This week interview see’s me speak with a football industry mastermind, Mano Nhouvannasak. Mano has worked at the international game’s pinnacle, which has seen him play a role at Borussia Dortmund, VfL Wolfsburg, the Lao Football Federation and more. If you’re serious about pursuing a career in football, get ready for some invaluable words of wisdom!
Q1) Mano, it’s fantastic to have you on Ash’s Sports Talk. Can you kick this off by sharing how your sports career started?
Thank you for having me here. I am more than happy to share with you my career path.
Growing up, I had always been deeply passionate about football, especially when you’re born in Germany, football is everywhere. I dreamt of becoming a professional football player; my father was my inspiration as he played for the National team of Laos and in Belgium’s second tier. As a player, I never could reach a professional level in Germany. Instead, I juggled around Amateur leagues and took on other odd jobs to pay my bills, which wasn’t a pleasure. But the chance came suddenly in 2009 when I had the opportunity to play for the Laos’ national team and in the Thaileague, which was a short but exceptional experience and generally my first approach in Asia. I saw how difficult it is in Asia to change into a footballer after the active time. That’s why I decided on my pathway at 24 years old to quit my short career and finish my studies in sports management back in Germany. I realised that there is no place for me on the pitch anymore, but I knew there could be off the pitch.
Stepping into sports business management was the best decision. I soon became the Marketing Director and Assistant Secretary-General at the Lao Football Federation. Growing the and building the organisation up from scratch excited me the most. After a couple of years, I learned fast and saw my potential; I showed what I could do mostly with the passion when you serve your country. The president soon gave me a chance to become the CEO of the domestic League. It was a huge responsibility for such a young man like myself. Laos’s sports structure has a lack of resources, so you were automatically responsible for almost anything. Therefore, I had to make the most of what we had to get where we needed. I am grateful to gain knowledge in different footballing sectors, mostly as I was young. When you work in the football business, there are indeed no office hours. You live 24 hours a day for your passion.
My highlights have been the results we showed with the group that we had. Plus, establishing new initiatives such as Club Licensing, Live football streaming, and breaking the record revenue of sponsorship and media rights. We had a great and talented group of people within the federation. I am glad to see my former colleagues now making their careers with the AFC or my brother when I hired him some time ago; he is now working for FIFA. The networks and working groups, with the AFC, FIFA, top FA executives, and my four years of freelancing with Lagardère Sports (Sportsfive) were precious and varied for me. It was acceptable to ask for help and outsource mentoring support for my sports career growth.
Q2) You’ve previously been the Lao Premier League CEO and have transitioned into one of Europeans’ most significant football leagues, the Bundesliga. How did working in Asian sports territory help you pivot into German domestic football?
Over the past years, the Bundesliga works with their clubs to drive the international media rights, localised marketing, direct activations and youth development. As I was born and bred in Germany, I followed the Bundesliga very closely. After more than four years with the Laos Football Federation, I decided it’s time to move on. My experience and international background then led me to the “Wolves” of VfL Wolfsburg.
When I arrived, the first team just secured their place in the following Bundesliga season after beating neighbourhood club, Eintracht Braunschweig, in the relegation play-off. I was part of the rebuilding process and had to adapt to the corporate world and competitive day to day Bundesliga business.
It was unique to live in around 125,000 people, about half the town’s workers have jobs directly linked to Volkswagen. The club’s subsidiary of the automobile group VW is the city’s pride as they repositioned themselves to be “the most modern football family in Europe representing football from a broad, holistic standpoint from successful women’s football to the first mover in e-sports. The infrastructure for players and employees was world-class.
The Bundesliga’s corporate brand values of their clubs and VW were to raise brand awareness and attract new customers internationally. I had to develop my knowledge around transfers in modern club football to regions where VW is present like China, US & Mexico, which matched my new role in International Development, B2C.
I gained more in-depth insights into the corporate football industry, such as how highly professional things were structured within the club. The ambitious club won the Bundesliga in the last decade. The likes of de Bruyne, Dzeko, Mandzukic, and Draxler left their footprints, but the sporting sustainability and the balance between the club and significant sponsors were not always in place.
After a while, when I regularly traveled for work in Asia, it felt like home again. I learned from people in Asia who brought charisma, fun and authenticity to every meeting. Although, that doesn’t mean they didn’t have fears. Instead, they experienced this feeling openly and positively to make others feel comfortable to support organisational success.
