No truly great, human feat has ever been accomplished without a significant dose of soul-crushing doubt. Michelangelo almost certainly felt it, staring up at the blank, white expanse of the Sistine Chapel. The Wright brothers must have known the feeling when their early flyers crashed headlong into the sand.
EEM World’s Christophe Ameeuw may not be risking life and limb, practically speaking, but his task is no less herculean: bringing the sport of show jumping to a new, global audience, and then, asking them to like it.
“So many things happen in horse sport today, there’s so many competitions and series and new things, it’s very difficult for the majors and the fans. It’s very complicated—too complicated,” Ameeuw says. “If you want to create new fans, new connections, new synergy, if you want new sponsors, you have to give them a concept they will understand.”
The Longines Masters aims to do precisely that. Evolved from Ameeuw’s earlier indoor events, the Audi Masters in Brussels and the Paris Gucci Masters, launched in 2004 and 2009, respectively, the global Series stops in Europe, Asia and the United States but with one defining feature. Ameeuw borrows concepts from mainstream sports and gives them an equestrian spin to create an instantly identifiable premise for the horse-unaware public.
Chief among these is the Grand Slam Indoor of Show Jumping, which links the three events. Introduced in 2015 and modeled after the Grand Slam in tennis, the title offers an unprecedented bonus of 2.25 million euros to any rider who captures of the Longines Masters Grands Prix of Paris, Hong Kong, and New York in the same season. In a show calendar rife with big money classes in exotic locations, it delivers a clear message in the language of sport: a Longines Masters is the crème de la crème.
In 2017, EEM looked to yet another sport—the Ryder Cup in golf—to create the Riders Masters Cup. The new format in international show jumping pits the United States against Europe in head-to-head battles set at Longines Masters events in Paris, and now, New York City, which replaced L.A. as the series’ American leg in 2017.
As you might expect, the use of ‘Masters’ and ‘Grand Slam’ to introduce EEM’s new lineup is no accident.
“If you want to sell something, you have to give people a connection [they can relate to],” Ameeuw says. “When you say, ‘Grand Slam,’ people know exactly what [it is]—it’s a tournament in tennis, the best in the sport: four countries, one champion, one show. The same for the ‘Ryder Cup’—it’s golf, it’s Europe versus America.
“This, for me, is very important. Use concepts people understand. If you want the best credibility for the sport, for the sponsors, for the athletes, we need to create something like the best tournaments in the world.”
Language is important to Ameeuw; constant innovation, equally so. “If we keep making [our show schedules] like a garden party, we will never bring new fans into our sport.”
Ameeuw’s plans, much like his events, are grandiose, but they’re rooted in considerably humbler beginnings. Born in a small village in central Belgium, Ameeuw grew up grooming and riding in nearby Écaussinnes, a town where he would later establish his own breeding and sales barn, Ecuries d’Écaussinnes, in 1997. Stopping school at age 15, he has no formal education.
His interests, however, are far more reaching.
“I’m curious by nature, I want to discover everything. I find inspiration everywhere and all the time,” he says.
“The problem I have is that I have ideas every day, every hour, every minute—all the time. I’m always trying to brainstorm with my team [at EEM] and to share ideas. I want to make something different, I want to make something completely unique. But if you ask me when I know an idea is brilliant, it’s when I know that my idea has been successful [laughs].”
In horse show management, like every business, risk and reward walk hand in hand. For EEM, choosing the right venue and locations for its worldwide events involves the lion’s share of uncertainty.
In 2013, Ameeuw took what is perhaps his biggest gamble to date: bringing international five-star show jumping to China, a country and audience largely unfamiliar with the sport at any level. In just three years, he established the Longines Masters of Hong Kong as a mainstay on the corporate event calendar of the global financial hub, winning gold for the ‘Best Live Experience at a Professional Sport Event’ at Asia’s 2016 Sports Industry Awards (SPIA).
A second big move—shifting the Longines Masters’ U.S. leg across the country from Los Angeles to New York in 2018—has been another publicized changeup and his choice of venue, Long Island’s NYCB Live: Home of the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, has left some scratching their heads.
“This is a question I always get asked, why NYCB Live and not at Madison Square Garden, like in the past? It’s because it’s impossible,” Ameeuw says.
“Years ago, I went to New York and I visited Madison Square Garden with my team, and it was impossible to organize the Masters [there.] You need the right kind of stables and you need to respect all the FEI rules, first, and give priority to the horses’ welfare. Madison Square Garden is not adept [to handle] this type of five-star show jumping.”
Now in its second year, the Longines Masters of New York continues to build its fan base while drawing some of the top names in the sport on both sides of the pond (this year’s rider’s list will include McLain Ward, Beezie Madden, Harrie Smolders, and Pius Schwizer, to name a few).
New York may be the current focus of Ameeuw’s attentions, but it’s not EEM’s end game—far from it. This June, the Longines Masters Series will debut its preliminary outdoor event on the shores of Lake Leman, in the town of Lausanne, Switzerland, home of the International Olympic Committee. Ameeuw’s team has also been in discussions with other venues around the world.
“My ambition, and my company’s ambition, is that we want to grow the series, with a maximum of six or eight legs,” he says. “We have three indoors, we would like three outdoors [as well].”
Like many innovators before him, Ameeuw has faced his fair share of resistance—often from the very people whose support his vision depends on.
“[When I started the Longines Masters], everybody on the show committees and the best riders [in the world] were completely in opposition to changing the rules, to changing the concept, to adding sound, to adding the lights—to changing the sport. But the sport changes [and we have to adapt]. What I’ll tell you is that I never changed my mind. My vision was very clear from the beginning, my priorities were clear, and I never gave into the pressure,” he says.
“When you have a vision, and when you have a dream, you always have to follow [where it leads].”
Asked if he considers himself a dreamer or a visionary, Ameeuw is quick to choose the latter title. Dreaming is all well and good, he says, but far too often, dreams remain just that. Sponsors don’t buy dreams, they buy visionary plans of action. More importantly, they return year after year for results.
“I never exactly enjoy that process before the event. You never are at home, the whole process is 24 hours [a day], and so crazy with the details. For me, it is an obsession,” Ameeuw explains.
“The best moment is when we close the curtains. When you invest something with your energy, your money… your community, your sponsors, your media, the most important part is the result. When you can give them a fantastic return, that is the best gift I can offer them.”
Today, Ameeuw’s monumental task of bringing show jumping to the masses is well underway, but far from complete. Show jumping remains largely a niche sport; one with, arguably, too many leagues, too many shows, and an elitist reputation problem. But change is in the air.
“When we came to Paris 10 years ago, there were no five-star shows anymore [in the city]. I came with the first show in 2009, the Gucci Masters, and today, [a decade] later, we have six shows. Can you imagine? That’s very good,” Ameeuw says.
“Making things easier to understand from the marketing side, this is the big challenge for all of us, and [of course] for the FEI, for the next five years.
“New faces, new riders, new speakers, new sponsors, it’s all very, very important,” he continues. “[But] when you walk to the Champs-Élysées, and four times in the same year, you can see [billboards] and press about show jumping, that’s fantastic.
“That’s never happened before.”