The Unofficial Partner column: winter is coming

Richard Gillis reaches for Christmas cheer, but falls short as he senses dark days ahead.

The Unofficial Partner column: winter is coming

The plan was to write quite a jolly Christmas listicle to see off 2016, a sports biz compilation of stuff you wouldn’t dream of consuming at any other time of the year, like Cadbury’s Roses, Advocaat and Pret’s seasonal sandwich range.  

But I just couldn’t summon the goodwill, because 2016 has been so rubbish and 2017 is going to be even worse. At least 2016 had the upside of delivering shock value. On a weekly basis seismic moments horrified yet electrified us, from Bowie to Brexit to Trump. It got so bad that we ended the year jumping for joy that only 46 per cent of Austrians voted for neo-Nazis.  
But if 2017 can’t match its predecessor for drama, what we’re left with is the aftermath: the slow, grinding implications. Change is coming. All those conference speakers who talk so lazily of disruption are about to get it. And it’s not a hashtag campaign or a new platform for snackable content. 

Trump Sport

Trump Sport is a state of mind and stretches far beyond the soon-to-be walled borders of America. Like Brexit in the UK, The Donald’s election has emboldened a coalition of nutters, not all of whom have swastika tattoos. Some wear suits and work in government. They hate paying tax and see publicly funded sport as the worst excesses of the nanny state. 
The Trump and Brexit campaigns targeted angry white men, a group accustomed to privilege for whom equality feels like oppression. That well of anger is deep enough to wreak havoc that will shape a generation.

A bonfire of the acronyms  

The propagandists will dress up radical cost-cutting as ‘draining the swamp’. Sports governing bodies will be positioned as bureaucratic quangos leeching from the public purse, and many NGBs look vulnerable to the existential question: what would happen if they disappeared? Those pesky kids aren’t getting any thinner, so why are we blowing gazillions on Olympics and grassroots sport? 

Facts, schmacts 

Participation data is going to be of little use in the post-fact world. As internet guru Clay Shirky tweeted during the US election campaign, the brazen approach to political lying has changed the game, leaving traditional methods irrelevant. 
‘We’ve brought fact checkers to a culture war,’ said Shirky, a lament with a broader application. The research industry is in crisis. Political polls don’t work. Experts are despised. Do you really think data suggesting marginal increases in sport participation will win the argument?

Attribution error 

The culture war in sport will be one of attribution - the grey, fuzzy space between cause and effect. In the UK, the Sport England Active People survey is a case study in attribution error. Sport England spends UK£325 million of public money a year on grassroots, with a mandate to drive participation. But too often the survey strains to make simple links between physical activity and the decisions and actions of national governing bodies, which have shared UK£493 million over four years. 
Trumpists will argue that participation is driven despite the NGBs not because of them. Park Run, Crossfit, Tough Mudder and the assortment of bull markets in triathlon, yoga, cycling, trampolining and six-a-side soccer: these aren’t government supply-side policies at work, they are the market creating and meeting a need. For every kid ‘inspired’ by ‘iconic major events’, there are others whose imagination has been fired by the marketing departments of Nike, Under Armour and Adidas. 
NGBs have spent too long seeing them as a threat, rather than partners.


Like Alan Bennett or Karen Earl, #ThisGirlCan has attained the status of UK national treasure, for whom criticism of any kind is forbidden by decent society. For this reason it will be first in line for the Trump Sport attack dogs. #ThisGirlCan contains all the elements hated by the angry white men constituency: it’s open-heartedly generous, publicly funded, successful and not focused on white men.   

The wrong response

Faced with this existential threat, some governing bodies will seek to build their case for survival. This will lead to mistakes that just make the problem worse. Did you hear the one about the governing body for running which hired a PR firm to promote participation in the middle of a running boom? England Athletics took on Promote PR to raise awareness of the million or so more people who run today compared to ten years ago. But to those seeking to cut the purse strings, it might look like the brief was to promote England Athletics rather than running, which appears to be doing very well thank you. 
This was supposed to be the golden decade, when democracies put sport at the centre of public health policy, using global events to promote a vision of multicultural utopia. At least that was the idea I bought into, albeit in a solipsistic way. 
London 2012 already feels like another lifetime ago. The potential of sport is back in the hands of the dictators and demagogues.

Happy Christmas.

Richard Gillis is author of The Captain Myth: The Ryder Cup and Sport’s Great Leadership Delusion, published by Bloomsbury in the UK and US.