Own goal?

own goal bw blog

I think historians will look back and pinpoint Sydney 2000 as the event which truly marked the beginning of sport as a dominant global belief system. I’m not talking about global appeal or commercial value, I’m talking about sport as a predominant metaphor for living.

Not disregarding the scepticism that preceded the Games, what was so remarkable was how they aligned so closely with how most people would characterise the Australian way of life:  open, non-hierarchical, competitive, and good-natured. Australia’s ability to embrace the Games marked a sea change for the Olympic movement.

But although Olympian values have been around for 9,000 years, it’s only been the decade since Sydney that has embraced sport’s ability to provide a meeting place for people which transcends divides, or even embraces them.

Although countless small initiatives have been running at grassroots level for decades, virtually ignored, it’s only Laureus, in terms of large scale initiatives, which pre-dates Sydney. The Homeless World Cup began in 2003, Barclays Spaces for Sport in 2004. Although FIFA has long run CSR initiatives, they didn’t jump off the perimeter board until after 2006, with Barcelona’s 2006 sponsorship of UNICEF, and Honda’s Earthcar (2007) all clearly pushed boundaries, each in their own way.

This is all good news for the sponsorship industry. The vertical integration of brands across a sport gives them a more rounded proposition and allows them to maximise the feel-good value of high level endorsement. Grassroots programmes benefit from greater funding. Agencies get more business. So what’s wrong with that? Nothing. It’s just that it could be better.

In many cases, CSR is being used as a bolt on by the sports industry in exactly the same way as it is for business. And yet for most sports organisations, community is precisely where they should be looking.

There are two development models aspired to by most sports organisations: win, if you’re a team; media exposure, if you’re a federation. Both of them, currently, focus on taking sport ‘up’ the investment ladder – bringing together the best players or teams. And yet for most sports these models are delusional. Football, which provides examples of both, is in a league of its own. There is no magic bullet to transform tennis, badminton, gymnastics, table tennis, sailing, triathlon etc etc.

Yet community activity, and CSR programmes offer rights-holders an opportunity to extend their relevance to the public, increase participation, grow membership and drive viewing figures. They offer the opportunity to add depth to many two dimensional sports brands. In organisations which generally struggle to innovate, it offers safe space for creativity. And, importantly, they offer a model which is sustainable, achievable and which can be engineered to deliver clear results – unlike the others.

We carried out client research two years ago, looking at the community programmes of Premiership Clubs, and the results (with the exception of Fulham) were dismal enough to kill the concept under consideration by the client: no real commitment from the team or players, little investment, little imagination, little obvious pride.

And that’s the open goal.