Be more corporate. Said no-one, ever. Certainly not in language and certainly not in the type of behaviour that came to symbolise the nineties and the noughties. However, where corporates have been successful is in the art of making arguments. In recent times, many corporates have been effective in setting out what they stand for as a business. Sport – as an industry – could take heed.
Necessity being the mother of all invention, arguably, the genesis of this success for business stems from the erosion of trust amongst consumer and political audiences that was sparked by the financial crisis. Commercial success was no longer the only measure upon which business was judged by politicians, the media and consumers. Business needed to show that they placed value on more than just profit.
For many, financial services was the bellwether industry, but few other sectors have escaped scrutiny. From supermarkets to tech start-ups, the public and political decision makers want to know what a company believes in, not just what they make and how many they employ. Failure to make the argument that a business really cares – about its employees, its customers and the society in which it operates – can have direct impacts on success, from challenging regulatory environments to the opportunity cost of having to focus on addressing reputational challenges.
Out of necessity post-2008, we have seen the death of CSR as a peripheral activity and its rebirth at the heart of most organisations, required to demonstrate they provide a genuine benefit to society.
Why should this matter to sport? Despite a number of high profile scandals, sport has often seemed largely immune from the type of reputational damage and upheaval that business has suffered. Yet, as it becomes increasingly professionalised and the number of issues grow, it is difficult to believe that sport will continue to be able to fall back on the argument that if the fans keep showing up, there is nothing to worry about.
For some sports we have already seen that notion become reality.
You only need to look at the response to doping, match-fixing and concerns over ownership to understand that, just like business, there is appetite for values and respect as well as results.
Business, need to respond to the issues that their players, supporters and politicians care about, both future and present. Some have started to do this; the RFU’s campaign on awareness of concussion protocols confronts one of the most important issues affecting the game, and one of the biggest risks to its future pipeline of players and consumers.
While the negative impacts of a bad reputation are often obvious – a squeeze on your operational environment, increased criticism, and reluctance of others to associate with you – we often forget to talk about the value of a good reputation. For sport, this could mean creating the time to think about how you attract new audiences, engage new markets, increase appeal for sponsors and generate a sustainable pipeline of players and fans alike.
Sports starts from a better place than many businesses did. But if it doesn’t win the argument that it cares about its fans, players and the society in which it operates in the same way it cares about results, revenues and increasing wages then it risks learning the same hard lessons that many corporates have.