In her first month as an advisor to The Playbook, the sport-based communications agency whose clients include the NFL and ECB, former Sport Minister Tracey Crouch MP sat down with Sport Industry Group to discuss the new role, which came about following her principled resignation from government at the end of last year.
In a wide-ranging conversation, the Kent MP reflected on the current state of the sport industry and gave her views on trends including cause-led sports marketing; the commercialisation of women’s sport; and the prevalence of betting brands within football sponsorship…
Can we start with The Playbook relationship? Tell us how it came about…
As Sports Minister, I went to a Playbook event quite early on, around the Rio Olympics. So I was aware of the agency. And then, working on issues such as the NFL franchise, I came into contact with them often. I also know [Playbook founder and parkrun Chair] Gavin Megaw well. We’ve known each other through politics since our spring chicken days. So we had this friendship from the past and, when I stepped down, they invited me to come along and be part of the team. With them being a young, vibrant agency trying to do something really special through sport – and interested in some of the issues that I am interested in, such how to use sport to build resilience – it was a really good opportunity.
I have an enormous amount of respect for Gavin and the team that he’s created at The Playbook. Because of what I’d already seen, I didn’t even think about going anywhere else.
How has it been so far, stepping back into an agency environment?
It’s nice to be back as part of a team. Being an MP, you’re very much an individual. You’re effectively considered self-employed. Of course, I have my own team, but this about being part of a bigger team.
One of the things you learn as a minister is your sheer capacity for work. I’m rubbish at not doing anything. My parliamentary team are actually very pleased that I’ve taken this opportunity. They can’t get used to be being back in the office so much.
Pre-politics, I worked both in-house and for an agency. I loved it. Agency life is very different. I adore both equally for both their good and bad points. But the agency world now is very different now from my pre-politics, public affairs days. It’s all trendy now!
What is your role with The Playbook going to entail?
It’s all a matter of public record: four days a month and I’m going to be a senior advisor to The Playbook, looking at how their client brands can enhance what it is that they offer through sport, particularly around resilience, but also some of the CSR issues that I was involved in through my wider portfolio as minister – for example, the loneliness agenda and how companies can get involved in that. It’s such an important political topic, and from a broad public perspective as well. There’s also a lot of CSR that runs through the sports strategy, in terms of physical and mental health in the workplace and so on.
As a sitting MP and former Minister, what sort of approvals do you require for an appointment like this?
You have to go through an appointments process where they check there’s no conflict of interest; that it’s not some reward for something you did as Minister. That all went very smoothly in my case. What I’m not allowed to do is public affairs. I can bring political insight but I can’t do lobbying, which is not something I’d be doing anyway at The Playbook, given where they sit.
Can you give us your perspective on the UK sport industry in general right now?
I genuinely think that in the 3.5 years I was in Sport, it’s changed enormously and a large part of that is due to changes in the Sports Governance Code. There’s still a huge amount of modernisation needed within sport, but in terms of getting time limits in, in terms of getting 30% of all boards to be female, these are huge changes that have quite a material impact.
Everyone uses The FA as the example, probably because it had the furthest distance to travel, but through Greg (Dyke) and Martin (Glenn), it struggled and has really embraced those reforms. You’ve seen a real shift in those cultural attitudes and we’re starting to see a knock-on effect in terms of what’s happening on the pitch and everything else. I think the Sports Governance Code has fundamentally changed the way sport is delivered.
What kind of relationship does a Sports Minister have with the commercial side of the industry?
It’s relatively good. Ministers are more in touch with those delivering the sport on a day-to-day level – so the NGBs. But, taking the example of broadcasters, we meet with them regularly, because the media coverage of sport is a very important part of the transfer into participation. I also met with some of the major brands such as Nike and Coca-Cola, in terms of what they can do to help inspire new people to sport. I did some work with them in the States, which was really interesting. But the primary relationship is with the governing bodies in their various guises.
Any examples of where you’ve been involved in sponsorship regulation? Betting in football for example?
Betting sponsorship is a really hard choice. Everyone is trying to grapple with it. I remember having conversations with gambling addicts as part of the Gambling Review. Sponsorship would come up and I would explain to them what it means in terms of grassroots sport. Look at ITV’s FA broadcast rights bid for example. They have to be able to sell advertising slots to enable them to bid. And a significant chunk of those hundreds of millions will go into participation. So you want to do those commercial broadcast deals because, sadly, the BBC can’t afford it. So we understand that nuance. But the question is: how do we regulate or control some of the messaging around gambling, especially with that younger audience.
There’s also the question of where you draw the line. What about fast-food and high sugar brands? What about airlines, which are big polluters, or oil companies? So that’s the enormous challenge. Advertising is self-regulated. Sponsorship needs to be considered. But I have to say that a lot of football clubs in particular are looking very carefully at those relationships. That’s where the responsibility comes in. For example, The FA don’t have any relationship with gambling organisations. They’ve taken that decision themselves. But it’s very difficult for the Premier League, who in effect have 20 shareholders, to make that same determination for their clubs. At the end of the day, they’re 20 different businesses, with 20 different ideas.
The fact is betting brands tend to pay better. I sit there and I think about football clubs and the financial challenges they face. A lot of them are on the edge as businesses. They have to think about financial sustainability. So I have an enormous amount of sympathy with the challenges they face.
I would like to see them take a more responsible approach to the issue. For example, if they’re going to take gambling companies’ money, is it a case that they ring-fence some of that [investment] into support mechanisms for their fans who might become victims of gambling addiction?
