As we look towards the end of 2020, and how we have adapted to our new surroundings in a Covid-19 landscape, will there ever be a case to be made that it was a good year for the sports industry?
Sarah Dawson
Sarah Dawson is Managing Director at CSM Sport & Entertainment where she runs the agency’s Brands business, responsible for global and local partnerships, including those with Land Rover, HSBC, Lucozade, Tudor and Unilever.
Why I'm giving 2020 a 'B' for optimism
4th November 2020, 08:20

I doubt there are any businesses whose profit and loss have not taken a significant hit this year, or any person who hasn’t had to dig deep into their own reserves to get them through some difficult times whether that be financial, emotional or physical.

As we look towards the end of 2020, and how we have adapted to our new surroundings in a Covid-19 landscape, will there ever be a case to be made that it was a good year for the sports industry? Will we feel differently in five years and only remember the positives that have come from this year and, if so, what might they be?  

Even the most positive of people would struggle to give 2020 an ‘A’ for optimism. But amongst all the challenges there are still plenty of reasons to be upbeat about the future of sport. I think 2020 gets a ‘B’ grade and here are some of the reasons why:

1. Balance:  Let’s start with the obvious one. For an industry built on long hours, weekend work and global travel, eradicating commuting times and long hours in offices has created a better balance of living for so many. We have certainly missed the energy and atmosphere of the office, events and matches, but we’ve seen our children more, we’ve eaten more meals with our partners and we’ve noticed our surroundings more than ever before, with more time to focus on our mental health.      

2. Built for fans:  We have seen a rebalancing of the impact of fans on live sport, TV and media. Home-field advantage has proved that fans are a determining factor and I think rights holders need to be aware of that, over time, and as brands became more and more important to clubs, fans have felt that they have been marginalised (particularly in football) for many years. For example, kick-offs at absurd times that have left fans with the difficulty of getting home have been commonplace. Our current situation has meant that fans are now the lifeblood for many clubs.

3. Better understanding of the audience: This cannot be something you get around to, but something you invest in. When the turnstiles stop spinning, you need to be able to monetise. What partners need from partnerships will never be the same again. 

On the face of it, rights holders make money in three ways: fans coming through the door; broadcasters paying to televise; and commercial partnerships. When live sport stops, as we saw this year, the majority of rights holders had a problem. No fans meant no income, no games meant broadcasters wanting a rebate, commercial partners either pulled out or wanted to divest their rights and agreements.


The onus needs to be on enriching and growing your audience, and really understanding it. You can improve the experience for those fans and make your communication more tailored and efficient, which drives greater commercialisation, and brings more partners to the table


If rights holders had a better understanding of their audiences and fan bases, they could have still produced content and opportunities that would have engaged their audiences and provided opportunity to partners. Understanding your audience, up until this point, has been non-essential because fans keep coming back. Until they can’t. The support of a sport, or club, groups people but it doesn’t define them.

So, the onus needs to be on enriching and growing your audience, and really understanding them. You can improve the experience for those fans and make your communication more tailored and efficient, which drives greater commercialisation, and brings more partners to the table. In turn, it creates better engagement for fans as they are being listened to and catered for. Better engagement enriches and grows the audience, and so it continues. You have a virtuous cycle. The audience isn’t beholden to just those people walking through the turnstiles; just think, 99 per cent of Liverpool fans are not from the UK.

4. Bold innovation:  Coronavirus has forced organising bodies to make changes to the way games are played – we’ve seen rule changes designed to speed up or improve the game, new formats, new administrations and more. Even the most traditional bodies like MLB, the England and Wales Cricket Board and the Premier League have made changes to their traditional formats, and many of these may well remain when Covid-19 leaves us.

5. Being active: In the UK, the lockdown created a nation of doers. The rules allowed us only to leave the house for exercise and outdoor activity once a day and some people benefitted from that, as we started to understand the value in an increased heart rate, but the enthusiasm will not burn indefinitely.

We are in the midst of a generation that has seen participation levels reduce radically despite an increase in sport on TV and British success in football, Olympics, rugby, hockey, cricket etc. Covid-19 has provided a catalyst to get active – the question we take into 2021 is how do we capitalise on that?

6. Buoyant Relationships:  Relationships matter.  The last six months have shown that shared experiences really do make for better relationships. Clients that are facing the same financial concerns as agencies, and which have stuck with them to get through and support each other, have built stronger, tighter relationships than ever before. 

Rights holders need brands, and have worked hard to understand what they need to do in order to work together when the purse strings are tighter than in previous years. For all organisations the internal relationships have made an enormous difference to the culture of businesses. Those who have been open, honest and communicative and taken their teams and people on this rollercoaster of a year have built a strong bond with people who feel that they’ve all been through it together. 

Possibly the most important B of all for the future of sport is coming, and that’s the ‘bounce’ that will follow this incredibly tough period. Humankind needs positivity more than ever and there is nothing that comes close to the escapism, joy and hope of sport. The year 2020 has helped prepare us for the new age of sport, one that will be jammed full of innovation, technology and extraordinary connectivity that will enhance every aspect. I can’t wait. 

Sportcal