Kevin McCullagh | Mind the gap

The last couple of months has been a reminder that, despite our globalised, internet-connected world, the physical distances between countries and people really matter. It’s sometimes easy to forget this, amid the hype about our hyper-connectedness. That connectedness allowed Covid-19 to spread with breath-taking speed. The distances seemed to prevent comprehension of what was happening.

From Asia, many watched Europe and America’s sluggish responses to the Covid-19 outbreak with incredulity. Did they not see what had happened in China? Everyone did, of course, but for most China is still a distant, mysterious land. What happens there couldn’t happen here…

At the start of last month, Steven Zhang, chairman of Inter Milan, launched a blistering attack on Italian football authorities for continuing to play despite growing numbers of Covid-19 cases in the country. At the time, his alarm sounded shrill and perhaps unnecessary – the case count in Italy was still relatively low and China seemed somewhat alone in terms of the large numbers of cases and deaths. For Zhang, the crisis had already hit home and the danger was clear. For most Italians and Europeans, it was a distant problem.

Media, ideas, trends, memes, and – unfortunately – viruses, can travel the planet with astonishing speed today. But we can often barely explain why. Most people in Italy don’t understand or know much about people in China. Just because you laughed at Gangnam Style doesn’t make you an authority on Korea.

It’s possible to share interests and passions – including sporting passions – with people on the other side of the planet and still not really understand their cultures, backgrounds, or, in business terms, their potential as customers. In the sports industry, all the major international properties know by now that having X million fans – however that is defined – in overseas markets does not automatically translate into Y million dollars of revenue. Building sports businesses in overseas markets is usually a slow, expensive process, requiring specialist local knowledge and partners, and with each market needing careful research and nurturing. Even then, luck, such as the emergence of a local star, is often needed to really move the needle in terms of audience interest and revenue.

I moved to Singapore six months ago. It’s a very ‘Westernised’ place, as far as Asia goes. Some jokingly dismiss the fact that it’s even ‘Asian’ at all. But scratch beneath the surface of the recognisable shopping brands, the English language, and other Western features, and there are profound cultural and societal differences between here and where I moved from in the UK.

As the Covid-19 crisis grew in Europe, Asian colleagues commented that it would be more difficult to convince European populations to submit to movement controls than it would be more compliant Asian populations. I argued that the differences wouldn’t be great, once the danger became clear and people started dying. It appears my colleagues’ cross-cultural understanding was stronger than mine.

The source material is sobering, but there are potentially lessons from this worth bearing in mind for the sports sector. Many sports organisations and businesses are engaged in selling their wares and messages overseas. How well do they actually know the places they are trying to sell to or communicate with? What do they know about the people and culture? Do they have staff from these places in their organisations that can help them understand? If they don’t have the resources internally to understand the target market, are there external resources that can help, like consultants and agents? Without bridging the gap in understanding, success in overseas markets could be elusive or fleeting.

The Covid-19 crisis has shown us how connected we are to other parts of the world, and simultaneously that there are yawning gaps in our understanding of other lands and peoples. It’s perhaps a useful reminder of the limits of our knowledge.