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Opinion: Democratising Sport After Covid

The coronavirus pandemic has forced sport to confront some inconvenient truths and once again highlighted the disparity between elite and grassroots sport, says Mike Emery, CEO of Joymo.tv – a live sports streaming platform for teams, clubs, and federations.

As a sports fan, I, like billions around the world, have been hugely grateful that the English Premier League, Formula 1, the NBA and the NFL have been amongst the elite sports that have returned to action and provided us with the live competition and entertainment we all crave. 

The coronavirus pandemic has had a crippling effect on many areas of the sport industry. Elite leagues and clubs have not been without their challenges, but, by and large, have shown the financial capacity to survive. That is, in large part, why they have been able to commence their competitions, while all non-elite sport is currently paused.

The last 12 months have probably been the most challenging for grassroots sports leagues, clubs and coaches in modern times. It is here, at the lower end of the sporting pyramid, where the lasting damage is being done as a result of the pandemic. 

Let’s be clear: grassroots sport is the lifeblood of elite competition. It always has been, and always will. It remains the playground where the vast majority heroes and heroines we watch and follow today started their journeys. These are the icons that elite sport’s commercial ecosystem is built upon.  

Recognising this, in December more than 50 leading British sports bodies called on the UK government to allow grassroots sport to return in the higher tiers of coronavirus restrictions “as soon as possible”. This was part of a wider campaign entitled #SaveOurSports, which launched in September with the aim of protecting community sport during the pandemic.

This was followed by Sport England’s 10-year vision to transform lives and communities through sport and physical activity. Interestingly, the document noted that for every £1 spent on community sport and physical activity, it generates nearly £4 for England’s economy and society. Something for all sports stakeholders to bear in mind. 

The focus and funding at grassroots level exists at a governmental and NGO level, but are elite sport rights-holders doing enough? 

The ‘democratisation of sport’ has become a go-to phrase within the sport industry. It has lofty intentions, but the reality is that it talks to the fragmentation of media distribution, making it meaningful only to consumers of sports content and brands looking to monetise it.

Democratisation in this form is good news for those at the top of the pyramid, with more money flowing in from rights sales and subscriptions, and a mixture of good, confusing and bad news for the consumer. 

For some, it will mean more content they want. For others, it means they aren’t sure where and how to access the content they really want. And for everyone it means another subscription service to add to the multiple competing content channels.

In this model of ‘democratisation’, there are only a handful of winners: the biggest sports, competitions and events. For me, democratisation in sport should be about value and who that value belongs to. 

With that in mind, what the decision makers in sport should really be concerned with is flipping the pyramid so that those at the bottom – kids, schools and university teams, amateurs, semi-professional and lower-level professional sports and leagues – see more of this democratic wave of change and more of their own value. 

That can happen in two ways:

1) A new rights structure that rewards – A ‘when you win, we win’ mentality  

2) The use of low cost direct-to-consumer over-the-top streaming platforms that enable federations, leagues and clubs to make direct revenues from their content 

To the first point, I’m not sure that a pre-purchased rights sale is able to truly create a ‘win, win’. The buyer and seller have very different incentives when negotiating, with the buyer wanting to pay as little as possible. 

Regarding content distribution, we see a lot of smaller federations and clubs give away their content to free social media platforms that then own the data and the advertising income from its viewers.

There are now solutions available that give all the tools to the rights-holder – no matter the level of competition – to broadcast directly to their fan base and include ownership of advertising, sponsorship and data. In this model, when the content owners succeed the platform provider succeeds. 

The good news? The pandemic has necessitated change at a pace we previously thought was unachievable and both of these necessary developments are already happening.

The sooner this reaches the bottom of the pyramid, where the impact will be felt by longtail sport and its billions of participants, the better for all. With so many competing interests for the next generations’ time and attention, it has to be a priority for everyone invested in sport to focus on increasing participation and making grassroots and sport financially sustainable.     

I’m excited to see this democratisation of sport happen in real-time and this can only be a good thing for elite level competitions, and everyone associated to the sports industry.

Dylan Rogers
Dylan Rogers

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