Updated: Feb 23
We all want to forget 2020. The first weeks of 2021 have hardly been a picnic either. But before we try to expel the memory of the year that was defined by COVID19, it’s worth looking at some of the individuals and collectives that have got it right in 2020.
It’s been fashionable to bash footballers for close to two decades. ‘Overpaid pampered prima donnas.’ Whether there’s still truth in that stereotype anymore is largely irrelevant when you see the work that Marcus Rashford has done to combat child poverty. He’s used his profile to shine a light on the biggest moral issues in the country. What’s more, he’s never been bombastic, he’s been measured, articulate and statesmanlike. In an era when much of social discourse involves calling people a ‘deluded t**t’ on Twitter, he’s risen about all of it using his platform to make genuine change. Oh and he’s scoring goals.
What the industry can learn from this: Athlete activism is real. Rashford is far from the only one. Megan Rapinoe, Colin Kaepernick, Lewis Hamilton and Ashton Hewitt have all taken a stand against social inequality but it can’t be botched. Brands can’t come in and proclaim to be the saviours of the world if they don’t have their house in order. Likewise, can governing bodies expect to take sporting events to Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain without expecting backlash? Do they care? They might if the athletes refuse to compete.
Coupled with the above sentiment, the Black Lives Matters movement kicked off a huge debate about the role of sport and politics. Racism still exists in society, so it exists in sport. When the stars of so many sports are black, it’s impossible to expect games to take place against a backdrop of racial tension and go unacknowledged. And this was the case. From the Premier League to cricket to the Autumn Nations Cup, sports created their own responses to the racial tension. Michael Holding’s emotional speech at the start of cricketing summer showed real human emotion, a man much adored by the entire sport, spoke with great eloquence about the role of education in shaping racial stereotypes.
What the industry can learn from this: The awareness that has been generated from sports response is hugely valuable but it’s so important that anti-racism, tolerance and diversity are genuinely addressed within the sports industry. Taking a knee is one thing, but without properly tackling the big issues it could be considered just a PR exercise. As Holding says, the key is education and sports governing bodies have a big role to play in this.
You’ll have probably read plenty about Burger King’s sponsorship of lowly Stevenage. But there’s a reason for that, it was great. Rather than seeking to sponsor a European giant, BK and Stevenage brokered a deal that went beyond placing a logo on a jersey. Centered around the fact that the ‘Boro are the lowest ranked team on FIFA20, the ‘Stevenage Challenge’ encouraged gamers to play as them on career mode and move them up the leagues. Gamers took to it and the team became the most played-as side in this version of the game. As you’d imagine, this brought massive exposure and plenty of awards.
What the industry can learn from this: Loads! Firstly, the ‘badging exercise’ sponsorships are dead, they have been for years, or at least the effectiveness of them has been. Secondly, it’s about understanding where your audience is, what they enjoy doing and how your brand can play a role in it. Thirdly, size isn’t everything. We love an underdog story (hence the name) and this is exactly that. Stevenage didn’t accept their position as a small club, they did things differently and used their weakness to their advantage. Next season’s challenge, get BK to return to the original recipe for fries!
ECB and the visiting nations
It’s often been leveled that the ECB aren’t the most forward thinking of governing bodies. But the way they managed to put on a summer of domestic and international cricket is nothing short of remarkable. With their backs against the wall, they created ‘biosecure bubbles’ at venues in Southampton and Manchester, meaning that test match series against Pakistan and West Indies and international series versus Australia and Ireland could go ahead. The financial repercussions of these series not happening would’ve been unthinkable, especially given the postponement of the inaugural season of The Hundred. A special mention to the players of all the teams of course, who endured the mental strain of the bubbles to make sure the sport took place.
What the industry can learn from this: Thinking fast and rolling the dice can work wonders. It shouldn’t take a global pandemic for sport to evolve and innovate but fair play to the administrators for getting this right.
In a year that charities took an incredible hit, there were some remarkable fundraising efforts out there. Rugby league legend Kevin Sinfield is among them. His former team-mate Rob Burrow was diagnosed with motor neurone disease in 2019 and Sinfield decided to raise money for his pal and for the MND Association. In December, he set out to run 7 marathons in 7 days in order to raise £77,777, which he duly did, plus an additional £2.5m. The story captured the imagination of the public, started of course by the rugby league community but support quickly snowballed.
What the industry can learn from this: Don’t worry about learning anything, just appreciate the incredible feat, the remarkable friendship and treat it as a reminder that in a world that has lots wrong with it, there is some real good.