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Hear that? Sport's Overton Window is on the move

Joseph Overton wasn’t known for his views on the sports business. But his famous idea might yet come to define the hellscape that’s engulfed the live event and broadcast market. Overton was a right wing libertarian from Michigan whose Meisterwerk is beloved of political strategists seeking to shift public opinion their way.

The Overton Window describes the spectrum of policies that are deemed politically palatable at any one time, framing the mainstream of ideas. If you’re outside the window, you’ll be viewed as a fringe zealot.

And again, in a diagram.

Over time, the window can be shifted to render even the most wacky outliers plausible to the general voter. Here’s John Lanchester in the LRB:

An idea can start far outside the political mainstream – flat taxes, abolish the IRS, more guns in schools, building a beautiful wall and making Mexico pay – but once it has been stated and argued for, framed and restated, it becomes thinkable. It crosses over from the fringe of right-wing think-tankery to journalistic fellow-travellers; then it crosses over to the fringe of electoral politics; then it becomes a thing people start seriously advocating as a possible policy. The window has moved, and rough beasts come slouching through it to be born.

Usually the shift takes years of relentless lobbying and media management. But occasionally, every generation or so, a crisis brings the opportunity to move Overton’s Window with greater speed. That’s where sport is today. I’ve spent the last few months talking to people from across every sector of the industry and it’s clear that previous certainties are being questioned like never before. No ideas are off limits, and decisions made over the next few months will shape the next ten years. Some of them should be welcomed, and come from a position of expertise and good faith. Others less so. This is because sport’s commercial and societal clout is fought over by a disparate group of actors, from governing bodies, team owners and superstar players through to ambitious entrepreneurs, environmental lobby groups, sportswashing dictatorships and cheap money just looking for a quick return. Each has their own change agenda and they’re currently kicking the tyres to see where the weakness lies.

This process starts by asking open questions. Here’s a few off the top of my head:

Why does the event calendar look like it does? Why isn’t there a G20 for sport that organises the calendar and makes it more coherent from top to bottom? Why is the FIFA World Cup every four years? What if all the famous football clubs played each other in a world league? Why do the top footballers earn so much? If Barcelona can use the crisis to get Lionel Messi to take a 70% pay cut, why can’t Premier League clubs permanently control their wage costs? How can we game emergency furlough policy to drive changes to player and staff rights and working conditions? There’s too much financial risk in promotion and relegation, so why not close the top leagues and copy the NFL model, allowing owners to invest in new stadiums and the quality of the team with a guarantee of commercial returns? If the biggest market is China, why not play competitive matches over there? Why don’t we release the potential of women’s football by freeing it from the clutches of the male dominated FIFAs and FAs of this world and set up their own governing body in the style of the WTA, the women’s tennis body? Why don’t women play against men in golf tournaments? Why aren’t there more golf majors and why aren’t they mixed events? The Ryder Cup is a cash cow, why don’t we have it every year, and make it global? What if there was a Formula One for golf, making each event more relevant and ditching the stuff nobody cares about? Do we really need so many sports governing bodies? Are they an enabler of change or a constraint? How did Parkrun and Crossfit become so successful, driving grassroots participation? Does televised sport help reduce obesity or encourage it? Why is the average Olympic TV viewer over fifty years old? Why don’t we let the athletes take drugs to improve performance? What’s the difference between using data and AI to gain a competitive advantage and using drugs to do the same thing? Why can’t we let the public race against the athletes in real time using Peloton and other clever tech? Why did five million people watch a virtual Grand National live on TV? The biggest boxing pay per view event of the last few years was between two YouTube influencers, so what would an Olympics for influencers look like? Is the Lions tour an anachronism? Why don’t we play the All Blacks every year? Why is the Six Nations a closed league, why not open it to all nation teams and play it throughout the season not just in the spring? Betting drives so much sport’s viewing, why not embed gambling deeper into how the sports are organised, making it easier to lay bets in real time, and generating more money to grow the game? What sports event IP is most vulnerable? Which events, teams and leagues can be bought cheaply and stripped of its assets? Which teams are carrying debt and which have cash reserves to see them through this crisis? Which sports have the largest fan bases relative to their media profile? Where are hidden gems that require a small cash boost to grow quickly? Who are the best administrators in sport and can we test their loyalty?

And on it goes. The blank sheet of paper can be intoxicating, prompting a process that plays with the definition of unthinkable. Ideas and schemes that were previously off limits can now be debated. Some of them will be great and long overdue, others will be more at the Move Fast And Break Things end of the spectrum, the consequences of which will be painful, enduring and unwanted. For all of them however, Ol’ Joe Overton’s window is on the move.

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