Is it stalemate for the game of kings?

The World Chess Federation has appointed a marketing agency to revamp the game’s image, but it faces a strong challenge

The Fédération Internationale des Échecs (FIDE) – the World Chess Federation – last week revealed that the World Championships 2003/2004 will be held in London (MW last week). What will make this tournament different from previous events in the body’s 77-year existence, is that for the first time FIDE is using a sports marketing agency – Octagon – to handle the championships and to revamp one of the world’s oldest games.

It could prove a tough challenge. Chess will never attract the same spectator numbers and tabloid headlines as football – in the UK it is not even classed as a sport, despite lobbying by the British Chess Federation. What it does have going for it is the perception that top chess players are some of the world’s most intelligent people – not something football could ever claim.

Octagon aims to bring the game closer to the public and make it more understandable and coherent. “It’s like Formula One before Bernie Ecclestone got hold of it – lots of disparate events with no clear commercial offering to global partners,” says account director Rob Owen.

There will be a new tournament structure for the World Championship and a series of grand prix events, which Octagon claims will make the game more accessible and generate media interest.

According to TGI/BMRB 2001 figures, 2 million people in the UK play chess. Easy access to chess clubs through schools and universities means the demographic profile of the average player is skewed towards youth.

Interest in the game seems to be on the increase. FIDE’s figures show that over the past ten years its membership has grown from 140 to 160 national federations, although attendance numbers at tournaments are reasonably static.

British Chess Federation marketing director Nick Hawkins says: “The total suitability of the game to an Internet format is undoubtedly a key factor in its continued success.”

Owen says that one of Octagon’s strategies is to draw on “the cult of the celebrity”. Madonna reportedly plays chess every day with husband Guy Ritchie, and boxer Lennox Lewis is also said to be a keen player. He adds that a number of the French and Italian female players are “quite glamorous” and says this could be exploited to raise the game’s profile.

Octagon aims to establish a set of constant sponsors, instead of the one-off arrangements favoured by FIDE in the past. Under the new regime, the World Championship will have a constant title sponsor irrespective of where the tournament is held, a “presenting sponsor” that would have some link to the host country, and a family of constant sponsors beneath that. In the past The Times, Martell and Intel have backed chess events.

Owen says that Octagon will be targeting businesses in the accountancy, automotive, media, telecoms, IT, fashion and banking sectors. It will also look for non-cash support from airlines and hotels, though this could prove difficult given how hard these industries have been hit by the economic climate.

Octagon plans to approach Channel 4 about broadcasting the championship, but it is the Internet that could offer the greatest money-making opportunities. A system allowing players – for a fee – to play chess enthusiasts around the world is already in operation. Branded FIDE credit and affinity cards are also being considered.

A modest £2m in sponsorship is the aim for the first year – a tiny amount when compared with sports such as football or tennis. But for a niche sport, chess does relatively well in hitting the headlines. In 1972, at the height of the Cold War, the game between American Bobby Fischer and Soviet player Boris Spassky captured the world’s attention, and last year’s game between Garry Kasparov and Vladimir Kramnik was covered in the front sections of the UK broadsheets and even The Mirror.

One hurdle for Octagon is finding a way through a split in the game. Both Kramnik and Kasparov – the top two players in the world – have fallen out with FIDE, and instead play for a rival breakaway organisation called the Brain Games Network (BGN). BGN director and Times chess correspondent Raymond Keene says this will hamper Octagon’s chances. He says: “Would you spend millions for the third and fourth best players? No, you want numbers one and two. The World Championship will have zero credibility.”

BGN is organising a match between Kramnik and computer Deep Fritz in Bahrain, which was due to be held in October, but was postponed due to the terrorist attacks on the US. Justin Ricketts, managing director of Catapult It!, which handles marketing for BGN, says the “man versus machine” event will happen, although the hunt is still on to find a hardware company such as HP or Intel to run the software.

Ricketts believes that chess needs to be “taken out to the masses and made sexy”. “The commercial operation is too focused on the professional player,” he says.

Ominously for FIDE, BGN is targeting the same type of companies for sponsorship and it too runs an Internet playing operation. BGN has also approached Madonna to play a celebrity match with Kramnik.

It’s an interesting duel. On the one side there is an established, but bruised, official federation with the backing of one of the world’s most established sports marketing agencies. On the other, a newer network backed by the biggest personalities in the game, but with a smaller agency handling its commercial affairs. With both targeting the same types of sponsors and using the same media it could produce a thrilling match.

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