Having just finished the highly enjoyable and optimistic Olive, Mabel & Me by sports commentator and dog enthusiast Andrew Cotter (and partner to one of my best school friends), I can’t help thinking that as I enter the unknown of 2021, even with the unpredictability of the new lockdown, I am convinced I know one thing for sure: this will be one hell of a year for sport – and we’ll all be the better for it.
Despite everything that has been thrown at us this past year (and to come in the next few weeks), sport remains the collective pursuit with the greatest reach, impact, excitement, jeopardy and passion of all the emotional rollercoasters put together.
Sport is, quite simply, its own cultural vehicle. Across history, sport has played a huge part in major societal issues, from cultural diplomacy to applying pressure on government for policy change to being a powerful platform for activism and combating injustice.
Because not only is it a huge leveller, it creates a strong sense of community and belonging; it gives us our identity, bragging rights, status and conversation; it fills a gap in our lives; it binds us in tough times, helping to combat loneliness and isolation and bringing people together.
It's no wonder, then, that sport has long attracted organisations and individuals wishing to build their reputation. This started with the "badging era" – these were sponsorships seen mainly as a media buy and a badging exercise, with hospitality used for networking.
Then, in the 2000s, it moved into a second era: "activation". With the professionalisation and digitalisation of the industry, there was an increased focus on activating rights, with content and experiences taking over from traditional PR and hospitality.
But because of sport’s growth as a cultural commodity, we have now moved into the "enabling era" – a shift that has been greatly expedited by Covid-19. Success for brands now is not about joining conversations but creating them; it's about telling stories of what you stand for and what you stand next to through sport and its stars.
Because of this, its cultural importance and impact will continue to grow, as will athlete activism. We’ve all seen the images of football players taking the knee in support of Black Lives Matter and Marcus Rashford (pictured, top) showing the courage to face down a government and force it to feed its children.
Athletes are already in this enabling era, moving beyond the “we go again” and “the lads played well” clichés. Not just reacting to what happens in their sport, but wanting to stand for something themselves. And brands should be helping them tell their stories, to give them some approachability, some empathy, some power and influence beyond purely their product or services – enabling them in their activism.
And at no better time does sport bring all of this together than through its major tent-pole events. The Euros and the Olympics (which will hopefully still go ahead this summer) will bring a much-needed togetherness after Covid and the political divides of the past few years. These events are proven to bring people together under one flag, free from political divisions.
And by enabling those events and taking part in them, businesses have the chance to create positive associations with their brands. But even if they don’t go ahead, the enabling era means brands don't need to be so reliant on the sporting calendar or fixed activation points. The opportunities to create their own stories remain, even if the event doesn't.
Brands that aspire to be part of culture cannot ignore the power of sport after lockdown is over. Associating brands with athletes, competitions or even just moments (for those going guerrilla) is a shortcut to relevancy at scale.
But, more than that, it’s a chance for brands to form an alliance with institutions and individuals committed to building a better society, free from the left/right polarisation of politics. It’s a chance not just to be seen by millions, but valued by them as a contributing part of a community.
After one of the most challenging years on record, let’s all look forward and agree on one thing: sport (whether participating, watching others participate or sponsoring) makes you feel good. Bring it on.
Melissa Robertson is chief executive of Dark Horses
Picture: Getty Images