In divided times, sport unites

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Some of the world’s biggest sporting events now regularly take place outside of western democracies. If brands truly want to embrace the power of sport, this is something that they need to be comfortable with writes Misha Sher, Global Head of Sport, Entertainment & Culture at MediaCom.

As the world tunes in to the Winter Olympics in Beijing, a familiar pattern is asserting itself. Firstly, there’s a focus on areas where the Chinese government has faced fierce criticism, and second there’s an attempt to focus on event sponsors and their perceived “approval” of any human rights abuses.

I’m no apologist for oppressive governments but we’ve been here before. There were widespread calls to boycott Russia at both, Sochi Olympics and the FIFA World Cup in 2018 and the same narrative is in full swing for the upcoming FIFA World Cup in Qatar. Back in 2014 and 2018, the narrative that Russia was unworthy of hosting a major sporting event was widely elevated in the west.

What gets lost in all this noise, however, is the power of sport in building bridges and bringing people together in a world that is increasingly divided.

It’s worth remembering these eloquent words of a man who saw hope where most saw despair, Nelson Mandela, he once said: “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair.”

We live in a very complex world and the power dynamics are constantly changing. This means major sporting events are now taking place in countries whose values are, in many instances, different from western beliefs. There is a myriad of reasons for this but each country has its own story and none are without fault.

When England hosted and won the 1966 World Cup, women’s football was banned by the Football Association. In the United States today, many States are trying to reverse women’s reproductive rights but are we challenging the right of the US to host the next FIFA World Cup or Olympics Games? Of course not.

The truth is that our world is messy, the issues we face are not straightforward. What we do know is that sport has an incredible power to bring us together.

We work with many clients who are rightly asking questions whether they should be activating around the Beijing Games and Qatar World Cup. My answer is yes and here is why:

First, building on Nelson Mandela’s message of hope, there is nothing like sport to create a connection and understanding. Ask anyone who went to Russia in 2018 and they will tell you about the fantastic time they had exploring a country rich in traditions, meeting and connecting with locals and trying many variations of the local cuisine. These people got to see and experience Russia in a way that broke down many of the misconceptions that may have had about the country. At a minimum, it helped them see Russia and Russians as fellow humans rather than an enemy. The football World Cup was a catalyst for this.

Second, being a World Cup sponsor or investing in another way around the tournament (via teams, talent or broadcast sponsorships etc) delivers significant value to the game or communities around the world. Money invested by FIFA partners and sponsors benefits the game all over the world. This facilitates programmes in the developing world, the organisation of competitions, investment in the women’s game and so on. Those involved at a more local level often use the investment and platform to drive more participation, creating role models and leveraging the profile of the event for good. You can do all this and still defend human rights.

Third, whilst of course, every brand should be sensitive to the associations or partnerships they form, they need to be cautious about taking a stand on every issue without thinking about the context. In sport we need to be more nuanced; Yes, you can be associated with the FIFA World Cup or its coverage without being associated with the respective governments. Furthermore, while social media makes us believe that people are carefully evaluating brands’ every move. When it comes to many of the amazing companies that we buy things from, not everyone is monitoring the brand associations of their favourite personal electronics product for example.

Millions of fans watching the tournament are not sitting around outraged about the brands they see. They are most likely in the company of their closest friends and family enjoying one of the most unifying experiences a human being can have. Once these events start, the power of sport overrides everything. We’ve seen it in 2014 and 2018 and we’ll see it in 2022 as well.

Focus on the positive and use the opportunity to make a difference. Remember that sport has the power to unite in a way little else does. That should be your ambition.

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