We spoke to Pranav Soneji, Director and Co-Founder of LiveWire Sport, who discussed what steps the sports industry can take to better represent the people it serves, as well as why a diverse team can be crucial in terms of engagement.

InsiderSport: Firstly can you tell us a little more about your background and what led to you founding LiveWire Sport? 

Pranav Soneji: Thanks for having me! My background is slightly unconventional – my interest in the media began doing paper rounds in my early teens, working for my parents who ran a newsagency in north-west London. They would get up at 5am every day, seven days a week, open the shop at 6am and deliver newspapers to 500 houses in a five-mile radius. Often paperboys wouldn’t turn up so my brother and I would do double rounds, lugging heavy bags through torrential rain, winds and anything else the elements could throw at us. But I didn’t mind as I would read all the backpages of the newspapers, soaking in all the football transfer news to tell my friends about at school. I was fascinated how tabloids and broadsheets told stories, the nuance of puns as well as opinion columnists who could write about whatever they wanted.

Just imagine getting paid for that… So that’s where my love for the written word and sport originated and, after a degree in Economics and Politics, I was fortunate to be accepted on a print journalism postgraduate diploma at Leeds Trinity and All Saints College, as well as receive a bursary from the George Viner Memorial Fund, an NUJ initiative to improve BAME representation in journalism. And it was in Leeds where I got my big break at the BBC through a five-week placement and then a job on the newly launched Sport website in 2000, so I’ve only ever worked in digital, or ‘online’ as it was known back then. My 11 years at BBC Sport coincided with the rapid evolution of digital media, and in particular how sports fans consumed live sport with the advent of 3G from 2004 onwards.

We saw a surge for live content during weekends in particular, rather than for traditional pre-event previews or match reports. Fans were hungry for near-live updates while on the move, with technology driving consumer behaviour changes. As a result, live text updates from Premier League match weekends, cricket matches, rugby internationals and major tennis tournaments dominated the top of the analytics reports – and fans wanted more. And by introducing a more amiable, friendlier tone of voice, live text commentaries drove the BBC’s digital coverage of live events and, as the website and technology evolved, it was complemented by live radio commentaries, embedded video clips and social posts (after the BBC 606 website was closed down).

When BBC Sport relocated to Salford in 2011, myself and four colleagues used the opportunity to set up LiveWire Sport to commercialise live digital event coverage for rightsholders, broadcasters and brands. The timing was particularly serendipitous as social media platforms became a medium to communicate to larger audiences, not just individuals. Our BBC background gave us an opportunity to approach rightsholders to build audiences on the increasingly popular platforms around live events, beginning with the Premier League, Wimbledon and Channel 4. And, as platforms have emerged and evolved, we have added more services like strategy and consultancy services, video and creative production, branded content, programmatic ads and more. Our industry is continuously evolving, which means it’s never dull!

InsiderSport: What do you believe can be done to help the sport industry better represent the audience it serves?

Pranav Soneji: There are a number of barriers to entry – whether socio-economic, cultural, disability or perceived favouritism – that can stifle a prospective career. However, the democratisation of social media platforms has empowered a newer, younger and savvier generation to challenge convention and knock on doors so loud it’s impossible to ignore. Channels like CheekySport, whose founder Joel Beya joins us at Channel 4 on the 12th November, are making content their way – and it’s reaching audiences who bypass traditional media organisations and their KPIs to capture the elusive 16-24 demographic. Some talented people need a first break, some need a hand up while others need mentoring to smooth some of the rougher edges of their skillset.

That’s why we’re introducing the Diversity in Digital Mentoring Programme to identify the very best talent and help them fulfil their potential in conjunction with our high-profile clients. Look out for more information on the 12th.

InsiderSport: How important do you believe a diverse team is when it comes to engaging the widest audience possible? 

Pranav Soneji: With a more diverse, younger and representative workforce comes new opportunities, new ideas and strategic ways to reach new audiences, the Holy Grail for our industry. Progress and innovation require being constantly challenged with new ideas and concepts, especially from an agency perspective, and being able to tap into a diverse workforce will help us – and our clients – become better at reaching target audiences. But it’s not just about business targets – a really interesting piece in this week’s Economist also suggests that employees who believe their firms care about gender diversity are 40% more likely to be satisfied at work. That’s really important for us.

InsiderSport: Can you go into greater detail about Channel 4’s Paras Production Training Scheme and what role that has had at LiveWire? 

Pranav Soneji: Back in 2012, Channel 4 made a commitment that 50% of its presenting talent for the 2012 Paralympic Games in London would be disabled, a bold, ground-breaking pledge that helped to develop The Last Leg’s Alex Brooker, along with presenter Arthur Williams. For the 2016 Games, Channel 4 extended the scheme to production skills, giving disabled talent the opportunity to work for the various companies involved in Rio, including LiveWire Sport. And we’re delighted to welcome two trainees last month, both of whom have made an instant impact working across our wide range of clients as well as Channel 4’s coverage of the World Para Athletics Championships in Dubai.

We have so many excellent mentors with years of experience working alongside some of the biggest sports rightsholders and broadcasters in the world, so our duty is to ensure both trainees spend time with our internal teams to learn as much as possible. This has inspired us to create the Diversity in Digital Mentoring Programme, mentioned above.

InsiderSport: Could diversity within sports punditry, reflect in better attitudes to diversity on and off the pitch? 

Pranav Soneji: Yes, absolutely. Our men’s and women’s football, cricket and rugby teams are among the most diverse national teams in the world, be it race, sexuality and socio-economic backgrounds – our industry should aspire to be just as representative. Media personalities are just as much role models as sportsmen and women, so it’s our duty as an industry to change the way we bring fans closer to the personalities they admire.

In particular, asking different questions often elicits unexpected responses from sportsmen and women, bringing out their personalities, as opposed to the media-trained soundbites we’re so used to hearing during post-match interviews. Social platforms in particular have enabled content creators and influencers to push the boundaries with sports stars, giving them an atmosphere to be themselves and share the cultural influencers that make them who they are. This is what we should aspire to in our industry.

InsiderSport: Can you tell us more about LiveWire Sport’s event with Channel 4 this week? 

Pranav Soneji: It started as a conversation around our own agency and whether we are representative enough of the diverse audiences we serve via our clients. The Paras Production Trainee Scheme is a step in the right direction but I wanted to do more, especially considering my own background and realising not much has really changed in the 20 years since I began my career. Channel 4 are one of our longest-serving clients and leaders in diversity and were delighted to team up with us to kickstart the conversation.

We have some fantastic speakers from very different backgrounds, as well as academics to help contextualise research and help our industry understand why we need to change. It is a sensitive subject but we hope beginning the conversation in an environment where people feel comfortable will help our industry to become an agent for change.

Tickets for tomorrow’s event are available here.