A new concept for showjumping is being introduced to the world next week, with the driving force behind it a long-time sports fan perhaps better known on a baseball diamond than an equestrian arena.
It will be a special celebration next Friday night, August 14, when the new Global Champions League teams concept debuts in an exhibition during the Global Champions Tour series competition in Valkenswaard in The Netherlands.
Special because it has been a difficult, two-year journey to this point by its creators, and special because it is the birthday of Frank McCourt, the driving force behind the new concept.
The new teams league concept was developed by McCourt, a philanthropist and real estate developer, and Jan Tops, the founder of showjumping’s successful Global Champions Tour.
The McCourt-Tops business partnership has brought together the two individuals and their organisations with complementary skill-sets “to build something really special”, McCourt says.
While McCourt is relatively new to equestrian sport, he has had a life-long involvement in sports in general, including owning the operating rights to the Los Angeles Marathon. He is also the former owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team, which he sold in 2012 for $US2.15 billion, which was the largest sale of a professional sports franchise in history.
But, above all, he describes himself as a major sports lover.
“I’ve been involved in sports my whole life. I consider myself a sportsman. I’m a big fan of sports,” he says.
McCourt’s introduction to the equestrian world came less than five years ago, after he first saw showjumping near his home in Wellington, Florida, which is the winter equestrian hub in the US.
“I didn’t know much about it at the time. After studying it for a year or so I really became hooked,” McCourt said.
“I was really surprised that I was so interested. I realised quickly that it was a sport that, in the US particularly, is not very well understood. There is not the same exposure to the sport as there is in Europe.”
McCourt saw opportunities for the sport and looked to get involved at more than a spectator level. In 2013, he commissioned advisory firm Blackstone to check out the global showjumping scene. They identified the Global Champions Tour and its founder, Jan Tops, as a prospect for a partnership, and arranged a meeting with McCourt in Paris in October of that year.
“Not only did we hit it off well, but we realised that our skill sets complement one another’s quite well, and by February we were partners,” McCourt said.
In 2014 he bought a 50 percent interest in the Global Champions Tour.
“It was one of those things that worked out. Sometimes there are things that you try to do in life and business and it’s a bit of a struggle and things don’t fit together quite so smoothly or easily. This was not one of those. This happened fairly quickly.
“It was obvious to both of us that we each could bring totally different backgrounds and experience to a potential partnership. And the fact we got on together accelerated things.
“I didn’t come to this with a lifetime of experience with equestrian sports, never mind showjumping, but Jan does. He’s an expert he knows as much about showjumping as probably anyone in the world.”
His own organisation, McCourt Global, brought to the table its experience on the global sporting stage in broadcasting, media, and sponsorship. McCourt felt he could “build up something quite special” , from the foundation laid by the Global Champions Tour (GCT). He felt they could collectively bring the sport to a global audience and increase the participation of all stakeholders.
In a nutshell, the new Global Champions League format will involve owners with a team of four riders. The owners will choose two riders to represent them in the League, which will take place on the Friday night of each three or four-day GCT competition.
There are already several showjumping competition series in play around the world. So why introduce a new competition league?
McCourt says the concept aims to make the sport easier to follow for casual spectators and die-hard fans: “It’s really about being able to follow the match, follow the game, follow the class, follow the competition in a way that’s fairly easy to do.”
With his outsider’s view of showjumping, he “felt that the sport was a bit fragmented, or disaggregated. It was a little difficult to follow, as there were several different (team) formats, and lots of different organisations.
“It was a bit hard to follow and a bit hard even to get people who were immersed in the sport to explain, not so much the rules, but how did one know they were looking at the top level of competition?
“In most other sports there’s a way to follow a sport. There’s a way to follow the individuals and the team standings and so on. It was much less obvious with showjumping,” McCourt says.
“The product is great, but if we can present it in a way that’s easier to understand and follow, that will grow the sport and will grow the number of people interested, and will grow the revenues, and that will help attract riders and partners and activity and media interest and so on.”
He feels the Global Champions League will be “transformative” in the sport.
The concept will be formally announced by McCourt and Tops next Friday, but already Athina Onassis de Miranda has put her hand up to be a team owner.
“I was pleasantly surprised by that,” McCourt said. “I think the fact that somebody has stepped up already and spoken for a team is great. Whether other individuals or groups do that before the 14th remains to be seen.”
McCourt said the interest from riders had been phenomenal, even at this early stage.
Even before its official launch, McCourt reckons “the sky’s the limit, I really do”.
