the ones who have time, but also about those who have skill. Furthermore, responsibility and quality become essential. Noone can excuse bad work by pointing at his or her voluntarity.
Although professionalism seems as a natural interest, in many countries it’s being obstructed by the base. Having someone on top of a amateur structure who is starting to earn money, while others remain volunteers, can lead to conflicts. Hence, the IFF has to motivate its federations by all means to install professional structures as soon as possible, even including terms that leave no other choice.
And actually must not be just about earning some money, it’s has to be about earning competitive money. If floorball’s salaries remain far bellow other comparable jobs, we will not be able to attract the professional talent that we need. At the same time, control mechanisms have to be installed, to know that our limited resources are really invested into qualified people doing a qualified job.
In Germany, the FAZ, one of the big national papers, headlined a full-page article about floorball with “The Sleeping Giant”. That was ten years ago.
Having listed all that, I want to reasure that I appreciate the work of the IFF and of the community very much. But if someone would have told us twenty or fifteen years ago, where we’d stand in 2020, how irrelevant floorball still would be outside the Top4, what same struggles we’d still have to fight with, perhaps we’d have taken at least a few different directions.
Finally, I want to confirm that priorities are absolutely essential. However, the IFF has also published a questionnaire that is supposed to be part of this feedback loop. Unfortunately, this questionnaire is following a wrong assumption right from the start. It’s impossible to weight out visibility against presentation against development against sports culture. And how can one rank marketing efforts against utilising new media? The results will be invalid and misleading.
But understanding the need for change, asking for a global discussion and being ready to listen is the foundation to give our discipline a new boost. In Germany, the FAZ, one of the big national papers, headlined a full-page article about floorball with “The Sleeping Giant”. That was ten years ago. Time to wake it up.
The author has been active as a player and coach on highest level for over twenty years, has worked for an international sports brand, commented floorball events on Eurosport, founded this magazine, organized the German Final4, published several books and articles about sports marketing and now lectures at the hwtk University in Berlin about sports business.
Foto: Martin Flousek, IFF