Matt Wilkinson of Collective Media Group is currently teeing up the opening and closing TV ceremonies for the Ryder Cup in Rome this autumn. Recently, he brought the golfing games of Harry Kane and Michael Phelps to a television audience for the Ryder Cup-inspired Icons Series.
What does the job involve?
At Collective Media Group, which has been going for 18 months, I look after all sport and sports entertainment projects, which includes developing and producing formats, series and live events for a global audience.
My background is in big sports entertainment shows such as Sky’s A League of Their Own and ITV’s Soccer Aid. We also work with governing bodies, such as Fifa, on its Football Awards, and the Ryder Cup, and rights holders such as Sky Sports, ITV and the BBC.
What have you worked on recently?
The Icons Series, a Ryder Cup-style event pitting the US against the rest of the world in a team golf event. We had stars such as Harry Kane, Ash Barty, James Milner and Ricky Ponting taking on a team that included Olympic swimming legend Michael Phelps, NBA stars and Super Bowl winners. It was on FreeSports [now Viaplay Xtra] in the UK, NBC in the US and FoxTel in Australia, and 20 or so other territories.
Is sports entertainment growing in the UK?
We are still miles behind our friends on the other side of the Atlantic. You think we get a lot of sport over here? It’s everywhere in the States. If you’re a Yankees or 49ers fan, they’re serving you content every day of the week.
We think we’re getting served too much football content here but, if I’m a Liverpool fan, I only get content about my club when Liverpool are playing on Sky or BT – which is a tiny amount in comparison with what happens across the pond.
What was your route into television?
I did a degree in economics and politics and I fell into television almost by accident. My first job as a runner was stuffing application forms into envelopes for Big Brother and then I was a locations assistant on Changing Rooms.
I also worked on The Pepsi Chart Show, They Think It’s All Over, Big Brother’s Little Brother and The Games. I was in charge of the trials and challenges on I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! for six years and loved every minute of it.
What makes a good creative director?
Ideas are the lifeblood of TV – you need to come up with ideas and know how to execute them. Good contacts help, too – what gets you to the front of the queue in a world of sharp elbows is personal relationships with talent, agents, decision-makers and buyers.
Who are the most famous people in your phone’s contact list?
Robbie Williams, Niall Horan, Roberto Carlos and Idris Elba.
So you’re bringing razzmatazz to sport?
It’s not about bringing in Ant and Dec and firing confetti canons! A great sports entertainment show is fast-moving, with high-quality items and is aimed at the “casual” sports fan.
The content we make for the Ryder Cup is a good example. There are golf fans who watch events all-year round, but, every two years, sports fans go nuts for this event, as it’s America against Europe.
It is the third most-watched event in the world after the Olympics and the World Cup and our aim is to make the content as mainstream as possible but without turning off the hardcore fans.
But you can’t mess with the purity of a sport, can you?
There are limits. For example, I could reduce the number of holes in a golf event to fit a specific broadcast window but I can’t put jelly in the bunkers! Harry Kane or Pep Guardiola don’t want to play in a “hit and giggle” contest; they want to play in a credible event. However, no one wants to watch them play 18 holes of golf. You need to find a balance.
It must go wrong sometimes…
I’ve done a lot of sports entertainment formats, but asking people to put themselves out there in a sport they’re not professional at is a big ask. Jimmy Nesbitt and Piers Morgan took part in a golf event and both nearly took someone’s head off in the crowd.
What are the best and worst parts of the job?
The best thing is the people I get to meet, the things I get to do and the buzz of making live television. There is a misconception, though, that these big shows are easy to produce and have huge budgets – they’re not and they don’t.
What people watch on the TV is the culmination of three to six months’ hard graft. The reality is that I’m usually at my wits’ end in a truck between the toilets and the catering van at my wit’s end – I’m not sat in the front row.
The worst parts are the disappointment when you’ve come up with an idea that you think is brilliant but which doesn’t work out.
I don’t mind a straight “no” but it is dispiriting when a project gets put on ice or dropped.
Are there any secrets to making good sports entertainment shows?
Have a small team of good people who you enjoy working with. I’ve worked on productions with a cast of thousands – that’s when stuff gets missed.
Which programme are you most proud of?
The opening ceremony of the 2018 Ryder Cup in Paris. We really took a risk on doing something different, but I’m confident that what we’ve got in store for this year in Rome will take it up a notch again.
How have sports entertainment shows changed since you started?
They’ve changed for the better. Rights holders and governing bodies are much more open to new formats and behind-the-scenes content. The downside is that everyone thinks their sport is ready to be the next Drive to Survive. That show is a cut above because of the nature of Formula One.
I took a call recently from a football-club owner asking whether a documentary could be made about him running the club, like the Ryan Reynolds documentary, Welcome to Wrexham.
I told him “no”, because you’re not a famous actor like Reynolds – at best, local TV might want to cover it! The number of times I hear people say, “Netflix would love this”, and I’m thinking to myself, “No, it wouldn’t!”
What advice would you give to someone wanting to work in sports entertainment?
Look for running jobs on big events – there are lots of events and they need lots of people. When you get your foot in the TV door, start in entertainment and move into sports entertainment later.
There’s no better place to learn how to develop ideas, format shows and script VTs than the world of entertainment.
Matt Wilkinson was interviewed by Matthew Bell.