The New Zealand Herald
A most unsporting Olympics
Commercial needs often trump the will of the fans when it comes to Big Sport
There’s a morbid undertone to the biggest global sports broadcast event we’ve seen in years. Everyone watching the Olympics this year should feel at least a little uneasy in the knowledge that Japan’s ageing population is playing host to guests from around the world as new strains of coronavirus wreak havoc.
Even this week, amid rapidly escalating cases of Covid-19 in Tokyo, there was a final push to get the Games called off. It didn’t happen, and Japan is now stuck in the awkward position of hosting an event that leaves a sour taste in the mouths of those who are meant to serve as enthusiastic hosts.
Olympic news broadcasts have been peppered with references to the latest numbers – not the number of medal prospects, but of new Covid19 cases.
This all further drives home the point that 83 per cent of people polled in Japan did not want to have the Olympics in their country this year. For them, the risk analysis simply didn’t check out.
And yet, the commercial imperatives have taken precedence over the science and the will of the Japanese people, all so that everyone around the world can follow the action from the relative safety of their sofas.
It’s becoming increasingly apparent that the fans on the ground simply do not matter as much as the commercial opportunities in a global marketplace. If there’s a dollar to be made, it’s worth it regardless of the human cost.
There are some interesting parallels here with the local saga concerning the America’s Cup.
In much the same way that no one is listening to the fans on the ground in Japan, the preferences of New Zealand fans have been ignored.
Amid the backroom negotiations and desperate efforts to keep the Cup local, the Prime Minister encouraged Kiwis to make their voices heard and express their disappointment at the thought of yachting’s big event going abroad.
If social media conversations are
anything to go by, New Zealanders have tried to make their voices heard, but to no avail.
Data by research firm Zavy, tracking the sentiment of New Zealanders’ social media conversations over the course of the year, show an uptick in anger following discussions about the Cup moving abroad.
This has quickly pulled the rug from underneath the positive sentiment associated with Team NZ’s victory this year.
Zavy founder David Bowes explains that the online sentiment associated with the Cup hit a high of 95 per cent positive by mid-April, once it became apparent that the local team would triumph. The number of conversations predictably peaked around this period, then rapidly dropped away.
By the time news hit in early June that the event would likely be moving abroad, positive sentiment dropped from 84 per cent to 64 per cent and it has been falling ever since.
With every development in the story, there has been a spike in sadness, anger and fear as the dominant emotions.
But the emotive reactions on social media are almost always short-lived. And the organisers of major events know the anger remains only as long as a story retains a hold on the news cycle.
At a time when the news is moving faster than ever, that lifespan is incredibly fleeting.
The Olympics and America’s Cup aren’t the last events we’ll see contorted to fit commercial imperatives. The upcoming 2022 FIFA World Cup, to be hosted in Qatar, is yet another example of fans’ voices being ignored. The controversies around this hosting decision are already myriad, but organisers proceed with about as much regard as a billionaire flying at 30,000 feet over a small group of protesters beneath.
Sport is a business, with the team owners and event organisers acting in the interests of shareholders and investors above all else.
Sometimes these interests coincide with fans’ expectations, but examples are tough to find.
The one exception to this trend was seen in the demise of the European Super League, thanks largely to fans protesting and expressing their fury.
The difference here, however, was that fans still retained some sway, in their ability to cause the cancellation of a match between Liverpool and Manchester United, one of the biggest games on the annual football calendar.
Increasingly, however, the close ties that once existed between sports teams and the places they call home are being loosened into branding tools that offer a great story about provenance for enterprises that now have global aspirations.
In much the same way that businesses are on an eternal hunt for growth, major sports franchises are looking for the best ways to increase their global fan base, often at the expense of the loyal followers who gave them their identity.
Team NZ might still wave this country’s flag and Manchester United’s badge might still be associated with northwest England, but what they represent now cannot be confined to one particular place.
Don’t expect this steady evolution to reverse any time soon. The more money major sporting enterprises make, the more disconnected they will become from the places that gave them their names.
But hey, at least those grassroots fans will be namedropped in some soppy future ads about where the teams originally came from.
The more money major sporting enterprises make, the more disconnected they will become from the places that gave them their names.