Member Insights: The Reason Why
August 22, 2022
In this Member Insights piece, Richard Brinkman takes a look why sporting competitions are successful, and why some aren’t.
One of the fundamental principles that enables any individual, team or organisation to successfully make the difference they wish is having a “reason why” that underpins and motivates the actions they take. A strong and authentic “reason why”, and a high level of self-belief in it, from the key participants is critical in driving towards successful results.
If no one understands why they are setting out on their challenge, addressing a problem or setting a goal you are doomed to failure before you start. Equally if no-one believes in the reason why (often corporately known as purpose), or if there is a low level of belief that it is achievable, you are again pushing water uphill if you want to succeed.
It strikes me that this is a particularly thorny issue for the sports industry. This is largely because there are so many emotive and rational factors and stakeholders that need to be considered in any decision. These stakeholders are many and various – getting similar levels of belief and buy-in to the “reason why” across all is very difficult. But not impossible.
If you think about the most successful sports properties in the world (and I am thinking about the likes of The Masters, Wimbledon, EPL, NFL, Olympics etc) they have a strong “reason why” that delivers on many levels and for multiple stakeholders:
The Athletes – giving them the platform and opportunity to perform at the highest level that has context and meaning beyond the singular event.
In Stadia Attendees – a sense of event and an appropriate environment to watch the best perform their best.
Sport participants – a pinnacle to aspire to, a dream to chase and strive for, a standard to aim for, a concept of what excellence looks like.
Avid fans of the sport – Characters, narratives and teams that are consistently interesting and that have the jeopardy of flirting with greatness in the context of what has gone before and taking their place alongside “the greats”.
Casual followers via third-party media – the excitement of observing the make or break of something meaningful and that represents an extraordinary achievement that resonates beyond the individual sport and into a wider cultural context.
Audio-visual content – the ability to create guaranteed excitement and therefore audiences, alongside the opportunity to deliver reputation-building technical/production advances and an abundant supply of ancillary/support content.
The issue for so many new iterations of sport – think LIV golf, The Hundred, Rugby X – and, to my mind, a common reason they struggle for traction and acceptance is that their “reason why” has little or no nuance. In other words, it really delivers and is highly focussed for certain stakeholders but has no relevance or meaning for any other constituents. In the worst cases certain groups are actively alienated.
It is very easy (too easy?) to say that LIV, The Hundred etc are designed to bring new supporters to golf and cricket – ie they are golf and cricket “reinvented” for people who don’t currently know or like the sport. However, the large bodies of people who currently play, attend and follow (and broadcast?) the sport also need an understanding of what this iteration is adding, why it matters and how it fits alongside what they currently see, know and (presumably) like.
All of the stakeholder groups mentioned above matter. The vast majority of “new” fans will want to feel a sense of belonging to a bigger community. No one above the age of 14 will solely be interested in The Hundred. A tiny minority will follow LIV and not be interested in other significant existing golf tournaments. Becoming part of something bigger, such as an established community, is important.
Heritage, history and “tradition” are a massive part of sports like golf, cricket and rugby. They give the context that achievements are measured against. They provide the canvas that makes winning and losing meaningful. Trying to ignore it or consign it to history as old-fashioned or not relevant to new generations is a high-risk policy. It is unlikely to engender “buy in” from large numbers of important stakeholders in the wider sporting community.
It also ignores the fact that these sports have been attracting new players, participants, fans and followers for over 100 years. They have done so through the birth of live coverage, the televising of events, the professionalisation of the game, the development of new formats and tournaments, and various scandals. To suggest that everything is now different because we have social media and therefore need to reinvent the game to keep it alive is to deny history and seems a strong over-reach. New technology should enable, develop and augment what has gone before – not render it irrelevant.
It is also critical to be aware that the financial imperatives and attention-level of sports fans mean that successful traction needs to be very much built in the here and now. English cricket cannot wait 10 years for The Hundred to “work”. LIV will either be a valuable golf entity or irrelevant in the next three years. Therefore, widespread “buy in” and understanding of their “reason why” needs to have immediate impact. They do not have endless time to ride out and finesse antipathy, confusion, nervousness or resentment.
Both LIV and The Hundred would do well to recognise that rewarding already very well compensated athletes with very high guaranteed income regardless of performance for doing less work than previously is not a compelling message. Particularly, if your product is not actually shorter than the version of that sport people are used to and is not actually the “best v best” product initially advertised. No amount of technical innovation, fireworks, podiums, celebrity commentary or TV hyperbole can paper over the cracks if your only “reason why” is seemingly solely about money.
I fully understand the argument that it is no longer just about the sport. That sport is always evolving and a natural progression is the development of “sportainment”. Indeed, one of the most effective and successful properties I ever had the pleasure to work with were WWE who are probably the gold-standard of blending sport and entertainment. Admittedly, they did not need to necessarily worry about participation, the “grass-roots” or the long-term legacy to their sport.
However, what made them so effective (and profitable) was an amazing understanding of their audience, different levels of engagement to different types of audience in different parts of the world and how best to amplify the narratives, characters and history of their sport through many and various outlets and products. This enabled them to continually evolve and build a broad church. They had a very strong and clear “reason why” that was their north-star in everything they did – to entertain and innovate using a sporting/physical context. There are certainly some valuable lessons here for new iterations of existing sports looking to build younger audiences and hold on to them as they mature.
It is interesting to note that the Women’s iteration of The Hundred has seemingly found far less resistance and choppy waters to navigate. Yes, women’s cricket is coming from a vastly different starting point and less well established and packed schedule. But it also has a very different and seemingly more authentic and worthwhile initial “reason why” – to grow interest and participation amongst girls and build a serious professional pathway for more female athletes. I know many have mooted that LIV may well have built momentum more successfully and quickly had they started with the under-resourced and under-invested women’s game.
The triumph of the England Lionesses at the Women’s Euros earlier this summer also had a very different vibe. It felt like it was about more than just football – they were doing it for women’s sport and girl’s access to sporting opportunity everywhere. It is a highly motivating “reason why” that not just the team but many different types of stakeholder could fully buy into. Indeed, I suspect many non-sport fans (even beyond the usual “big-eventers”) got behind the team as a result.
The PTO (Professional Triathletes Organisations) and Sail GP are other good examples that it is possible to drive innovation and evolution within a sport to wide acclaim if your “reason why” is strong and authentic enough.
Sail GP’s “Better Sport Better Planet” approach chimes well with the nature of the sport and brings a level of excitement, real-worldliness and approachability that has long been missing from sailing. Equally the PTO’s mission to give athletes a platform (and share in its risk and success) to showcase their extraordinary passion, athleticism and determination gives rise to outstanding performances and incredible stories that inspire as well as amaze. They are building their sport by adding to it and developing its opportunities rather than trying to “reinvent” it. Evolution rather than revolution.
One final point to consider is that, as we touched on previously regarding the Women’s Hundred, the overall landscape and competitive set in which you exist as a sport cannot be under-estimated. And, of course, that can evolve and change in its own right.
Thus, an iteration of a sport, Formula E for instance, can launch with one very definite “reason why” (in this instance to be the progressive and sustainable face of motorsport’s future) and find itself over time being overtaken by other offerings who share your mission but land-grab your positioning. I would argue that within motorsport the W Series is now considered to be more progressive and future-focussed and Formula E’s own little brother Extreme E has grabbed the green credentials. Some might argue that this leaves FE in a better spot to more directly compete with F1. Good luck to them if that is so – that is one big brute to get in the ring with – particularly so without a compelling, strong and motivating “reason why” to be there.