<iframe src="https://www.googletagmanager.com/ns.html?id=GTM-P36XLWQ" height="0" width="0" style="display:none;visibility:hidden">

Being brave in a new world: Five ‘Brilliant Basics’ to help sport weather the Covid-19 storm

In the first instalment of his new series exploring how leaders in sport can run better businesses, SportsPro senior contributor and Two Circles co-founder Matt Rogan speaks to top executives from across the industry to find out how the smartest organisations are bracing themselves for an uncertain post-pandemic future.

18 June 2020 SportsPro

The summer of 2020 should have seen our industry at the height of its powers. New formats like The Hundred cricket competition should have been on the block running alongside a first time multi-national delivery for Euro 2020 and a much-awaited Tokyo 2020 with technology as its heartbeat. It could, probably should, have been the biggest sporting summer on record. Instead, we are all experiencing a working year unlike any other.  

I have run businesses for the last 16 years. It can be a pretty lonely place at the best of times, let alone in the worst of them, when personal interaction is reduced to Zoom meetings and an increasingly stark picture is emerging of what lies ahead.  

Sport has traditionally been relatively resilient in times of economic recession, as it has tended to be one of the things consumers clutch tightest when their pockets get challenged. So while the product has been in demand from fans, damage has been minimal, at least in relative terms.  

That logic only stands, of course, when there is actually a product to sell. 2020 has seen the shelves empty, and through the summer it has been very hard to sell ‘pent-up demand’. Two Circles, the data driven sports agency I co-founded, recently updated its prognosis on the economic impact of Covid-19, predicting that the revenue generated by the sports industry will fall by around 40 per cent year-on-year versus the five per cent growth projected before the pandemic.

New pragmatism

Early in the fallout, the sports industry made all the right noises about the need for collaboration in the midst of this crisis. James Earl, a partner at Fladgate LLP, summed up the initial mood in the industry on the SportsPro Podcast, saying: “What we are seeing is a lot of practical solutions being discussed. We are seeing parties in large contractual arrangements being prepared to take a much more pragmatic and human approach to the situation.”

As things evolved, it became increasingly clear that all stakeholders had to work together to remodel individual sports. Players, clubs, teams, leagues, national and international associations, broadcasters and sponsors – plus of course, the fans – had to be prepared to move the goalposts together – literally at times. While skirmishes were inevitable, wholesale combat within a sport was only going to result in a race to the bottom.   

There also seemed be a genuine and sustained empathy among fans for the need to be pragmatic. A mid-May survey by The Athletic found that more than half of fans felt England’s Premier League should swell to 23 teams versus the current 20 next season if it meant avoiding a legal battle over promotion and relegation from curtailed and/or aborted seasons. 

That is all well and good, of course, but it does not make the realities of managing a single business next week, next month, or even next year any easier. That is where this article comes in. I have talked to a lot of organisations – sporting and otherwise – over the course of the last three months. That has given me a strong sense of what I think the best businesses have been doing to not only weather the storm in the short to mid-term, but also be in the best possible shape to push on when the clouds have finally passed.

The Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games were to be one of several events that should have made this one of the biggest sporting summers on record.

Brilliant Basics in 2020

Firstly, I have noticed some ‘Brilliant Basics’ that the very best of these businesses have been adopting consistently to battle the currents. This is not a big strategic plan – at least not yet. This is day-to-day, week-to-week high-quality management. The most impressive organisations I have talked to are:

1. Scenario planning in real time

In my experience, leaders in sport and entertainment can too often use the finance director merely as a highly paid route to keeping score. Many sports, agencies, suppliers and brands alike are run by natural salespeople, who more often than not tend to over-project revenue and underestimate cost and complexity. In the current climate, that is a toxic combination and a sure-fire road to ruin.  

Rebecca Homkes, a lecturer at the London Business School and director of Ashridge Strategy Management Centre, works with chief executives and executive teams at global businesses on executing growth strategy, especially when facing extreme uncertainty. 'To assume you need to blow everything up is silly, but likewise going forward like nothing has changes is equally so,' she writes in her recent article, 'Downturns are great times to grow'. 'We cannot plan perfectly right now, as it is too uncertain, but we can prepare.'

This chimes with the best sports businesses I have seen in the last few months. They are running two or even three concurrent financial scenarios for their organisations in real time depending on the pace with which the sporting action recovers – and have been through the hard yards of understanding at headline level the changes they will need to make in their organisations to drive maximum benefit for all concerned.

This is no time for ivory tower, insular decision-making. Organisations running on Brilliant Basics are desperate for benchmarks at the moment. 

Realistically, none of these scenarios is one they wanted, but each is one their business and shareholders can stomach and their management team can see a way to delivering. These scenarios are not just built at a P&L level, but also cashflow – making realistic estimates about funds receivable in practice in a bear market. 

Of course, cash in sport can be lumpy in a world of minimum guarantees, ticket on-sales, transfer windows and tech stacks. I have seen agile and solid businesses in recent months understand where they sit in that food chain, responsibly using their position to release their balance sheets with agility, skill and empathy for fans, employees and suppliers alike. 

