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At Large | This January is about resolve, as much as foresight

Predictions are largely out as the ongoing Covid crisis shrouds the opening months of 2021 in uncertainty, but sports bodies can think now about how they want to approach the future.

by Eoin Connolly
At Large | This January is about resolve, as much as foresight

Right, then, predictions for 2021.

You first.

A recap. The biggest event of the year ahead is an Olympic Games in Tokyo, delayed from 2020, that we think will probably happen without being sure exactly how. The second-biggest is soccer’s Uefa European Championship, delayed from 2020, which we are fairly certain will happen without being sure exactly where. January has opened with a spate of cancellations, postponements and Covid-compromised fixtures, all a rude reminder that New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day are in consecutive months, not alternate dimensions.  

The rapid arrival of vaccines promises a future beyond this crisis but that exit is not yet imminent. It is not entirely known when fans can make a full return to venues in most countries, when international travel will be advisable at anything close to the scale of 2019, when normal will return to sport, what it will look like, and what it will have cost.

There are a few things we can be confident about. At some stage in the next few months – maybe even the next few weeks – the National Football League (NFL) will sign the biggest set of broadcast rights deals in industry history. But the short, medium and long term are misaligned. Teams qualifying for this month’s playoffs will shortly have a better idea of their 2023 accounts than of which players will make it through their coronavirus tests. 

Elsewhere on these pages in the early weeks of this pandemic, Matt Rogan made an increasingly wise-looking point about 2022 being a year for sports businesses to prepare for, with 2021 about improvisation and survival. So maybe the start of this new year is less about making predictions and more about taking stock, and a pause for breath. That is all part of why we look forward and set goals in this season anyway: to reassess our understanding of the world and our place within it.

Outside of the Covid crisis, there are huge, ongoing developments that will have a profound impact on sport. New leadership, mercifully, in Washington; provocation in Beijing; shifting alliances in the Gulf. The British sports sector waiting nervously, with everyone else, to absorb the ramifications of Brexit. 

Plenty of money has flowed from the wealthy to the wealthier over the past 12 months. State intervention, essential for underwriting public health measures, will be a feature of many economies for some time. Private investment trends in sport are already betraying these factors and other parts of the sports industry will soon see them, too. 

Questions will be answered. How far do brands retreat from sponsorship and how can that practice be remade? Will there be a correction in the broadcast rights market – with the collapse of Ligue 1’s deal with Mediapro a harbinger of worse to come – or will revised models deliver value through the 2020s? Will headline spending on premium rights suffocate the rest, or clear the air for innovation?

It has been said many times that this ordeal has uncovered existing power structures and presented a choice about change. For now, though, many of our worlds are smaller again on a daily basis, shrinking back to what can be created within our own homes: via remote communication, or tailored media habits, or Roblox.

What is sport’s place within that? As ever, it is best to start with the fan. It’s an obvious cliché, sure, but it presents a valuable exercise that can only help in this period and the one to follow.

The way people live with the things they love has been heavily affected by technological and cultural development. The basic principles, though, remain the same. The challenge lies in understanding the environments that are emerging for fans and the opportunities that spring from them.

Here is a recent case in point from entertainment. On Christmas Day, with the cinema trade in suspended animation, Disney sent one of its most important releases of 2020 straight into people’s homes. Pixar’s Soul, about a jazz musician and teacher who believes he has been taken before his time, is set in a lovingly crafted version of New York and a carefully imagined afterlife. Yet for Disney and the family of production companies it has acquired, the world of its films is only half the point. The world that rises around them lasts.

Historically, this has meant toys, games, TV series and theme park rides. With Soul, Disney has investigated another outlet. Soul Stories is a podcast distributed in partnership with Spotify, based on conversations between one of the directors and the lead actors, musicians and consultants on the project. It explores the inner life of the characters and the motivations of their creators, examining themes of mentorship and explaining how jazz came to be so central to the plot.

That might not rival Buzz Lightyear and Elsa dolls as a money-spinner for Disney but it does show how, in an expanded media universe, an audience’s experience can be enriched.

Even with stadiums closed, the sports business can find more and more ways to reach fans if it can apply those options resourcefully. As well as programming and merchandise, many organisations have been doing that for some time through gaming. Connected fitness could be the next frontier. Peloton, which has a massive war chest for user acquisition after its explosive stock market growth in 2020, has been signing partnerships in the music business – with R&B icon Beyoncé last year, and with Sony, on narrower terms, in the last week. It is not hard to envisage sports brands finding their way into that ecosystem.

Outside of media, other avenues are opening up. In motorsport, for example, there is a natural overlap with STEM education programmes. Whatever the case, a little consideration can deliver a lot of value.

The upshot of all this is also that sports organisations have been made to think again about the way they act upon the world around them. The pandemic has given us all a sense of our shared responsibility, even as it demonstrates the limits of our individual control. 

In sport, examples have been set – or not – in adherence to Covid-era protocols, as well as the creation of community outreach projects in public health and support for the vulnerable. This is just the start.

Climate change will demand its own collective effort for years to come. Social change already has. There have been lessons already in the messiness and difficulty of conversations around inclusion across race, gender and sexual orientation. The best respondents to those trials have shown a willingness to be honest, to learn and to adapt, rather than backing away once more.  

Getting through 2021 will take similar levels of courage. The days ahead will rarely be easy; they will often be frustrating and dispiriting. Better times surely lie on the other side. Until then, even if we cannot plan with certainty, we can do our best to act with clarity.