As sport begins to return - both at grassroots and elite levels - Alex Mendis, of Miller’s Sport and Entertainment team, looks at how the reputation of sport has changed throughout the coronavirus pandemic so far, highlighting how the good work it has done off the pitch will cement its reputation in the future.
As sports participation and competition begins to resume, the industry as a whole will continue to benefit from the innovative ways it maintained its connection with fans through an enforced break, whilst reaffirming the intrinsic role it plays in the communities it serves.
Conversely, scrutiny over the off-field activities of stars and their clubs has intensified under the restrictions and economic implications of COVID-19. And a handful of high profile individuals and organisations at the most lucrative end of professional sports have been the subject of negative and potentially damaging headlines, when their actions have failed to match the mood of a nation experiencing the stresses of lockdown and uncertainty over future prospects.
The decision – swiftly reversed – of two of the country’s top football clubs to furlough non-playing staff was positioned very differently by the media to similar actions of most county cricket clubs, in part due to the need to furlough their playing staff too. At the same time a number of individual players have been castigated for being ‘above the law’ by breaking isolation and social distancing guidelines. The underlying point is that these flashpoints highlight an increasing disconnect between the masses who participate and the relative few who compete at the highest level, one of the toughest reputational issues faced by the sport industry.
But this reputational risk to professional sporting organisations and franchises needs to be seen in perspective. The industry as a whole has been visibly decisive in its general response to the crisis, where local communities have craved clarity and solutions to their evolving issues, which in turn aids the adaptation required of the industry to continue to thrive. For example, Barcelona broke tradition to market their Camp Nou stadium naming rights and utilise the proceeds to financially support a COVID-19 response fund. This also generates an option to then activate those naming rights in future and generate lucrative commercial revenue, with a reduced risk of negative reputational impact from seeking that commercial gain.
Sustained commitment to communities
This is not a one-off action from the industry. Most sporting associations, clubs and franchises have long been committed to social responsibility and sustainability initiatives designed to benefit their local communities. But the current hiatus in competition has provided column inches and headspace to positively recognise the tireless and invaluable work of foundations and sporting charities in the third sector.
From F1 to football, tennis to rugby league, sport has been seen at its very best, using its high-profile role at the heart of communities to make a positive difference to the lives of millions of people around the world.
Formula 1 was one of the first sports to put its resources to good use in the battle against COVID-19. A sport built on engineering and developing cutting-edge technology was quick to recognise that it had the skills and technical capabilities to play a key role. Seven UK-based teams got together to create Project Pitlane in an attempt to fast-track the design, manufacture and testing of ventilation equipment required to sustain treatment of COVID-19 patients.
Professional clubs in both rugby codes have utilised their unique role at the heart of their communities, launching a range of initiatives to help the most vulnerable. So too has the cricket family, launching more than 200 initiatives under their “Together through this Test” banner.
In football, the Premier League proudly lists scores of initiatives launched by its 20 member clubs, ranging from providing lockdown activity packs and physical and mental wellbeing advice to their local communities, to opening their kitchens to provide meals for NHS workers. Their players have made personal calls to fans to check on their wellbeing, and, in the case of bitter rivals Manchester United and City, they have joined forces to make significant donations to local foodbanks.
Many individual sport stars have also rallied to the cause, using their personal assets and influence to make a difference. Roger Federer donated CHF 1 million to help distressed families in his native Switzerland while Novak Djokovic provided €1 million to buy much-needed ventilators for use in Serbian hospitals.
Cementing a Reputation
When we eventually come to reflect on the impact COVID-19 has had on our lives, it is important that we remember the overwhelmingly positive role that sport has played to help society cope and adapt.
In finding powerful ways to maintain an emotive connection with their loyal fan base, both locally and nationally, sport organisations and franchises continue to win hearts and minds.
It is clearer than ever that sports organisations hold an overwhelming sense of responsibility for the communities that support them. This deep-rooted sense of place and purpose is inspiring innovative ways for the industry to evolve through the crisis, and in doing so deepening our respect for sport.
We have all seen how easily reputations can be knocked in sport. Despite significant sums being regularly spent by sports entities on managing reputational risk, it is perhaps the natural instincts to help others and support the communities in which sport operates that will help the industry thrive rather than merely survive.
Clubs and athletes have provided practical assistance and a little light in dark times. In doing so they have cemented their reputational value, earning our respect and the eternal appreciation of the communities they serve.