This is no time for ivory tower, insular decision-making. Organisations running on Brilliant Basics are desperate for benchmarks at the moment. Bill Gates advocates for having enough cash in your organisation at all times to pay your staff their salaries for a year. So if any of your scenarios does not show anything like that when talking to shareholders, you had better know why. 

2. Supporting and challenging internal teams 

Another of sport’s Achilles heels has traditionally been the distance between a strategy held at board level and the relative lack of transparency with which that is shared and ultimately owned by the business as a whole.

I have interviewed countless very good people in the last ten years to potentially join Two Circles who could only guess at their last employers’ strategies. Organisations I have seen following the Brilliant Basics have, without exception, held very challenging, no-holds-barred conversations with their teams as times got tough, but also offered them exceptional support. They have not only managed furlough processes with time and empathy, but also realised that those left still working in the organisations will often be encountering ‘survivor syndrome’. To each and all, they have shared enough of the scenario-building exercises I describe to explain with clarity what needs priority focus, and how the organisation can best protect itself. 

In many cases, it is the small touches that have made a massive difference. Two Circles, for example, created a monthly ‘Two Circles Delivers’ service for its team, ensuring that team members around the world had the right equipment and supplies to be as effective as possible operating in their new working environments, wherever around the world each team member wanted to be during lockdown.

Team members turned all 13 internal sports clubs virtual and continued to play sport together. Team days and strategy sessions continued on Microsoft Teams – the highlight being the team voting to select Special Olympics as the company charity partner for the next three years. Employee engagement survey data (the Two Circles ‘Pulse Check’) showed that team cohesion and engagement had actually increased during the lockdown period. 

Once senior leaders have shared the direction of travel with their teams, the very best have also known when the time is right to get out of the way and let them innovate in delivery. BT Sport’s chief operating officer Jamie Hindhaugh told the SportsPro Podcast: “We had studio presentation, and that’s where it stopped from our traditional coverage. The whole studio operation was managed from people’s homes. For five concurrent games we would normally have 50-70 people on site at Stratford and we had less than ten. I am really proud that we had the support and the trust to push the boundaries on how we did it…everyone trusted us and that’s so important when you want to be innovative and tell the best story you can.”

In total the team on site at BT Sport has been significantly reduced from the 200 to 400 who might be there at any one time, with the entire operation managed digitally from home. 

Working in this way also meant the broadcaster showed a level of humanity to the audience – while not necessarily intended, it landed well. As Hindhaugh says: “I think the big challenge is cultural. It’s a very different way of working. There was a wonderful moment where Paul Dempsey [a commentator] remarked on the fact that when he was live on air he had a Tesco delivery.”

3. Showing less haste, more speed

As The Athletic survey demonstrated, there is a degree of pragmatism in the fan community which seems more understanding of the challenging times for sports businesses than they might normally be. There have been some excellent examples of communication from several sports organisations in managing cancellations, the England and Wales Cricket Board's (ECB) handling of The Hundred being case in point.

While the organisation took criticism from mainstream media for the time it took to come to a decision, that same fullness of time enabled detailed conversations with stakeholders and suppliers, such that news landed to a groundswell of support. Ticket purchasers for The Hundred found refunds almost instantaneously in their accounts, and secured places at the front of the ballot queue for 2021 with no further action required. 

When well thought through and articulately explained, rights holders of all sizes have typically found they have met with an understanding and receptive customer base. During a SportsPro Insider Series session in May, BBC tennis presenter David Law spoke of the Tennis Podcast he co-presents, which is healthily crowdfunded. Despite the lack of live tennis to review, Law and his team presented funders with an alternative, more feature-led content schedule for the year. Ultimately only one out of 1,500 listeners decided to take up the offer of a refund on their crowdfunding support. 

4. Getting the tone of voice right

Having made firm decisions, I have seen some excellent examples of building content that recognises sport’s important but also secondary position in the world order. This is a difficult-to-strike balance between recognising sport is a secondary concern when people are losing lives, without forgetting that, in itself, it represents a ritual and release for so many in such challenging times.

Shortly after the announcement of the cancellation of this year’s championship, Wimbledon released a video, voiced by Roger Federer, that recognised the need to prioritise health, and specifically the NHS, over sport in the summer of 2020. It hit the tone perfectly – balancing regret for a sporting summer passed but recognising bigger issues were at play. 

The All England Club continued to follow messages with actions, splitting funds from their coffers between their own responsibilities of being ‘fair’ to those who ‘make Wimbledon happen’, plus significant financial support for local charities and the Covid-19 response. 

Beyond the bubble of sport, music magazine Q took a very different approach but to the same end – while lamenting the loss of the summer, their edition featured 34 lockdown interviews with music stars around the world, balancing their usual content with more music recommendations and ‘isolation top tips’. Editor Ted Kessler wrote: ‘We’re not critical workers and this is all of our dream job. But it’s still a challenge making a magazine remotely, with every element bar the Donovan interview being imagined since the last issue was printed. It’s one of the best issues I’ve ever worked on.’ 

