By David Owen

David Owen ©insidethegames.bizIn 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from prison in South Africa and Margaret Thatcher resigned as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. The Cold War over, Germany was reunited. Mobile phones were just starting to get smaller and become more widespread, but the World Wide Web, as a paradigm-shifting, transformational force, was still a few years away. Satellite television company Sky and rival BSB agreed to merge as BSkyB; it was another two years before the breakaway English Premier League was formed and Sky signed its landmark £304 million ($485 million/€388 million) deal for live coverage.

Nineteen Ninety was also the year when 64 participants, including Juan Antonio Samaranch, the late former International Olympic Committee (IOC) President, and 82 companies from 19 countries assembled in Monaco for the very first Sportel conference.

It all seems like so long ago. That inaugural event was attended by two athletes celebrated then, but whom most of us today would struggle to place. Jean-Charles Trouabal and Bruno Marie-Rose were half of the French 4x100 metres relay squad who had recently broken the world record - a feat achieved in Split, which, in another sign of the times, was then still in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

Nothing, though, betrays the passage of time more than the main subject up for discussion at that first Sportel in the Loews Hotel: "Does television support sport or threaten it?"

Jean-Charles Trouabal (in blue) was one of the star attractions of the inaugural Sportel conference ©Getty ImagesJean-Charles Trouabal (in blue) was one of the star attractions of the inaugural Sportel conference ©Getty Images

As the Principality prepares this week to host the 25th annual Sportel Monaco convention at the Grimaldi Forum from October 7 to 10, it is hard to believe that a single one of the maybe 2,500 participants about to converge on this idyllic patch of the Côte d'Azur would seriously contend that television threatens sport.

Yes, TV has wrought many changes and, it could be argued, these have not always been for the better. But much the biggest change since the spread of pay TV and digital technology triggered an explosion in sports rights valuations has been to pump billions and billions of dollars into elite sports.

And this, of course, it continues to do - in spite of the fact that TV is no longer the sole medium for channelling compelling sports content to the masses.

What has been the secret of Sportel's enduring success in such a fast-changing industry?

Michael Payne, the International Olympic Committee (IOC)'s former marketing director, puts it down, in part, to clarity of focus.

"It works because they have identified a clear focused business strategy to create a real platform and market for the broadcast sports industry," he argues, adding that they have not tried to be everything to everyone.

"It is a simple, clear one-stop shop; you are able to meet all the movers and shakers within the sports media industry," he says. "No other conference has succeeded in creating that absolutely focused business agenda. You get there and you do business."

Sportel's David Jones said the conference "has always tried to be ahead of the times" ©Getty ImagesSportel's David Jones said the conference "has always tried to be ahead of the times"
©Getty Images

Sportel sales and marketing agent David Jones' perspective is also interesting, not least because his early experience of Sportel was as a client.

"I exhibited for 15 years at Sportel," he explains. "When we first exhibited, we were small-time producers of extreme sports. We thought we knew everything about our field. We came to Sportel and we realised we knew little. It changed our business completely."

He goes on: "The guys who come here are the cream of the crop. It is not the representatives; it is the deciders themselves."

Confirming the focus on business and on facilitating attendees' ability to strike deals then and there while in Monte Carlo, Jones says: "Sportel has always tried to be ahead of the times and to operate a modern-day platform to do business.

"I signed many contracts in Sportel. We aim to be the best business platform there is. We are not just there to look pretty, we're there to help you do business."

A pretty and well-appointed location, though, Monaco undoubtedly is - and this is clearly a key part of Sportel's pulling power.

Says Payne: "It is a relatively easy destination to get to. It is neutral - and Monaco is a good environment for relaxed networking, as opposed to being in the dark dungeon of some hotel conference room."

For Jones, "Sportel is a contract market, yes, but it's also so nice. Monaco is a beautiful little place with great restaurants and bars. You meet up with people you usually don't see. So the atmosphere is important; you do go about your business differently."

