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Matt Vandrau | A year of self-reflection for the industry

Matt Vandrau, group chief executive, CSM Sport & Entertainment, says one of the biggest changes brought about by this year’s pandemic was the reappraisal of rights values by clients

The saying “the show must go on” summed up our industry this year. We were all caught by surprise but the sector pressed on admirably.

Without live sport, media rights would have been decimated, with billions of pounds needing to be paid back to both media and brand partners. I’m impressed by how quickly sports got themselves back up and running, safely and generally uninterrupted. The hugely successful Tour de France is a great example, given the fan interaction it usually attracts.

The seriousness of the pandemic meant sport had to make 100 per cent sure it could return safely, placing no added pressure on health services.

As cricket returned, the ECB created some of the first bio-secure bubbles in the UK for players, umpires and commentators, which was an enormous success. The Premier League, too, returned with a minimum of fuss, and whilst there is no replacement for a real crowd, it was great to see football back in action, with every effort made to enhance the aesthetic and atmosphere of fixtures even if it was behind-closed doors.

The learnings for rights holders were steep. Faced with the stark possibility of no live sport and not wanting to give brand partners their money back because they needed to retain the investment operationally, they had to show that the value delivered by media rights, while important, wasn’t the be-all and end-all. This will be one of the biggest industry changes moving forward – the reappraisal of value by rights holders.

Through our partnership with Greenroom Digital over the last few years, we’ve been able to connect partners with fans and maximise ROI through data acquisition, and have recently launched Connect, a platform that allows us to segment audiences with greater precision.

This is the shape of things to come. We need to be able to sit down with our rights holder partners and say, “We understand your fanbase, and we know how to help you connect with them”. Once you do that, brands will be much clearer on the value proposition and that’s where we, as an agency, have seen real return on investment for our clients this year.

For brands, this will lead to successful activations, and the smart ones have moved more firmly into the digital space. Brands like Rexona pivoted seamlessly to a ‘Move More at Home’ campaign, reworking their global football assets to encourage people to stay active during lockdown, while Hisense’s digital “Upgrade Season” content brought isolated NBA fans closer to the play-off action.

For many brands, the pandemic offered a much-needed opportunity to reflect on their current partnerships and re-evaluate their approach. It’s a process that should occur more regularly, and will no doubt set these businesses up for greater success in 2021.

I can’t reflect on 2020 and not talk about another issue that affected people across the world – the brutal murder of George Floyd. It should not take tragic incidents like this for our industry to accelerate its attempts to address racial injustice and the great strides it still needs to make when it comes to diversity and inclusion. However, the on-field action and off-field commitments it provoked, symbolised a “stake in the ground moment” for the world of sport and entertainment. The time for staying silent is over.

So, as we begin to look to the future, there are a number of learnings to take from a turbulent year. One of the big drivers moving forwards is an even greater desire to do good, make a difference and impact society positively. If this pandemic did one thing, it was to encourage the global community to acknowledge the challenges we all face and come together in a shared effort to help one another.

With 70 per cent of consumers saying it’s important for brands to take a stand on social and political issues*, it is essential that brands form authentic and meaningful partnerships going forwards, in order to connect with their audience on a deeper level. The launch of our social impact consulting practice this year has reaffirmed that this is no longer just a ‘nice to do’ but instead a ‘must do’, which results in measurable and meaningful benefits.

If this year was our annus horribilis, next year is shaping up to be more promising, with the Euros, Olympics and Lions tour taking place alongside returning favourites such as Wimbledon and the Open Golf Championship. A year ago, I wrote how sport can unify in uncertain times. Well, the message still rings true. The momentous year of sport we have ahead should provide the entire industry with the perfect tonic to a most challenging 2020. Hopefully 2021 will bring a welcome return to normality. It can’t come soon enough.


*2019 consumer sentiment survey from Sprout Social

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