by Ben Wyatt, Greenhouse Sports
As we mark the unwanted anniversary of the pandemic, these words, like most lives in the past year, have been rewriting themselves week by week. The future has never seemed so close. All pathways forward short but not evidently in plain sight. All predictions obsolete, the definition of long-term only pencilled in. It’s a well-worn and loved cliché in sport but looking at the broadcast analytics of what we’ve watched on screen in the past year, not just at Christmas, we’ve clung to the familiar and known. ‘Take each game as it comes’ has been a strategic necessity in work and in life.
The sporting landscape and industry struggled and still struggles to plot a pathway to a meaningful existence, and the human eco-system (community is a better word) that thrives off the lifeblood and certainties of a sporting season, remains unsettled and largely unsatisfied. Be that as athlete or player, amateur or pro; local club, group, event, coach, fan, volunteer, manager, CEO, brand or sponsor. Fixture lists, events and season calendars are usually released in print when the fresh white lines go down and the nets go up; and we know champions will be crowned on that final day. Not now. Not necessarily.
Even sport, not often a place to let silence come off the bench, has had to time to think and re-think. As we’ve all had to wave at each other from doorsteps and distance, and feel keenly the value of community now removed; sport’s eco-system has looked at its value beyond victories, trophies, success and failure. Or at least view them through a different lens. The real positive for society has come from those in sport who have acted (not just spoken) on the power of purpose. And the learned opportunity from this year, is that this is wide open goal for all in sport, as it's the perfect playground for purpose and change. And this opportunity is ripe for those seeking a visionary approach to marketing in sport.
Pioneers for this shift have grabbed headlines, and shown us the power and influence sport can have, the heroic and humble voice and action of Manchester Utd’s Marcus Rashford – actually forcing government policy redirection to simply do better at supporting the poorest and most vulnerable and immediately improving lives. Newcastle United fans took action to further support the long-standing lifeline food-bank linked to St James’ Park, organising to send donations in protest at a proposed PPV charge from the Premier League for broadcasting live matches during lockdown. A charge that was scrapped in response.
Everton FC’s players and Manager Carlo Ancelotti personally checking in on and calling isolated fans, to alleviate loneliness and mental health strains and other stresses of the situation.
The AELTC firing up the catering kitchens at Wimbledon to provide for the local community when they should have serving the crowds and hospitality guests at the Championships. These are a few of many examples, particularly supporting the NHS during this year of crisis, with Captain Tom Moore receiving a SPOTY Award for his transformational 100 lap walk and incredible £30m fundraise.
In raising consciousness of the absolute need for societal change, recognising Black Lives Matter has been evidenced across professional sport, but it will be in action that sporting organisations and the commercial partners that support them, will be judged.
Another pioneer, the peerless current Formula 1 champion, Lewis Hamilton, has single-handedly driven action for change in his commission for diversity in the motorsport industry. Crucially his team Mercedes, an icon of the automobile industry, is supporting Lewis and hardwiring this change to its vision, workplace and culture. The Mercedes team, the seven-time world champions, has the potential to set another standard, not only for the rest of Formula 1, but for the whole of motorsport, and necessarily its wider global brand and into the car industry itself.
Equally necessarily sport must face and hear necessary and uncomfortable truths about how racism has been endemic, and how it has and often does value and treat minority sports people lesser than others. As, with power, elegance and a quiet fury, Michael Holding and Ebony Rainford Brent expressed during the England v West Indies Test match in the summer, the first match since George Floyd’s death in police custody. The former NBA star Chris Webber spoke passionately to the moment after the Milwaukee Bucks did not take the court for their NBA playoff game in protest at the killing of African-American Jacob Blake at the hands of law enforcement, sparking a player and team strike across the entire NBA, WNBA and similar actions in the US in tennis, the MLB and countless other sports.
We will see sport’s power of purpose in action in its purest form on the streets in and around London this Friday. Jamie Peacock MBE, one of the most decorated and respected players in Rugby League history will pound the pavements and parks, with his good friend and sports marketing leader Simon Dent, in an epic 52 mile ultramarathon loop across the capital, raising funds for sports charity Greenhouse Sports.
The charity works with more than 7,500 young Londoners from poverty and disadvantaged backgrounds, providing inspirational sports coaches and mentors in schools.
This in the belief that sport provides the tools and training environment for personal development and growth and aids the life chances of these youngsters. The target is a challenge – to raise £30k, enough to fund a full-time coach working everyday in a school (and weekends/holidays) for a year. This film shows the impact great coaching can have.
Jamie has notched many milestones in his sense of value and purpose, one that drove him to be so successful as professional athlete and team player, in his business life providing motivational training plans for commercial workforces, to supporting his teammate Rob Burrow, alongside Kevin Sinfield and in raising awareness and funds for the cruel and debilitating effects of Motor Neurone Disease. Of Greenhouse Sports he says, ‘I just love what they do as a charity, putting coaches in schools in socially and economically deprived areas, and for me that’s just one of the greatest things.’
We have often asked ourselves and others during this time; what can we do? The standard business model for sponsors and brands, is to invest in sport to answer a commercial need, to reach an audience to raise awareness and market product. But now, the conversation on purpose cannot be ignored by any brands in sport.
It could leave a vacuum at best or suggest a hollowness that won’t chime with the sporting audience who see their favourite players and teams offering words and actions daily. With so much still uncertain, from the postponement of events, the vacuum in empty stadiums and sporting arenas and no gathering for communal experience of sport, the usual marketing is redundant. This is the opportunity to shift, take creative risk, develop a resonant narrative and create deeper brand value. The Tokyo Olympics, Euro 2021, the Lions Tour, to name a few events, are all still uncertain in form and fan engagement. It will be different, so the challenge to brands and their agencies is to think and act differently.
A Lions sponsor, for example, could look shifting marketing budget out of match-day activation, to make a multi-year commitment into a charitable programme like Lawrence Dallaglio’s RugbyWorks which uses rugby to create employability opportunities. It provides arresting sponsorship narrative and good outcomes for all. The recipients would champion that support, that brand story, personally and therefore with deep resonance.
The Euros will throw some football sunshine on London during a summer, when we all hope to be emerging from restrictions and coming back to life. A visionary sponsor could be the catalyst for providing safe, well-managed, football and physical activity camps, through any number of existing local sports or charity providers - for those most affected by the pandemic, crucially, for years to come. For those like the youngster Greenhouse supports, who are three times more likely than their better-of peers to have poorer physical and mental health. Those that struggle to have safe space to play and be active.
That would make a difference. That would tell a brand story, a purpose, like Jamie Peacock clocking 52 painful miles, through sport. And change lives.
To support Jamie and Simon’s run, you can donate here
If you would like to hear more about Greenhouse Sports and how you can help more disadvantaged young people through the power of sport, please contact
Ben Wyatt: firstname.lastname@example.org