Monaco is a key part of Sportel's pulling power ©WikipediaMonaco is a key part of Sportel's pulling power ©Wikipedia

There is a big world outside the Principality, however, and since 1997 Sportel Monaco has been one of a pair of annual events, the other taking place in Asia or the Americas every March.

In 2015, Sportel America will be returning to Miami, just across the bay from the Miami Beach setting of the inaugural American event 17 years ago. With excitement building over an expected United States bid for the 2024 Olympics and Paralympics, and also a possible Major League Soccer (MLS) team in the city, Jones says he expects the 2015 spring convention to be "extremely successful".

Considering the influence of its events, Sportel itself is a remarkably small organisation. Jones - who still runs his own company, Oceanworx, Sportel's exclusive marketing agency - tells me Sportel is part of an entity called Monaco Mediax, which runs other Principality events, such as the Festival de Télévision de Monte Carlo. Monaco Mediax, he says, has 38 employees; Sportel just 14, although the overall team, of course, swells considerably at convention-time.

Jones took up his current role in 2011, three years after the eruption of the financial crisis that, while it seemed to have little adverse impact on the money-generating powers of big players such as world football governing body FIFA and the Olympic Movement, hit some parts of the industry, including his extreme sports specialism, hard.

Since his arrival, as the sector has started to bounce back, Jones has concentrated on building up Sportel's new media focus, in line with the proliferation of devices used by consumers to access sports content. "I changed the tone a bit," he says. "We have a whole new energy now."

The growing influence of new media is certainly reflected in this year's programme, with conference topics such as, "Sport Online: what works, what doesn't" and "Monetising the second screen experience".

Perhaps paradoxically, though, the requirement for sports media business deals to take account of new technologies is also serving to underline the importance of the sort of direct, face-to-face contact between dealmakers that Sportel can and does foster.

As Jones puts is: "With all the new technologies, it is important to work out the detail of deals. The more you can interact personally, the better you can do that."

Prince Albert will attend the Golden Podium awards ceremony at Sportel ©Getty ImagesPrince Albert will attend the Golden Podium awards ceremony at Sportel ©Getty Images

Other highlights of this year's programme include appearances by Timo Lumme, the IOC's managing director television and marketing services, and Jean-Briac Perrette, President of Discovery Networks International.

There will be demonstrations by the International Judo Federation and the US streetball team Ball Up, a session on 4K ultra high-definition sports content creation, in association with Sony, and a press conference bringing together five all-time soccer greats from around the world: Roger Milla, Hakan Şükür, Hidetoshi Nakata, Mia Hamm and penalty king Antonín Panenka.

On Wednesday night (October 8), the Golden Podium awards ceremony will be attended by Monaco's sports-loving Prince Albert, who is of course an IOC member, as well as Sportel's Honorary President, and an array of sports stars and personalities from the worlds of media and arts. These are expected to include Irish rugby player Brian O'Driscoll, football manager Gérard Houllier, former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson and Stephen Frears, the British film director.

This year's coffee-break talking points? Jones nominates second-screening, whereby sports consumers flit continually between a live event on television and related content, such as statistics or social media, on an iPad or mobile, in a phenomenon also known more colloquially as "meerkating".

Mike Tyson is among the sports stars expected at this years' Sportel ©Getty ImagesMike Tyson is among the sports stars expected at this years' Sportel ©Getty Images

I will be interested to see whether the Olympic TV channel, which seems to be getting nearer under the leadership of current IOC President Thomas Bach, is generating much discussion. Also whether continued uncertainty over the timing of the 2022 FIFA World Cup is seen as an issue.

This being the 25th Sportel Monaco, it is also only natural to wonder what the event will look like in 25 years' time. So relentless is the pace of technological innovation that you would need the powers of a pretty remarkable oracle even to hazard a guess. Jones' crystal ball is clear enough, though for him to make at least one prediction. "It will be awesome," he says without hesitation.

David Owen worked for 20 years for the Financial Times in the United States, Canada, France and the UK. He ended his FT career as sports editor after the 2006 World Cup and is now freelancing, including covering the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the 2010 World Cup and London 2012. Owen's Twitter feed can be accessed here.