Lars Haue-Pedersen | What individual sports can learn from Tennis, Golf, F1…and the Cirque du Soleil!

A lot of criteria can come into play if one is to rank the popularity of various sports worldwide – in general, the only thing that we can only all agree on is that Football (or Soccer) is in the lead.

That said, when it comes to individual sports, it is somewhat fair to say that Golf, Tennis and Formula 1 tend to come out on top when it comes to indicators like global viewership, prize money, media attention and commercial value.

Typically, one could therefore say that other sports should look into what these three sports are doing well and try to replicate it.

I would actually suggest that it is more interesting to focus on what they are not doing. Most significantly, they don’t – in contrary to the majority of individual sports – organise a standalone World Championship event, where all the best athletes compete for most important prestigious win.

Rather, in Golf, Tennis and Formula 1, all resources and media attention are focused on an annual circuit of events or tournaments, often returning to same places each year. This not only creates a strong tradition and history, but also enables the organisers to improve year by year, meaning that repeated adjustments can be made to keep it all fresh and alive.

Imagine then if one of these three sports decided to throw in a ‘World Championship’ in the middle of these well-developed and highly valuable events. How about a Tennis World Championship held between Wimbledon and the US Open?  Or a how about holding a World Championship event for F1 between the Monaco Grand Prix and Silverstone? Imagine the reactions from the athletes, the organisers of individual grands prix or grand slams, and the media at large. All would be talking about ‘cannibalism’ and how such events would dilute the other events and create unnecessary competition within the sport.

But this is actually exactly what most other individual sports are doing. Practically all the other individual sports are in various ways mixing an annual schedule of events – often called ‘World Cups’ – with an annual or biennial world or continental championship, where the same top athletes are competing in the same disciplines.

The argument has and continues to be made that a ‘World Championship’ event is more easily positioned as the top event of the year (or in most cases the two-year period). It can therefore generate substantial revenues, create unique attention and in general provide a big ‘splash’ for the sport in a very crowded and competitive sports event landscape.

That is all clear and understandable, but the fundamental strategic question here is whether a sports’ worldwide popularity is better boosted by one very big splash every one or two years, or – coming back to the success of Tennis, Golf and F1 – a fairly big splash every one or two months. The main point here is that it is very difficult, one could say impossible, to get both.

Strategy is about making choices. This includes making an – often very difficult – trade-off between two good options, which separately could be helpful in delivering value to the sport, but combined could be harmful to fully realising the full potential of each.

When the famous circus, the Cirque du Soleil, decided many years ago to drop the use of animals in their shows, most people thought this would be the end of it, because animals were the cornerstone of any circus. Well, it turned out not to be case and Cirque du Soleil is today by far the world’s most successful circus, with many other elements of the show, now attracting unique attention.

Are decision-makers within individual sports ready to make similar bold moves today?

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