The problem is that gambling addiction is very complex, and it’s not necessarily football that’s the cause. So is it right that football pays? But it’s about having a view on your responsibility to your fans and the wider community. And I think the vast majority of our clubs are very responsible and understand their duty to look after their community.
Gambling addiction was obviously the key issue at the heart of your decision to stand down from government. How do you look back on your resignation a few months on?
The only regret I have is that it ever got to that point. I miss the job and it’s quite hard to watch someone else doing it. Mostly, I miss the ability to make decisions on issues and effect change. But I wouldn’t do things any differently.
Did you give any advice to your successor, Mims Davies?
No, I didn’t want to be a back-seat driver. Mims needs to forge her own way. She has an excellent civil service that will support her as she navigates through some really difficult issues.
When you look back on your time as Minister, what stand out as being the big highs and lows?
I was the longest-serving Conservative Sports Minister, so this is really hard.
In terms of successes, I’m really proud that I got the Premier League to double its investment into grassroots sports. That’s something that had always been quite challenging. Also, the spending review where we managed to protect all the budgets of the different sports, while others were being cut.
There have been some awful things in my tenure. Obviously, historic sex abuse allegations in football. That was a dreadful thing to witness and try to change. I think we’ve achieved some progress, but government as a whole is not moving as fast as I would’ve like it to have done.
I’m very sorry that we didn’t get legislative change on sexual abuse. But I’m going to work on that now anyway as a backbench MP. At the moment, the Sexual Offences Act covers teachers of 15-18 year-olds but not sports coaches.
Safeguarding in general was the most challenging issue because I wasn’t in control of the legislation. Even though I knew what needed to be done, it wasn’t my department that could do it. That’s where you feel slightly helpless in government.
In terms of my outstanding targets as Minister, the only other big ones on the list were the NFL London franchise, Ryder Cup 2026 in England – probably at the Belfry, and the World Cup in 2030.
I think the NFL London franchise is still wholly possible. It would’ve been even more so had we sold Wembley, but they’re definitely on the right path. American Football is really growing in this country. I have a team in my constituency and they’re incredibly active within the local community.
Any interest in playing a role in a 2030 World Cup bid in some different capacity?
I’d love to be involved but that’s for the FA, or should I say the FAs – because I’m convinced it’ll be a joint bid – to decide. I’m not sure if it was a good or bad thing that politicians were so involved with the last one. I’m not convinced that there will be a huge sum of public money involved this time.
What do you make of the wave of departures we’ve seen at the top of UK sport this year?
I think it’s an exciting opportunity for the industry – football especially. The industry hasn’t actually changed very much in terms of personnel, or the type of people at the top. It’s a chance to breathe some fresh life into football in particular.
Would you like to see women fill more of those (vacant) roles?
I would, but on merit. We’re seeing more women anyway. Debbie Jevans at EFL is excellent. Baroness Sue Campbell is doing a brilliant job. I would’ve loved to see her go for the FA (CEO) job. She would’ve been fantastic, because she loves football – not just women’s football. It’s the way she’s integrated women’s football into the culture of the FA. I think she could have been really quite transformational but, for whatever reason, she didn’t apply.
What do you make of the recent burst of commercial investment in women’s football?
It was only a matter of time before brands started to see women’s football as an opportunity. The BBC has made a significant investment in showing women’s football in recent years and, when that’s added to the growth of live streaming services and the different ways people, especially young people, are consuming live sport, it has helped brands realise that there is an eyeball factor. The Barclays deal is really good, but I’m also not surprised Barclays has made that investment as an organisation that takes all those diversity and equality issues quite seriously.
In terms of women’s sport in general, I think the BBC has played a bigger role than it gets credit for. They do a lot more, as do Sky. We just don’t necessarily see it in print media.
Brand investment in women’s sport is often viewed in the context of the parallel trend towards ‘purpose’ or cause-led sponsorship. What’s your perspective on that?
The purpose thing is interesting. It’s a difficult thing to get right because it requires courage and long-term commitment, but it gives brands a chance to set themselves apart from the rest of their industry. Take the example of Paddy Power. As a retail bookmaker, they were one of the first to come out on FOBTs and say “actually these machines are not good for our customers and we’d like to see change.” And then you look at the work they did around the World Cup with Stonewall and so on. It was excellent and that’s the sort of thing that gets you noticed. And people can have a certain perception of the industry, but a different view of the players within it. That’s what a brand can do.
We’ve covered a lot, but we can’t let you go without giving us your take on the inaugural Industry Choice Awards, which we’re running in the build-up to the BT Sport Industry Awards 2019. So, three quick-fire questions:
- Sporting moment of the year?
The Ryder Cup in Paris. I had the advantage of being there, of course! Even though the Super Bowl is by far the best thing I’ve ever been to in terms of an event.
- Team or athlete of the year?
I think the England Netball team were fantastic because they actually did achieve something quite unexpected and momentous, although I think it’s put a lot of pressure on them to perform in the World Cup.
The progress of the England football team was also fantastic, but there’s an element there of “as it should be.”
And then there’s the Ryder Cup Europe team, obviously. I’m still in love with the Molinari – Fleetwood bromance. But if I go with that, I’ll have to put the Super Bowl as my best sporting moment!
- Your industry moment of the year?
A key moment for me was Richard Scudamore stepping down. I think that was the start of wholesale change in football [leadership], Richard announcing his retirement. I’m actually a big fan of him. I have a mix of admiration and respect for all he’s done in football at many different levels over his career. But it’s triggered this opportunity to bring new faces and breathe some new life into the top of the game.