Sport – under siege from all sides and does it have any answers?

8 October 2020

Long before Covid-19, sport was already facing a host of issues; sustainability, governance, diversity, financial viability, sponsorship (HFSS/gambling) … the list goes on. The pandemic has brought a whole host of new challenges and exacerbated others.

Read more from DRD Partner, Lawrence Dore, below.

On 11 March, Atlético Madrid travelled to Anfield to play Liverpool in front of a crowd of 52,000 people with some 3,000 visiting supporters in attendance. By then, a lockdown in the UK seemed inevitable.

What nobody anticipated however, was that seven months on, the ‘new normal’ isn’t even ‘normal’ yet. Although the Premier League returned to our screens on 17 June, hopes of getting spectators back into stadiums on 1 October were dashed when the virus reminded us that it certainly hadn’t gone away.

Long before Covid-19, sport was already facing a host of issues; sustainability, governance, diversity, financial viability, sponsorship (HFSS/gambling) … the list goes on. The pandemic has brought a whole host of new challenges and exasperated others.

Seven months on, things are getting harder not easier. The existential financial threat for all, with the exception of elite sport and clubs, is ever increasing.

The news that spectators wouldn’t be returning as early as hoped was disastrous for the sports and clubs most dependent on ticket sales.

In May, Kenny Saunders, founder of the Save Grassroots Football campaign warned “this could be the end of grassroots football. The impact is going to be horrendous.” And if football is having it bad, think rugby league, swimming, judo…the list goes on.

Future Investment

There was some welcome news last week when the Government agreed to provide a financial support package for National League teams to ensure their 2020/21 season could go ahead without fans.

While pressure to provide financial assistance mounts on the Premier League, which sits at the top of the football pyramid, other sports, like rugby and horse racing are bracing for the impact of no spectators. The RFU earns 85 per cent of its income from events at Twickenham Stadium.

Last week, Chief Executive Bill Sweeny asked the Government for financial assistance, warning “with no fans this autumn we will see a £122m reduction in revenue resulting in a loss of £46m. With no fans for the Guinness Six Nations we will see a £138m reduction in revenue with a loss of £60m thereby preventing investment in areas such as the women’s elite game and community rugby.”

Rugby league has already been given a £16 million loan by the Government to save the sport from total collapse. While that intervention was initially viewed as a ‘one off’, government bail outs now seem set to become the norm.

The rise of state assistance is also likely to give rise to private investment. For example, private equity firm, CVC Capital Partners, which already has a relatively long affiliation with sport including Moto GP and Formula One, is already developing an investment model that takes minority stakes in other sporting competitions.

Yet the Premier League continues spending, perhaps whilst Rome burns –  £1.03bn to bring the likes of Werner and Torres to England. Fans may be delighted but the financial prudence of such spending is as yet unproven, and the optics are challenging as sport elsewhere reels in the crisis.

The bigger picture

Financial impact aside, there are also simultaneous societal issues converging on sport given its influence and role in society.

Last month, DRD took part in Soccerex Connected 2020, a global conference for the football industry. DRD chaired a roundtable looking at how sport can confront important issues like diversity and racism whilst also promoting good citizenship.

After the Black Lives Matter protests earlier this year, racism in sport was in the spotlight again. Debates about whether athletes should or shouldn’t take the knee, paint jobs on F1 cars or wearing logos actually results in attitude change continue.

What everyone does agree on is that more diversity is needed at all levels of sport. Currently, only 3 per cent of board members of national governing bodies in sport are black and 64 per cent have no BAME representation.

The impact of Covid-19 has also had detrimental effect on the women’s game.

In May, Clare Connor, the England Cricket Board’s  managing director of women’s cricket said people had to be “realistic” in accepting that the far more lucrative men’s game may be prioritised to mitigate a potential £380m loss caused by the pandemic.

And despite the amazing display by the Lionesses last year, women’s football is in a precarious position. Elite women’s teams rely on sponsorship for income; for example, 80 per cent of Manchester City Women’s turnover is from commercial activity, most of which is sponsorship.

Reasons to be hopeful?

Sport has a lot of issues to juggle, first and foremost ensuring the individual clubs and leagues survive.

It’s been an incredibly difficult seven months and it looks set to continue that way for some time to come but as government steps in, and private investment firms consider their options, the future isn’t all doom and gloom.

Time spent re-evaluating the role of sport in society has to be a good thing and across sport inspiring initiatives has shown what a force for good sport can be.

The good news is that awareness of challenges is high but now, as most pundits are observing, talking must start translating into action.

It seems to me that there is a three step process to addressing some of the underlying issues in sport.

Step one is identifying the issues and we see this across the board from financial viability to diversity.

Step two is creating the required policies or actions to address them. The will is there, and progress is being made.

Step three is where the devil in the detail will raise its head. How does a policy statement become actionable? What rules and regulations will actually be required? How will enforcement take place? Stage three is perhaps less headline grabbing but it is where the real work is needed.

Let’s hope sport collectively rises to this challenge.

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