Sport around the world plays an increasingly important role in defining the identity of its supporters. But its relationship with those supporters is changing. They are likely to be watching electronically, not in person. They may well not live in the country in which the team or individual that they follow comes from. Their support is a personal choice, but it has huge commercial implications. They have access to infinitely more information, through a greater variety of channels, about both sporting events and the stars who participate in them. Some of this information is positive – much is negative – and all of it has a direct impact on the supporters themselves, but also on the global business of sport being built around them.
In this new sporting world, sportsmen and women, governing bodies, teams, politicians, and broadcasters are all struggling to redefine their roles. This journal maps this new world, and asks what changes must be made if sport is not to lose the vital emotional connection to those who watch it.
Tracey Crouch – football coach, MP and UK minister – talks about the unique power of sport to bridge national and cultural barriers. She asks what must be done to protect sport’s integrity and to ensure that young people still regard its stars as positive role models. Sir Hugh Robertson, Chair of the British Olympic Association, looks at the role that Olympic success plays in our national life, and defends the focus on winning medals. Sir Craig Reedie, whose role as President of the World Anti-Doping Agency has placed him in the eye of recent media storms, sets out how a new partnership of regulators, pharmaceutical companies and athletes can protect the future of sport. Dan Roan, BBC Sports Editor, warns against regarding the media as the enemy.
Governing bodies increasingly recognise the requirement to change. Chris Kermode, Executive Chairman and President of the ATP World Tour, speculates about quite dramatic upheavals to the rules of tennis, including shorter matches, count-down clocks and players donning wearable technology during matches. Sportsmen and women themselves also recognise the need for change. Kevin Pietersen, the iconic cricketer, considers the impact of social media, and argues that more sports should consider putting microphones on players. Kate Richardson-Walsh, the gold medal winning British hockey captain, argues that female sports stars should get a better deal, and have a responsibility to speak out on important causes.
Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson has used her position as a disabled athlete to help bring about change, as has Ellie Simmonds, the swimmer. Roisin Wood, CEO of Kick It Out which tackles discrimination in football, believes that the commercialisation of sport has helped limit discrimination, because brands don’t want to be associated with bad behaviour. Sheila Mitchell, from Public Health England, argues that brands working with sports can positively impact a nation’s health.
The tension between sport as emotional and athletic exercise, and as a commercial proposition, is explored by several contributors. Dan Johnson, who was until recently the Premier League’s Communications Director, says that it is time everyone associated with football accepted that they are a brand as well as a sport. Jo Grindley, the Chief Marketing Officer for BAR Land Rover, which has been challenging for the America’s Cup, talks about building a sustainable business and winning races. Liam Harrington, CEO of UNILAD, the online entertainment platform, explains how traditional sports will need to change to adapt to a world of social media.
When Ben Jackson and Stuart Davis from freuds interviewed fans around the world, they were deeply conflicted about the impact of money on the games that they love. Paul Burnham, who set up the ‘Barmy Army’ of England cricket fans in 1994, insists that sports must ‘treat their supporters like fans and not simply customers’.
But the definition of sport itself is changing. Spike Laurie, who works with ESL, the world’s largest eSports firm, describes a new era in which fans come to stadia to watch competitive video gamers. But they face the same core issues of trust; ESL is a founding member of the ESports Integrity Coalition.
This is an era of tumultuous change in sport, and this journal charts some of that journey. It’s not yet possible to see where it will end, but some trends are clear. The freuds insight research at the heart of this publication makes it clear that falling trust in sport could undermine its commercial success. One in three Britons has less faith in the industry than a year ago; nearly a third of football fans say that they are less likely to buy merchandise as a result of declining trust. Integrity and profits go hand in hand.
But there is also a positive message. Sir Mo Farah discusses using his profile to criticise the travel ban proposed by President Trump. As he says: ‘I’m not a politician and my place is on the track, but that was a moment I needed to speak up’.
It’s a reminder that the uplifting power of sport goes far beyond the track and the pitch. Sport at its best is a celebration of the best of humanity; this journal explores how to keep it that way.