Kevin Roberts | Sport is not a matter of life and death

SportBusiness' Kevin Roberts reflects on the latest developments in sport due to the spread of the coronavirus, and where our priorities should lie.

All around the world the Theatres of Dreams are going dark.

What started as a trickle of cancellations and postponements has become a flood as coronavirus takes its toll on one-off events and league programmes across continents.

The suspension of the NBA, an American institution with a global footprint, followed that of LaLiga and Serie A. Then the NHL announced that its doors were closed, the season-opening Australian F1 GP was canned and, some would say belatedly, they have now been joined by the English Premier League in turning out the lights.

And it is unlikely to stop there. Looking ahead a few months, it is clear that Euro 2020 and the Olympic Games are vulnerable.

Coronavirus gives the lie to that over-used Bill Shankly quote: “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that.” It is not. Nor is any other sport.

Henry Winter captured the mood in a Times article this morning when he wrote: “It is patently wrong to keep chasing a ball and pursuing the broadcasters’ billions when the illness invades the sport and the country.”

I once worked with Nigel Rushman, head of the eponymous company, on a series of conferences focused on event management and all that goes with it. He was fond of describing events as both the lifeblood and the raw product of the sports industry.

He was right on both counts. Without events there’s nothing to sell tickets to, without events there’s nothing to point a camera at, nowhere for brands to display their messages and nowhere to impress clients over a glass of champagne with a great view of the action.

That’s the direct hit the sports sector will take. Then, of course, there’s the impact on the supply chain. The catering companies, security companies, travel operators, programme printers, merchandise suppliers and vendors…the list goes on.

Without events there is no sports business.

But these suspensions have to happen. The easiest way to become a hate figure right now is to cough gently into a tissue on a London commuter train. The death stares from fellow travellers are almost physically penetrating. The reality is that people are scared of the virus and some seem to be becoming scared of each other. All of which means that not being responsible for mass gatherings is simply the right thing to do.

Ironically, in other times of national and international peril sport has been one of the things that have helped people keep calm and carry on, instilling a sense of normality.

In the US baseball attendance shot up during the Great Depression of the late 1920s and early 1930s, while during World War II responsibility for organising games was passed to the armed forces which ran competitions for crowds of up to 15,000 to provide a distraction.

Not this time though. Thank God for Netflix and old movies.

With China reporting falling levels of infection we are getting a better idea of the likely longevity of the pandemic and understand that the sports sector faces a hiatus and not the final curtain.

So, it will be interesting to see how clubs’ leagues, brands and individual athletes respond to the challenge of bridging the gap and ensuring that while they are gone, they are not forgotten. How will sport maintain its place in the affections of the public without every evolving narrative of a league season to give it context and relevance?

Keeping sport positively front of mind when there’s actually no sport is a major creative communications challenge. But with the plethora of owned media at the disposal of leagues, clubs and others there are certainly opportunities to do so, keeping sponsors, fans and other stakeholders relatively happy while we wait for battle to recommence. Naturally, SportBusiness will be on the lookout for examples, so let us know how it’s going.

In the meantime, have a good weekend and stay well.

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