“This is a great product. This is a really top sport and I think when people are brought along and there’s a broader audience they’re going to see that quite quickly, as I did.
“I don’t have a crystal ball but I do feel that we have all the ingredients here to really bring this sport to another level, and I think that’s very, very exciting.”
Bringing the concept to life has been far from plain sailing; the idea simmered away for a couple of years, with a key hold-up relating to the FEI’s exclusivity clause. Just a week ago, the Belgian Competition Authority (BCA) ordered the FEI, the world governing body for horse sport, to allow riders to take part in the League. This followed a complaint by the GCT over the FEI’s rules, which prohibits riders, horses, and officials from taking part in any non-FEI-approved event for six months before their participation in an FEI event. The teams component of the new League had not been sanctioned by the FEI, although the Global Champions Tour itself is an approved series.
“We initially worked with the FEI to get their permission to move forward. We’ve always felt that what we’re doing is great for the sport, great for the riders and everybody else involved.
“Our dialogue went on for nearly two years. There was a point where we were going to do this a year ago and we had to postpone the launch of the League, and we were again on the cusp of having to postpone it again,” McCourt said.
“So we took matters into our own hands … we are very grateful to the Belgian Competition Authority for granting interim measures so we can move forward.
“We’re very excited about this and we’re marching forward now with a great deal of enthusiasm.”
McCourt said the BCA decision was great for the sport and all involved. “It isn’t as if we’re unknown operators; we have already established a track record. We have 10 years under our belt with the Global Champions Tour.
“I think most people would agree the GCT provides the highest level of competition in truly important cities and great locations within those cities, and people really enjoy it, especially the competitors”.
McCourt said time would tell if the format would adapt to other disciplines, but for now his focus was clearly on showjumping, making the point that what distinguishes jumping from some of the other disciplines was its objective nature, and the fact that each round of competition could be easily followed.
To emphasize the potential of the League’s innovative new team format, McCourt related an experience from his time with the LA Dodgers, when he took the team to China in 2008 to play the country’s first professional baseball games in that country.
He said the fans packed the stadium in Beijing, and while they appeared to be having a great time, his observation was that they didn’t really understand the sport.
“Baseball is a fairly nuanced sport and there are lots of rules and intricacies. It’s hard to be a casual fan because you’re not 100 percent sure what’s transpiring.
“On the other hand when, with Jan, we took the Global Champions Tour to Shanghai last year for the first competition of its kind in China. Again, the stands were full, and the spectators seemed to enjoy themselves.
“But the difference was that they also understood what was going on, because it’s a fairly intuitive sport. A rail down is a rail down. A clock is something that people can follow.
“I think some of the other equestrian sports require the viewer or spectator to be a little bit more knowledgeable about the sport, and a little bit more expert.
“I’m not saying that is a good or a bad thing, I’m saying that is a limiting characteristic, in terms of growing the sport and taking it around the globe. People need to understand a format and know who’s winning and which team is where in the standings.
“Then when you get more and more educated, you get more into the nuance and the detail – but by then you’re already hooked,” McCourt says.
“We have the most important thing of all, which is a great product to work with.
“This is a great sport and in Europe, people know that because it is part of the culture but in other parts of the world it’s going to take a little time.”
McCourt said he and Tops were thrilled with the reception the Tour had received at its opening event this season on the beach at Miami in April. Celebrities joined tourists and equestrian fans at the unique venue, while the Atlantic Ocean lapped the shore just metres away.
“We were very optimistic about it. Of course optimism is one thing but actually experiencing people’s reactions and seeing the reception to the sport in the US was something else.
“I had people coming up to me from Europe, who were very experienced in the sport and had seen the best shows in the world, saying they thought it was the best show they’d ever been to all round, with the level of competition and also the ambience and the fun and enjoyment,” McCourt says.
“The fact that the beach was five or six deep for the entire Grand Prix showed people really gravitated to it. I’m talking about people who were seeing it for the first time, not to mention those that were experienced in horse shows, commenting on how much they were enjoying themselves.
“That said to us that this was a sport that could do very well in the United States, in Asia; it’s already doing well in the Middle East. There are showjumping classes going on at different levels all the time all around the world. There’s a lot of people competing at this sport,” he says.
“And horses are a very important part of many cultures around the world. I think these things bode very well for the sport and we just need to maintain the highest standard of excellence, and that we provide the top competition and great settings for fans, and I think that this could do quite well.
“It’s a big idea but we also need to stay very focused on the details. We think we can travel a long way, but it’s going to be one inch at a time.”