José Mourinho, Diego Maradona and Usain Bolt at Hublot soccer event

BASEL, SWITZERLAND – Baselworld kicked off with fanfare, but the noise from the lineup of traditional drummers in pom-pommed hats wasn’t enough to drive away questions hanging over the show. As soon as the vigorous pounding ended, a swarm of journalists pressed into fair director Sylvie Ritter with questions.

What is the event’s future, with exhibitor numbers shaved in half this year?

“We had two solutions, one would have been to expand and the other was to concentrate,” Ritter said. She explained that this year’s presentation was the result of extensive discussions with brands showing at the fair.

“We don’t decide anything on our own, it’s always in coordination with our exhibitors that are, in the end, our products. Without exhibitors we are nothing, without brands we are nothing — we decided to opt for concentration and that’s what we are pleased to show you today.”

Baselworld’s vocation has evolved into an avenue for labels to push their messages, moving away from its traditional role of filling order books, according to Ritter.

The event has become “less important in terms of a sales tool, compared to 10 or 20 years ago— 10 or 20 years ago, orders were made at Basel. Now, the large brands know their retailers, choose their retailers on a global level so the communications role — the media impact of Baselworld is what has become more important,” she said.

Declining to provide more answers to the crowd of journalists who persisted with questions, she offered her conclusion:

“Baselworld is not in crisis, Baselworld reflects a changing market, and reflects a sound market,” she said before pushing past the turnstiles to enter the show.

But the conversation did not end there – talk among fairgoers centered around the question of how the larger exhibitors see its future. If the big players remain in the future, the show will go on, was the emerging consensus, with companies like Rolex, Patek Philippe and LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton cited as key to anchoring the fair.

All eyes are on industry heavyweight Jean-Claude Biver, who overseas LVMH’s watch brands Hublot, Zenith and Tag Heuer but is also well known for his role boosting the fortunes of other Swiss watch brands in the past.

LVMH has for the past two years parked a boat on Lake Geneva to tap into the flow of fairgoers at rival fair the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie. With his trademark enthusiasm, Biver lauded the collection of timepieces Hublot brought to Basel this year, which included a bright red ceramic Big Bang Unico Red Magic, the transparent Big Bang Sapphire Tourbillon and the high end label’s first connected watch, the Big Bang Referee 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia.

“When I came today at Hublot I had a shock, the same shock I had when I was in 1975 when I came to the Basel fair and I saw the Audemars Piguet collection and — whoa,” the executive said.

“It was a shock of emotion, it was a shock of beauty, it was a shock of diamonds, everything was there. And today I had the same impression and I said to myself, if I can get the same emotion as 43 years before…that is love. That is real love — it told me, ‘I love Hublot, I love watches, I love Basel, I love my customers, I love my suppliers, I love my team’… As long as I love the watch industry, I will not stop. I will go on,” Biver exclaimed, before exchanging hearty hugs with Hublot chief executive officer Ricardo Guadalupe, who first started working with him around 25 years ago at Blancpain.

A star-studded soccer match ensued, with teams led by Diego Maradona and José Mourinho and soccer players including Hernán Crespo and Marco Materazzi as well as track and field star Usain Bolt.

Bolt, a longtime soccer fan who has a weakness for Manchester United, has ambitions to try his hand at the sport.

“It’s something that I want to do to challenge myself, something that I’ve always wanted to do over the years,” said the record-breaking Olympian, who was headed to German soccer club Borussia Dortmund for training.

“I’m just going to get started, do some training, going to the trials to see what level I’m at — this will tell me a lot about my skills or if it makes sense or not for me…if this goes well then I can go look forward to the next football season, talk to some coaches,” said Bolt. With the project still in early stages, he said he’s not aware of his weaknesses, yet.

“For me, in my mind I’m the best footballer in the world so doing the trial will tell me, the coach…It’s all about knowing what I can do and I can’t do,” Bolt added.

The athlete remembers his first watch, a prize from the Penn Relays —“a small gold watch, it was pretty cool, with their motto.”

How did it feel, playing the Hublot match with experienced soccer stars?

“It was great, I got to play with the legends of this world — for me it was just great to be around these guys to talk, to chill with them, so it was wonderful,” Bolt said.

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