Within this, walls have started to break down between sports, talent and fans. Roger Goodell made the brave move of appearing in a Bud Lite commercial inviting fans to boo him, using a hashtag which made money for the National Football League's (NFL) fundraising around its 2020 draft. Elsewhere the world’s leading tennis players took down their guards and let fans in with live two-way Instagram chats and skittish entrances to a virtual version of the Madrid Open.

As this happened they often displayed a degree of humility which was welcomed by a locked-down public who were realising that athletes do not all have mansions and also have to navigate a dog jumping on them when doing sit-ups at home. Conversely, MTV’s announcement of a new series of ‘Footballers’ Cribs’ risked looking out of kilter with the prevailing mood of the time as the world hurtled into recession.

5. Staying visible (by being relevant)

The final Brilliant Basic I have seen is businesses of all types staying externally visible, even if not in ways they might have imagined even three months ago. 

While there were some very creative executions to put a smile on fans’ faces, these cut through best when they made a difference, too. Premier League club Chelsea launched some excellent community-led initiatives with food deliveries and opened up their on-site hotel to key workers, both well-executed projects that provided genuine value to a local community, but without overdoing the hyperbole.  

Meanwhile British mass trail running events business Maverick, which regularly trades under the strapline ‘The Outdoors Awaits’, sold bespoke t-shirts for the lockdown period entitled ‘The Outdoors Will Wait’, with all proceeds going to the NHS. To date, the company has sold out three times, providing value to their wider merchandise supply chain and keeping the organisation front of mind with their loyal base.

Brilliant Basics in action: Inside mass participation sport

Mass participation events have been hit particularly hard by the current crisis – not only in terms of the immediate impact of race cancellations on short-term cashflow, but also more existential questions over whether the market for mass events will ever return in the same way.

Chris Robb, chief executive and founder of Mass Participation World and author of Mass Participation Sports Events, has for the last two months been running a series of free webinars and discussion fora for the industry. Titled ‘The Aid Station’, the series is designed to help those in the sector problem solve together, looking at areas as diverse as ‘Tools for Implementing Social Distancing’ to ‘Managing Creditors in a Crisis’. 

“The strongest mass participation organisations have built a 360-degree relationship with their athletes over the last few years, which has given them a platform of trust to manage through the current challenges,’’ says Robb. “In contrast, others have been much more tactical and taken a ‘sell the event, deliver the event, see you next year’ approach to communication that’s lasted, in total, only three or six or 12 months. So now things have got challenging, there’s no empathy or loyalty there.

A good example of a successful approach, notes Robb, has been OC Sport’s Haute Route cycling series, which ran a collaboration with Zwift for a Haute Route-specific challenge during lockdown.

“Haute Route events have a loyal base, and OC and Zwift had been talking for ten months anyway before Covid struck,” he continues. “The virtual race was hugely successful and clearly set below the physical races in a hierarchy – with prizes to win trips to physical Haute Route events. Nevertheless, OC took the decision not to extend the number of virtual events, which ultimately reinforced the uniqueness of their events for when they return.’’

Zwift's virtual cycling events, such as its collaboration with Haute Route organiser OC Sport, proved popular during lockdown.

With the nature of costs for an event being almost all committed well in advance, some organisers have chosen to take decisive action early in the cycle to cancel rather than postpone. The Standard Chartered Kuala Lumpur Marathon did exactly that. It uses a balloted race entry process, which is rare in Asia, and despite having previously had to cancel the reaction among entrants following its early cancellation was extremely supportive, as reflected in a raft of positive feedback on Twitter.      

But not all events have managed this so well. 

“Other events have decided late on postponement which meant their costs were sunk,” explains Robb. “As a result, they couldn’t offer any refund for participants. They made matters worse by then concocting a virtual challenge to placate competitors for non-return of entry fees, mailing them their medal and t-shirt from the cancelled physical race in the post.

“That’s a double whammy – not only have you disenfranchised the community you’ve worked so hard to build, but also you’ve undermined the premium nature of your physical event.’’

Matt Rogan has spent his career creating and scaling businesses in the sports and entertainment arena. He is a co-founder of Two Circles having previously led the business as chief executive and then executive chairman, a non-executive director of the English Institute of Sport, and joined the SportsPro team as a senior contributor in June. He is currently also writing his second book. www.mattrogansport.com.

In the next instalment of his series, to feature in Issue 110 of SportsPro magazine, Matt looks at how smart business leaders are positioning their companies for the challenges that await in 2022 and beyond.

Matt Rogan

In the first instalment of his new series looking at how leaders in sport can run better businesses, SportsPro senior contributor and Two Circles co-founder Matt Rogan speaks to top executives from across the industry to find out how the smartest organisations are bracing themselves for an uncertain post-pandemic future.


1 / 1insight articles read

You’ve reached your article limit for this month. Please create a free account to continue enjoying our content.


Have an account?