Most people in Europe think the other part of the world is relatively stable, linear and mechanic. However, people in Asia think it’s always organic and changing. Westerners focus more on objects and people in isolation from their environment, whereas Asians focus on relationships between objects, the environment, and people in groups. I always try to maintain the balance between both business cultures. Remaining authentic was key to building my strengths. I felt comfortable in Wolfsburg, but my desire to return to Asia was enormous.
Q3) I appreciate there’s no such thing as a regular day working in football. However, what did your role as Dortmund’s lead for International and New Business look like?
After almost two fruitful years at Vfl Wolfsburg, there was no better opportunity to “transfer” to one of the world’s biggest clubs, Borussia Dortmund (BVB). BVB has significantly impacted Asia in recent years and has become a trendsetter across European soil; they have a rich history, honours, owns one of the best youth academies and the highest average fan attendances. I remember when I walked out from the player tunnel for the first time into the stadium. The smell of the pitch was so overpowering that sent me back to my childhood and reminded me of the greatness about working in the Bundesliga. Moving to a big club means you’ve somehow done something right in the last years.
My career requirements matched precisely to the position of International & New Business. I finally moved back to Asia and took my role at the BVB APAC office in Singapore. Together we developed new business opportunities, marketing, digital strategies and action plans such as the Asia Tour and Legends appearances – for Asia and South-East Asia in particular. We worked closely with marketing and commercial partner Sportfive to build global and regional sponsorships in this region.
The region captures the diversity of markets where differences in culture, religion, and government can vary greatly. Doing business in Thailand is nothing like doing business in Vietnam, which is actually only a 1-hour flight distance. Every country has its own challenges and opportunities. That made me accept these challenges to run the club’s activities to grow and enhance internationally in an authentic way.
Q4) There’s been a heavy theme of sports marketing involved in your career journey. Throughout your sporting adventure, what have been some of the most extensive changes you’ve seen in sports marketing and what does Dortmund do differently with their marketing strategy compared to other clubs?
As the ‘people’s club’ we created relevant on and offline touchpoints for fans, partners and media in a friendly approach, free of the financial takeover that have come with the likes of the EPL clubs. Youth development is indeed one of the club’s critical assets to leverage other Asian clubs or sports institutions’ knowledge and create opportunities to make steps forward.
Due to the current pandemic and cancelled Asia Tour, many partners and fans were in touch with us mentioned that they still wanted to get as close to the players, especially in these difficult times. This inspired us to reinforce our digital communications from Dortmund to Asia with the innovative “Virtual Asia Tour”. The tour consisted of virtual meetings with players, livestreams of training sessions and localised online content. It’s impressive how BVB are perceived in Asia; everyone likes Dortmund and partners, and fans became friends.
Q5) With any successful career journey, comes an array of challenges, especially in football. What have been the most substantial challenges you’ve experienced that have shaped your journey to where you are today?
Every workplace I have worked for faces challenges such as a lack of integrity and cultural differences, especially when you work internationally. I always try to maintain a balance between Western and Asian business cultures. It’s imperative to stay authentic to be my best self, and I am proud of the journey I’ve taken so far which took a lot of perseverance, as I know that it has brought me to be who I am. My deepest passions that contribute to sports will always be a work in progress. However, I’m a lifelong learner who still has weaknesses and adds value to others by sharing what I have learned.
I learnt that team and culture matter so much at work. Like football players, industry staff have different talents and strengths, such as ambition and supportiveness. This makes working so much more enjoyable and meaningful.
Q6) Mano, reflecting on this discussion and your career, what advice can you provide someone wanting to break into sport?
It was important for me to take off my fan glasses to get out of my own bubble. It is always helpful to enlist an industry buddy or network. Meeting up with a friend or mentor with industry experience allows you to branch out from the workplace and learn new information in a social setting. Keep reading, listening and watching. Build your skills with further studies work on your weaknesses; it’s never too late.
The last few years it is very much about travelling the world and embracing new cultures and realities. It has been an excellent opportunity to meet people who share the same passion and involve long lunches entertaining clients. It sounds great. But it can be like a roller coaster. It is addictive, and time flies so fast. So mind your time very well.
Q7) As you’ve recently left BVB, what is your next journey?
First of all, I am very thankful for the opportunities working for three very different sports institutions. As for now, I will be taking care of our family businesses due to the pandemic. But I will remain in the sports industry for sure, stay tuned!
Wow, what amazing words by Mano. It’s fair to say this turned into a biography rather than an interview! Nevertheless, plenty of learnings around using every opportunity to learn, recognising his potential not to stay in one position for too long and practising a balanced mindset which has unlocked multiple sporting successes.