My 5 wishes for the sports industry in 2021
Farewell, then, to the weirdest and worst year in the living memories of anyone currently working in the sports industry.
While it goes without saying that sport is insignificant when set against the hundreds of thousands of people who have lost their lives to Covid-19, it’s also true that 2020 was historic for this industry and for all the wrong reasons.
The first time an Olympics was postponed since the Second World War. Wimbledon postponed for the first time since the war and for the first time ever in peacetime since it started in 1877. Everywhere you looked there was disruption - in US college football, Michigan v Ohio State is such a big occasion that it’s nicknamed simply The Game, and this was the first year it didn’t take place since 1917.
Alongside such major dents in our sporting schedules, we must place the deaths of some of the greatest athletes who have ever graced the planet, including Kobe Bryant and Diego Maradona at either end of the year.
So, a year to forget? Well, certainly a year we can look forward to putting behind us, but let’s not forget the lessons we can take from it. As George Santayana said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Put another way, if 2020 was an annus horribilis for sport as well as for the wider world, what do we want 2021 to look like, and how will it be different?
In other words, here are my 5 key wishes for the sports industry in 2021. Let’s work together to keep pushing things forward.
Let’s keep Diversity and inclusion front and centre
If it wasn’t for the pandemic, the biggest single event of 2020 might have been the protests against racism which started in the US following the death of George Floyd and then spread to many other countries.
‘Taking a Knee’ - a silent, peaceful and democratic protest against racism which started with Colin Kaepernick in the NFL in 2016, was taken up by athletes in Europe as a way for players to express their solidarity with the anti-racist movement.
The Bundesliga was the first major European football league to return after the pandemic forced a pause in the Spring, and we saw Marcus Thuram take a knee, followed by Premier League players and many others.
In 2021, it is vital that elite sport continues to offer highly visible support to the battle against racism. We must not be daunted by small pockets of backlash against it.
I recommend this blog by my Seven League colleague Iyanu Arukwe, written in October, on how sports can continue the conversation, with the NBA being an excellent example.
Not that the sports industry is perfect - we must also improve our own performance in all areas of diversity and inclusion, including female representation.
We must do so while at the same time allowing sport to lead the way. Let’s seek diverse perspectives, and actually listen to the opinions and experiences of people in every one of our organisations, and try to be better.
Prioritise the safe return of major events - and stay global
Two Premier League games have been postponed in the week that I write this, and there are calls to pause the season. Against this, the Oxford vaccine has been approved and the Government is suggesting we might be able to “get out of this pandemic by the Spring” (whatever that means exactly and however much confidence we may have in Government pronouncements at this point).
Nevertheless, we must hope that UEFA Euro 2020 and the Tokyo 2020 Olympics/Paralympics go ahead in their new slots, one year later than planned, and that we can return to events like Wimbledon, the NBA Finals, the Stanley Cup and more, at their usual points in the calendar.
Although as David Cushnan noted in his excellent A-Z guide to 2021, “consider everything provisional.”
If those events can go ahead and with fans in the arenas, done safely, then so much the better. If 2020 taught us anything, it’s that major sporting events in empty arenas are an awful product and experience for everyone.
Let’s get fans back in if we can, and if we can’t, let’s not dismiss those events as being therefore meaningless - if there was one thing that irritated me in 2020, it was seeing people suggest that events behind closed doors were pointless, when lots of people were working incredibly hard behind the scenes to keep an industry going precisely so that it would still be there when fans could return.
Lastly, let’s stay global, as much as we can. When the pandemic hit, sport was the most global it had ever been. Let’s keep taking the big US sports into Europe, and the traditional European sports into North America and Asia. We must do so safely and responsibly, but let’s not get timid and retreat back into ourselves. Parochialism must be avoided.
Celebrate and support Sport’s impact on society
However much we talk about Marcus Rashford’s contribution to society in 2020, it isn’t enough. Let’s keep encouraging more athletes to take his lead and use their platforms to speak truth to power and improve the lives of vulnerable people. I honestly believe that Marcus’ work in 2020 will embolden more athletes to speak their mind on matters that affect the communities around them - and more power to them for it.
And while we’re at it, let’s not forget the impact that grassroots sport can have on society. As I write this, there are fresh calls to prioritise it and support it as soon as possible, which are to be supported.
Physical activity is good for minds and bodies. It builds our health, our connection to others, and it’s good for the economy. It can be a key part of how society responds to mental health difficulties brought on by the isolation caused by lockdowns.
I understand that Governments around the world must balance public health and the economy, and try their best to keep things going in all sectors. But let’s all do our part to remind them that sport must not be left behind other areas of our lives.
Can we please move on from tribalism?
One of the brilliant things about Marcus Rashford’s campaign was the way that fans of all football clubs, even Man Utd’s main rivals, embraced and supported it.
However, sadly it would be hopelessly optimistic to think that we moved away from tribalism in football in 2020. Other sports have their issues, but football (and especially football in the UK) seems especially prone to viewing everything through a prism of their club.
Most of the people reading this will be people who work in sport, and we’re maybe not the worst offenders (although I can think of one or two people who very often sound more like club cheerleaders than industry professionals.) However, we can influence a change for the better.
I have been going to football matches since the mid-1980s - when hooliganism was at its peak, the stadiums were falling apart, and there was genuine air of danger when you attended games. Whilst the matchday experience is undoubtedly safer now, the tribalism has moved to social media, and it feels worse, and certainly more petty, than ever.
Contrary to popular wisdom, not every pundit’s comment is a biased slight against your team, which needs to be attacked in order to defend the honour of your football club. It’s bad enough when fans do it, and worse when official channels do so. Let’s set the tone.
Embrace the new
2020 was notable not just for increasing amounts of change in our elite sports but also for the predictably luddite response to some of those new things.
As I always say, not every new idea is good, but the fact it’s new does not in itself make it bad.
However, this notion was expressed much more memorably by Douglas Adams, whose words are ones to remember as we head into 2021.
“I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:
Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.”
Anything that’s invented between when you’re 15 and 35 is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.”
Anything invented after you’re 35 is against the natural order of things.”
As much as we can, let’s try and stay in numbers 1-2 on that list, no matter our age. Sure, the new handball rule isn’t perfect. Maybe it should be tweaked. But no, it isn’t “killing the game” no matter how many football managers or pundits say so.
Let’s accept that things are new, embrace them, and work together to improve them.
Everyone at Seven League/Mailman wishes you the very best for the new year. We are privileged to support the global sports industry, and I very much hope that we all see a brighter and better year in 2021. Let’s make it so.