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Getting to Know: Emy Casaletti-Bwalya

The Chief Executive Officer of Optimize Marketing Agency has seen plenty of change since she first got into the sports marketing business and the last 18 months have provided the perfect test for that experience.

Q: As CEO, what do you find yourself focusing on, and has that changed since the onset of Covid-19?
The onset of Covid-19 has forced us to think completely differently in our business. What has really stood us in good stead is a thorough understanding of the sports market and its consumers, and the ability to link our clients to this market, thereby allowing us to dream up some ideas that tap into the consumer, even though he or she is no longer at the live sports event. We are very solutions-orientated and the Covid-19 problem has seen us doing things differently – more creatively, with the ability to innovate more.

Q: What do you view as the biggest impact of Covid-19 on the global – and local – sports industry?
It has had impact on the sport, the fan, and on professional athletes. Globally, Covid-19 has accelerated the adoption of technologies aimed at creating unique experiences for fans. With virtual events continually being developed and refined, there will be an increase of fan touchpoints and thus an increase in the fan journey. Engagement and participation of fans in these new hybrid experiences will become dominant sponsorship metrics. Locally, the pandemic is driving more digital events and broadcasting as a whole. It has accelerated the growth of digital platforms. If the price of data could become more reasonable in South Africa, this would explode. The pandemic has made sports lovers miss live sport, and if anything, it has made sport more popular than ever. Consumers are hungry to consume sport on all types of screens. The impact on professional athletes is that they can no longer sit on the sidelines about important social issues. Now, more than ever, these sports stars are expected to use their celebrity status for social good to talk about issues that are both important to them and relevant to their fans. Athlete advocacy generates far more engagement for brands. This has become a worldwide trend, ready to be adopted in our country.

Q: Have you had to make changes to your business?
We have had to be more lean and more agile. The ability to turn things around in a much shorter time frame has become the norm for us. We have learnt that impossible only means you haven’t found a solution yet and we work around the clock to make a difference to our clients’ business.

Q: Is there a sports organisation or brand – local or international – that you feel has responded best/adapted to the challenges presented by Covid-19?
Without a doubt, the Sharks. They have made some amazing strides and in my opinion are leading the pack in South African sport. Their CEO, Eduard Coetzee, a former player, is young, dynamic and qualified. They were the first South African sporting organisation to get involved with NFTs, with an auction in July already! Some people are still getting their heads around this technology. They’ve helped rebuild communities affected by the pandemic, and then there’s their “Players First” programme, which looks after their players, their academy, their board etc, and they live for their fans. The Sharks tick all the boxes, they are an incredible brand, and I feel they have truly responded to the challenges presented by Covid-19.

Q: You have a long history in football – what’s your view on the current commercial viability of the SA football product?
Football is the biggest sport in the world and it is no different in South Africa, thereby making it a great vehicle to market. However, it needs to be leveraged correctly in order to achieve a return on investment. Football is no ordinary business and I do believe the sport could be doing things a little differently. Ultimately, with the right strategy and tactics, football can both build a brand and drive sales, which is what every partner wants from a sponsorship property.

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Q: How has the local sports sponsorship space changed since you first got into the business?
Social media, used correctly, is the most powerful tool. It can connect with fans in real time and it can enhance the live experience, bringing fans closer to the action. I am not certain that teams have fully utilised this medium. The availability and use of data is also a very useful tool – having a Nielsen Sports in your camp, for example, helps tremendously. But besides all of those technological changes, for me the biggest change, particularly in South African sport, and which saddens me deeply, is the fact that sports administrators have become more important than the main protagonists on the field of play. There was a time where we knew every single player in our national teams. We don’t now. We have stopped hearing the sportspeople and have started hearing their bosses.

Q: What’s your view on the state of women’s sport in SA and its current commercial viability?
I believe women’s sport is the future. Women sportspeople get on with the job quietly and with the strength and vigour of champions. They have a ‘never say die’ attitude and the quality of women’s sport has improved in leaps and bounds. Suddenly, they are starting to be taken seriously, the eyeballs on them are increasing, and they are becoming a viable route to market. Commercially, they need to focus on their USPs and work on revenue generation strategies to reach greater heights.

Q: Do you think it’s fair to say that the SA sports industry, including administration, is male-dominated, and if so, what would you do to change the status quo? 
The sports industry is still a boys club and it has been throughout my career. The only way to change this is to give women a chance, a genuine chance, a chance to prove themselves. Slowly but surely this is coming to the fore in some key leadership roles and administration, but you can name them on one hand, and they have had to work twice as hard, yet have done incredibly well. It is unfortunate, however, that some sporting organisations are happy to make up for their gender disparities by placing less qualified women in places where they can just make up the numbers and just agree with their principals without really having a voice or a “seat at the table”. On the other hand, I urge women to empower themselves with knowledge, because if you know your stuff, you will be respected and you will eventually rise to a deserving position.

Q: What does your daily routine look like? Early mornings or late nights?
Both, I’m afraid. I dedicate my mornings to my dogs to get their energy out and to get in some fresh air and exercise for me. We head off to a nearby park and they sprint until they are exhausted. Then my work day is pretty structured, with meeting upon meeting. I am a wife and a mother, so I also have my “other job”, but my late nights, when no-one is around, are when I get my best work done. I don’t sleep much.

Q: How do you cope with stress and how do you unwind?
In the words of Michelle Obama, I have learnt to be “more comfortable saying no, more confident saying yes, and more willing to say what’s on my mind”. This attitude certainly helps destress, however it also does sometimes backfire, so that’s when my level-headed husband steps in and helps me make sense of it all. My confidant and best friend helps me through the stress. I unwind with good music and relaxing at home.

Dylan Rogers
Dylan Rogers

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