The Unofficial Partner column: Passion for Sport™

Richard Gillis outlines his mission to reclaim sport from the passionate extremists.

The Unofficial Partner column: Passion for Sport™

Sport is in the hands of extremists.

Normal, unassuming people have been marginalised as sponsors pursue a sinister new agenda called ‘fan engagement’, the basic objective of which is to encourage young men to behave like complete bell-ends.

Sport is the medium, ‘act like a twat at the office Christmas do’ is the message.

The modern fan is expected to bring something more to the party than quiet enthusiasm and deep subject knowledge; they must come ready to demonstrate their Passion For Sport™.

The key word here is ‘demonstrate’: because to be commercially useful, Passion For Sport™ is useless unless it’s externalised.

As the comedian Dara O’Briain puts it at the start of his act: “If you’re the sort of person who laughs on the inside, you’re of fuck all use to me.”

This pursuit of demonstrable fan passion reached a high watermark at the Uefa European Championship in 2012.

The tournament’s stand-out activation was from fresh fruit and salad company McDonald’s, which created a bespoke branded app, The Passion Meter (sic).

The accompanying press release laid out the strategy in full:

It hopes to leverage football fans’ passion for the game by inviting supporters to record a cheer in support of their national team via webcam. At the end of the tournament in July the nation with the most passionate fans, as recorded by the online and physical ‘passion meters’, will be rewarded. It includes a Facebook app and smartphone apps for iPhone and Android handsets that allow fans to share their cheer video with friends online.

In simple terms, having paid Uefa tens of millions of dollars to associate with the tournament, the best thing McDonald’s and its agencies could think of doing was to get fans to shout loudly in to their mobile phones and hope that this looked like the brand was relevant to the experience.

The final paragraph of the press release was almost poignant in its neediness:

McDonald’s hopes that the activity will become viral.

The problem with Passion For Sport™ is threefold.

1. It’s a lazy cliché

Adding the ‘P’ word has become the perfect get out of jail free card for any witless campaign whose authors couldn’t be arsed to think of an actual creative idea.

This perpetuates the advertising industry’s long-held prejudice that sport and sponsorship is about doing, rather than thinking.

2. It encourages bullies

If you don’t turn up with your face painted, happy to form a branded human pyramid in the fanzone, you’re a boring old stick in the mud, not one of the lads, not with the #bantz. Whoever heard of someone being ‘quietly passionate’? What is this, 1975?

3. It’s wrong

This is where it touches a bigger theme, which is the excessive and misguided respect we give to extroverts generally. Passion is not what causes success. But success can cause a good feeling that in retrospect can feel like pre-determination.

In other words, it’s a narrative fallacy, and the media is a configured to perpetuate the myth.

We only interview people who were in charge of business when success happened.

Rather than tell the truth – ‘I’m smarter than you,’  ‘I’m luckier than you,’  ‘I work harder than you,’ or ‘I gamed the system to load the chances of success in my favour’ – wealthy business leaders have learned that it pays to sound humble.

So they offer up the seemingly meritocratic idea that it was their passion that drove them to be the top dog.

The message is a variation on the American dream: passion is democratic. You don’t have to be smart or rich to have it – just an insane work ethic and hope in your heart. Haven’t you seen La La Land?

The flipside of this fallacy is that it assumes that if you’re not one of life’s winners that it’s your own fault for not having sufficient amounts of the magic potion.

This is the message that is sent every time sport mistakes showing off for passion.

So take off that bloody hat and sit down.

Richard Gillis is the author of The Captain Myth: The Ryder Cup and Sport’s Great Leadership Delusion

Follow him on Twitter @RichardGillis1