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Matt Vandrau | How sport can unify in uncertain times

Matt Vandrau, group chief executive of CSM, reflects on 2019, a year where we witnessed once again the capacity of sport to influence cultural change

Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair

Nelson Mandela, more than two decades ago, recognised sport’s irrefutable ability to influence cultural change. This year, where uncertainty has been a common foe globally, sport’s role as a unifier across race, age, gender and nationality has never been more valuable.

Siya Kolisi was just four years old in 1995 when Mandela handed the Rugby World Cup to Francois Piennar, a moment which transcended sport. He was sixteen, watching in a township tavern as he had no television at home, when Jon Smit, arms locked with Mandela’s successor Thabo Mbeki, lifted the coveted trophy in 2007.

In the years since, my country has lost its way, which is why the Springboks’ first black captain leading our nation to triumph in Yokohama was significant beyond the measure of any sporting accolade. As the aforementioned captain Smit remarked, “it will change the trajectory of our country”. There are no other past times that can deliver that level of change.

From an industry standpoint it has also crafted the most compelling of narratives for the 2021 Tour of the British & Irish Lions to South Africa. The 2019 Rugby World Cup celebratory tour travelled the length and breadth of South Africa, engaging communities who are easily forgotten, and the Lions Tour schedule mirrors this

This broad cultural reach is coupled with a first-of-its-kind commercial model, whereby SA Rugby and the Lions have centralised their rights, creating a cohesive ecosystem which offers partners better exposure, coverage and protection of assets. The greater financial renumeration that this model will garner can enable SA Rugby to make its altered trajectory a permanent one.

Another market where sport is a key facilitator of cultural change is Saudi Arabia. An embodiment of this is the month-long festival of sport and entertainment, the ‘Diriyah Season’, which has included Formula E, equestrian sports, tennis, music and the showpiece, a heavyweight World Championship rematch between Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz Jr.

Much has been made of this so-called ‘sportwashing’, however I believe that a country should be allowed to change, particularly when it is evidently needed, and there is no greater, or swifter, driver of this than sport. The Middle East is set to be a major player in the coming years and as an industry we are in the privileged position of being able to help facilitate and shape this meaningful development.

Recognition of this market’s desire for advancement, and sport’s power to deliver it, came in the form of a Chaillot Prize for the Promotion of Human Rights for the Special Olympics. This was an event that our CSM team in the Middle East were intricately involved in, and one that I attended with our chairman Seb Coe. For a man who has experienced more athletics events than almost anyone, I was struck by how moved he was when leading out the British team. It was an emotion that I and all involved shared. It was the biggest event of the year in terms of participation however it was its impact in educating, challenging perceptions and inspiring hope which became its defining legacy.

As well as macro, socio-political influence, sport also plays a key role in shaping popular culture. Take the introduction this year of Major League Baseball to Europe. This fine American export has found new homes in Japan, Puerto Rico and Mexico, but coming to Europe was a watershed moment for the sport. That it followed in the footsteps of the NFL in finding fertile ground in London, with two sell-out games and 90 per cent of the 120,000 attendees saying they would recommend it to a friend or family, is further evidence that there is consumer appetite for new experiences.

The crux for success is that the story selling the experience must be enchanting. With this logic, if World Rugby decides that its next non-traditional market for the 15s World Cup is the USA then I fully expect it to succeed, just as the Rugby World Cup Sevens did in San Francisco last year. New experiences, sold smartly, prosper.

It is the same reason that The Hundred can become an affectionate fixture on the global cricketing landscape. Just as the ECB did in creating T20 cricket two decades ago, this bold evolution can build on the goodwill generated by the extraordinary ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup, to stretch again into new demographics. It also represents a commercial innovation as Sky Sports, the BBC and the ECB has created an owned ecosystem, akin to the Lions Tour 2021, which offers partners maximum value while protecting them from ambush marketing.

Add to this mix an accessible concept, the best players in the world, city-based franchises and parallel Men’s and Women’s competitions, and The Hundred is poised to breach societal boundaries.

Even in these uncertain times, one certainty that remains is Nelson Mandela’s wisdom that sport has the ‘power to unite people in a way that little else does’.

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