Why the intrinsic link between sport and community remains key in the face of increased commercialisation

The world of sport is continually changing. Levels of popularity among the paying fan can fluctuate, modernisation of society can elevate sports to new heights, and talent pools over generations can all impact the trajectory of a sport. The level of broadcast funding and sponsorship investment can also lead to massive changes in very small periods of time. Crucially, verdicts on change are greatly influenced by the motives of the body of people looking to implement it. Maximising revenue, a will to dominate, a hunger to make sport relevant to increasingly fragmented audiences, and the overall levels of entertainment all help explain where movements for change come from. In the last two years, some sports have been forced into change. Governing bodies across all sports have had to alter their tried and tested status quos to get through the pandemic. Away from COVID-19, the assessment of very different examples helps illuminate how change is implemented, what the pre-cursors for change are, and how divisive it can be if money is the driving force

In football, maximising revenue at the expense of the fan explained why a plan like the European Super League was doomed from the outset. It was an attack on the principals of football and was therefore deflated almost instantaneously. It showed that the fundamental of competition in football is the crucial factor in keeping fans engaged, highlighting that money is not everything when it comes to implementing change at the elite level of the sport. Huge sums were put aside to aid the scheme, yet inflated financials did nothing to forward the plans. Normally steeped in division through bitter inter-club rivalries, fans were united in their distaste for the plans and therefore showed that the humble fan has a proverbial seat at the table and, as a collective, remain a major influential stakeholder at the top of the game. The driver was football club owners, the motivation was money, and the result was a resounding no; even the government weighed in.

More recently, murmurings have emerged around the World Cup and the future organisation of the competition. Mark Ogden, writing for ESPN, writes how the plans around a World Cup every two years emerged because there is a view within FIFA that the four-year cycle is an “outdated model, an anachronism in a world driven by social media and 24-hour news, and that younger audiences, and sponsors, want more high-quality events rather than having to wait four years for World Cups to come around.” UEFA have opposed the plans, suggesting that federations and national leagues have not been consulted. What’s clear, is that altering the schedule and format of the sport’s most prestigious tournaments represents a movement for seismic change in football.

The plan, forwarded by FIFA’s Chief of Global Football Development Arsene Wenger, involves reducing the much-maligned international breaks throughout the club season, addressing the increasingly taxing demands placed on players. Clearly, the motivation for Arsene Wenger is not money, and instead the former Arsenal manager describes his interest being the growth that regular global competition can bring to nations beyond Europe. Moreover, bringing fans more of a product that they already desire is seen to be at the heart of the proposal. This is a slightly utopian vision of the motivations for these plans, and as Melissa Reddy reported in The Independent there is “mega money to be made from upping the number of World Cups.”

The reaction has been extremely mixed. 166 of the 211 national associations have backed research into the switch, so any suggestion that the plans have received widespread criticism are wide of the mark. However, UEFA, The Premier League, and the EFL have all vocalised their opposition to the plans, declaring in a statement that such a proposition would “harm domestic football which is the foundation of our industry and of utmost importance for clubs, players, and fans across Europe.” Self-interest understandably present with the statement, yet elaboration is probably needed to justify how exactly these plans would harm domestic football.

It is the motivations behind the plans that make the impending decision on this so compelling. While it is never too far away from the conversation, it is clear money in this case is not the sole motivator. Nevertheless, there are several questions that emerge. Do more frequent tournaments expand horizons, delivering greater opportunities to nations outside of Europe? Crucially, can the plans guarantee greater exposure and indeed investment to elite and grassroots football all around the world? Would players and fans welcome the increased, regular competitiveness of international football and therefore create an even more compelling story to prospective sponsors? Are major competitions devalued by increased frequency of major international football tournaments and would it impact sponsorship levels of investment? All needs answering ahead of the impending decision on this at the end of this calendar year.

The Hundred

In Cricket, The Hundred event this summer represents a great example of a big change implemented to attract more supporters and diversify the game. The novel format which debuted in the summer of this year was a direct challenge to the traditional forms of the game. The multi-brand sponsorship deal with KP Snacks showcased the event’s desire to appeal to families and young people. Indeed, around 20% of the spectators across the tournament were children, a big jump on the Twenty20 Blast in recent years. Moreover, a total of 21% of tickets sold were bought by women. On some level at least, then, it worked.

A quick look at the numbers shows that assessing the success of the event doesn’t take too much digging. Tom Harrison, the ECB CEO, described how The Hundred “changed the game for women’s cricket, smashing record after record and creating role models for girls and boys to be inspired by”. Total spectator numbers for women’s fixtures stood at 267,000 – the previous record being the 136,000 who watched the women’s T20 World Cup in 2020 – with attendance the highest ever recorded for a women’s cricket event globally.

At its inception, those opposed to the event saw it as another way to merely increase revenue, denting further the position of test cricket. There was also the suggestion that falling rates in uptake of the sport were linked not just to the current set-up, but because of the lack of cricket on free-to-air television since 2005. And while The Hundred did address this, only 18 of the 63 games were shown on the BBC. Increased revenue need not be just looked down on though, with the ECB highlighting that the financial benefits of the tournament, which it outlined has provided ‘an important new revenue stream’ for domestic men’s and women’s as well as grassroots cricket, with the organisation’s revenue now standing at £50 million, leaving £10 million for investment. There was more than one motivation behind The Hundred, pumping life (and money) into shorter forms of cricket as 50 over and T20 cricket appeared to stagnate is certainly one. There is a question mark around novelty here, the T20 Blast, now argued to be stalling, was itself meant to inspire long-term change, The Hundred is therefore tasked with capitalising on the momentum from this summer. Resistance to the tournament waned drastically when it became clear how effective the tournament was when it came to engaging and bringing new audiences to the sport. Sport will continue to evolve with the times, finding ways to maximise profit and entertainment will always exist. Changes to a fast-paced qualifying set-up for Formula 1 this season represents another example of trying to appeal to those that want an action packed, shorter format. Inarguably, at the heart of The Hundred lay a desire to forward the sport, not just line pockets. If women and children had not engaged as hoped, the increased revenue would likely not have been enough to keep the franchise going. This is because the intrinsic link between sport and community means that ideas for change will only ever be embraced if those forwarding it have a real interest in harnessing sports that are loved by millions.