PROFILE: Contact sport - Rob Hersov, Chief executive officer, Sportal

Rob Hersov is a player. I’m not just talking about the fact that he runs an international sports web site that had its brand plastered all over Euro 2000 like a rash. No, Hersov is the sort of businessman who may have considered taking out insurance on his filofax, such are his contacts and standing within the European media business.

Rob Hersov is a player. I’m not just talking about the fact that he

runs an international sports web site that had its brand plastered all

over Euro 2000 like a rash. No, Hersov is the sort of businessman who

may have considered taking out insurance on his filofax, such are his

contacts and standing within the European media business.



He acknowledges this position without modesty, but also without the

arrogance that tends to cling to someone who mixes at his level. Take

this example.



I asked him how he came to hold five positions simultaneously in the

mid-90s - two were non-executive roles. ’At that time I was fairly rare

in that I had experience of the media business across so many different

European countries, and direct access to people like Rupert Murdoch and

Leo Kirsch.’ Out of others’ mouths, this would be name-dropping, but for

Hersov, it’s just the way it is.



Working for Murdoch appears to have been a pivotal stage in his

career.



He had followed two years national service in his native South Africa

with a spell on Wall Street at Goldman Sachs, then an MBA at

Harvard.



At his interview, Murdoch asked him just two questions: ’What is the

future of media?’ - Hersov thought technology, Murdoch said content -

and ’What can you do for me?’



’I said ’give me six months to prove myself and then, if you don’t like

what I’m doing, you can give me the shittiest job you’ve got’.’ His

confidence paid off handsomely, with a two-year stint following the

media mogul around the world, acting like a private secretary. ’People

came to Rupert wanting him to invest in their business. I would go to

the meetings with him then go off to do the research, and find the

opportunities for us.



’It always impressed me how (Murdoch) could immediately understand the

core issues. I might have spent a week researching something, come in

and present it to him, and he would perhaps ask three questions that

showed he had grasped what was important to us.’ We start to talk about

the future of Sportal, the rapidly growing internet brand he put

together two years ago, and how it can maintain its edge when there are

so many sports sites springing up (only last week London-based

worldsport.com went bust).



Detail is the key, he believes. More depth of information, furnishing

the dedicated fan with every last fact about their favourite sport. ’Now

here’s an incredible fact about the way people use the internet. Are you

ready for this?’ he asks, worried I might miss the impact. ’Twenty-five

per cent of Americans watching sport on the TV are using the internet at

the same time. They like to be able to watch the game but check details

at the same time. For example, I love rugby, and find it fascinating to

know how heavy the prop is, how well matched he is with his opposite

number. Details like this make watching more enjoyable.’



It’s a wonder Hersov has time to catch a game of rugby, let alone tap

into Sportal for the extras. Since January, he has sold a minority stake

to BSkyB, launched sites specific to Italy, France, Germany and the UK,

introduced a multi-lingual WAP service, struck a content supply deal

with Yahoo! and agreed a handy sponsorship by Benetton Formula One in

return for web site design.



Oh yes, and he signed up Kevin Keegan to write exclusively for the site

and appear in the ads promoting Sportal’s sponsorship of Euro 2000, a

campaign that has provided the spur to Sportal’s sudden recognition.

Visits to the site rocketed after the first Euro 2000 game, as fans took

to the net to discover more about this new brand sitting among

MasterCard and McDonald’s in the sponsor’s league. Hersov puts together

deals in the same way the rest of us nip down the high street for some

groceries. Midway through the ambitious setting-up period for Sportal

last summer, he and some friends hit upon an idea for another internet

business, which they launched ’over a few weekends’ under the name

antfactory.



It offers businesses the chance to launch online, with antfactory and

the client splitting ownership.



’It means they get in ahead of the competition and the new business acts

as a spur to the original organisation.’



For most people, having the ideas is about as far as they get. But

Hersov gets on the phone to his banking contacts for the financing, to

his MBA colleagues for the management, and hey presto, starts up a

company. ’I think the skills involved in putting together deals are

crucial to a start-up, particularly in new media. You need wide

distribution and many partners,’ he says.



It’s easy to cast Hersov as a new generation Murdoch, but a Keegan

mentor-type is perhaps closer to reality.



’See that chap over there?’ he says, pointing to a guy in his mid-20s

moving back to his desk. ’He came to us from an estate agency, but

really wanted to make it in new media. He offered to work for nothing so

he could learn programming. Of course we paid him, but he has worked

seven days a week for the past two years, becoming more proficient all

the time. That’s what gets me up in the mornings - being able to offer

opportunities to people like that.’



BIOGRAPHY

1989-1991

Business development executive, News Corp, New York

1991-1993

Head of media investment banking, Morgan Stanley, London

1993-1998

Chief executive, Telepiu Srl (Italian pay TV); executive director,

Nethold and ENIC; non-exec director, Richemont and Mediaset

1998-present

Chief executive officer, Sportal



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