Today it is at the heart of global development and education programmes, it helps provide a focus for disaffected youth, it is the catalyst for regeneration and construction projects and is at the heart of just about every health programme world-wide. Beyond that sport has become a status symbol, both for super rich individuals who have acquired a taste for football clubs, motor racing teams and thoroughbred stables, and for governments who see hosting sport’s leading events as sign of their national virility and position in the global pecking order.
And, as a reader of SportBusiness International it won’t have escaped your attention that it drives a multi-billion dollar global media, marketing, events and real estate business.
Look around the world and you will find fantastic examples of the way that sport has been used to create positive change in the lives of millions of people. A lot has been achieved but it is dangerous to even begin to imagine that sport is a panacea for the world’s ills. The trouble is that people get in the way.
In early December the second Peace & Sport Conference was held in Monaco. The conference was life affirming, gut-wrenchingly frustrating and hugely moving in more or less equal measure once one managed to cut through a thick outer skin of political posturing and mutual appreciation to get to the core.
The conference saw speaker after speaker tell of the role that sport has played and continues to play in helping reconcile peoples and create social progress in countries as diverse as Rwanda and Ireland. Here was a reminder that for every $1 million-a-month superstar there are millions of kids for whom sport represents a taste of something approaching normality in lives devastated by famine, war, gang culture and/ or HIV.
In this overwhelmingly positive environment, surrounded by such enthusiasm and knowledge, it could be easy to begin to believe that there is little that cannot be achieved through sport.
So here’s a reality check. At the official dinner, attended by hundreds of delegates, each supposedly focused on the potential to achieve peace through sport, I had the pleasure of sitting next to an Israeli delegate who had been one of the speakers. He had served in the Israeli forces but retired to run youth projects for Palestinian youngsters, the subject of his presentation.
As our table began to fill we were joined by three men, two in traditional Arab dress.
"Just wait," the Israeli speaker said. "As soon as they realise who I am they will be off."
And he was right. After an initial round of smiles, handshakes and the exchange of cards the penny dropped and our new acquaintances fell silent. A waiter was called, new seats demanded and that was that. Without a further word or gesture they were gone.
"It doesn’t bother me, it happens all the time," the Israeli said. The entire incident took a matter of minutes but overshadowed so much that was positive about the Peace & Sport Conference. When, in the context of a meeting organised to promote solutions to conflict and practical steps towards harmony, delegates who share a common interest cannot even bring themselves to sit and eat at the same table, one is given a sharp reminder of the scale of the differences and sheer depth and ferocity of the hatreds which divide societies. Against this, sport, and much else, seems impotent if not irrelevant.
There ‘s no doubt that sport can and does playing a role in healing rifts and promoting peace but, this single incident underscores the point that the task is simply massive and we have to remain entirely focused and realistic about the part sport can play and the results that can be expected.
Adversity often breeds creativity and makes people think about old challenges in new ways. The news that Audi USA had somewhat audaciously bought sponsorship rights for online coverage of President Obama’s inauguration speech on ABCNews.com, CBSNews.com, MSNBC.com and WashingtonPost.com, raises the question of whether marketers are thinking of sponsorship in new ways and will increasingly think beyond sport.
Audi say that the link – with its messages of renewal and progress – fits well with its brand and the online option will have been cost effective compared to other media.
While this is a one-off example, it highlights the range of options sponsors have in a highly competitive market and suggests that sports properties and their agents will have to think fast and smart to retain their dominant share of sponsorship spend when the economic climate eventually improves.