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BLOG: New technologies have not been applied to tackle the racism epidemic in sport, but have the potential to make big impact

As we all come to terms with the global impact of the Covid Pandemic, we continue to face a much longer-term and deeper ingrained malaise; racism.

Racism is a centuries-old epidemic, which has manifested itself in sport. Immediate thoughts may turn to the historic symbolism from the United States, created by the actions of athletes that have made a stand. From the black glove gesture used by athletes at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics to Colin Kaepernick leading NFL players to take a knee during the National Anthem in opposition to the RealDonaldTrump. These gestures of protest against systemic problems created noise; pushing an important conversation forward.

However, when we think of racism in the bigger football markets in Europe, rather than gestures by athletes, we are drawn to the historic problem of active racism within the arenas themselves. In 2005, Marco Zoro attempted to stop the Messina–Inter match by leaving the field with the ball after being tormented by taunts from some Inter supporters. This is just one example of a litany of racist abuse, monkey chants and banana projectiles directed at black players that have left an ugly stain on the game since the 1970s.

Are we seeing enough change?

At InCrowd, we often talk about the changing consumer in a positive light and the impact the change is having on how sports are followed, watched and attended. But is there evidence to suggest that this change is having a positive impact on our attitudes to race and other forms of discrimination?

Unfortunately not it seems. Earlier this year Chelsea defender Antonio Rudiger was seen complaining to the referee, with a gesture of putting his hands under his armpits, to indicate that he believed he had been subjected to racist monkey chants from rival Tottenham supporters. Last year Romelu Lukaku said that the sport was “going backwards” on racism after he was on the receiving end of similar abuse from Cagliari fans.

Kick It Out, a charity established in what was meant to be the back end of the bad old days of racism in 1993, aim to fight against discrimination in football but their most recent statistics show that the problem is escalating again. Reported incidents rose to 422 in 2018/19, up from 319 in the previous year.

The numbers could actually be a lot higher than reported. These statistics rarely tell the whole story; there are many barriers for people in regards to reporting these incidents both culturally and logistically (although you can now report via social media). 

Are we taking action?

A more pressing concern is that these are just statistics and don’t seem to lead towards enough positive, affirmative action. According to the report, the FA have not informed Kick It Out of the outcome in seventy-nine per cent of the 109 cases reported in grassroots football and 80% of the County FA verdicts. So whilst plenty of energy is going into trying to solve the problems at the grassroots level through education and reporting, there does not appear to be a strong system of governance in place to effectively deal with these issues when they are surfaced.

The rise of technology

Changes in consumer behaviour have been seismic, driven by technology and the rise of the smartphone and social media. And yet despite the ability of these platforms to offer real-time conversation and direct interaction, there has been minimal positive impact on attitudes to race and discrimination. Furthermore, not enough is being done to tackle the problem, especially considering we are now in a time when technology makes it far easier to hold people accountable.

This does all seem counterintuitive. When we talk about the changing consumer we are normally talking about the rise of the “woke” generation. However, such technology and social media are used by everyone else too and there is plenty of strong evidence to suggest that placed in the wrong hands, these platforms can be abused to deepen the problem rather than open up a conversation and reach resolutions. We are not just talking about Putin’s election rigging bot farms and Cambridge Analytica here but more nuanced systematic issues.  

A report earlier this year described a “data racism” emerging. It argues that as automated or data-driven decision-making tools are increasingly deployed in numerous areas of public life, these data technologies are actually reinforcing or codifying the systemic race bias and increasing the sense of neutrality afforded to discrimination. If the computer says no, what can I do…? An example of this bias would be using facial recognition tools in crime investigation, despite evidence that they misidentify people of colour, and in particular women.

The potential positive role of technology

So how can technology be used to drive positive change? By using technology to develop relationships with fanbases, sports organisations can hold themselves to higher standards of inclusivity and try to effect positive behavioural change amongst their devoted supporters. Technology could also help surface and deter the problems by making the process of reporting incidents far easier and perhaps more significantly, enable the ability to pinpoint and deal with the problem more efficiently and effectively. 

Imagine if you could report a problem by pressing a button on the official app and highlighting the seat number of the offender. Imagine if all tickets were digital and tied to a device so you also knew immediately who was sitting in the offending seat. If this wasn’t enough to deter a problem fan, it would certainly be enough to take appropriate action. You don’t have to imagine. This technology exists, it just isn’t widely enough implemented.

Hopefully, we all agree that it is no longer acceptable to just sit on the sidelines being passive; we must all be actively anti-racist. And in sport, let’s consider every tool that is available to us, and utilise what we have to make sure that we can deliver the same great experience for spectators, players, officials, staff – #ForEveryFan.

BLOG: Will the Pandemic accelerate the growth in larger sports clubs and leagues at the expense of the smaller ones?

I have read with interest various interpretations of how the Covid Pandemic will impact the sports industry. The general consensus is that it will accelerate the already rapid changes taking place as a result of consumption (how we follow, watch and attend sports events) driven by the smartphone and the rise of web 2.0 which will, in turn, accelerate the gaps between the richest and poorest sports federations, leagues and clubs, affirming a new world order. 

There is no question that changes in consumption have been driving a greater gap between rich and poor in the last few years and this has shown in the numbers. 

The biggest events increasingly command a greater share of fan attention, resulting in the bigger sports growing at the expense of smaller sports where audiences are falling.

There are lots of reasons for this including social followings increasing the importance of celebrity, meaning the biggest stars with the biggest followings drive interest in the team they play for and this drives the overall following and viewing of the league and sport overall. Witness the impact of Cristiano Ronaldo’s signing on the Juventus share price. However, whilst the Pandemic has certainly accelerated some consumer trends, I actually think that it will shake things up rather than simply follow the same path.

First of all bigger doesn’t necessarily mean less vulnerable. Larger event organisers, venues and clubs have larger balance sheets, but also far greater operational expenses which leave them exposed when there is no income coming in from live matches. It is well documented that Premier League clubs lose money when times are good. As a result of the Pandemic, the Premier League is having to offer rebates to its broadcast partners and 20% of the average club income is from matchday, which may not return for several months. 

Secondly, bigger businesses are often less nimble or adaptable to change and this could be a problem. As McKinsey research shows, organisations with an agile operating model are far more likely to show improvements in both execution pace and productivity. The break in the sports calendar has offered them a chance to focus on adapting products and business models to the new norm and the price for not doing so may be very high. 

Many sports in Europe are not centrally organised, which creates a fractured decision-making structure that can be an additional barrier to adapting to the current situation.

By contrast, smaller leagues and federations may be forced to work together to invest and adapt and this could be a big factor in growth, particularly in digital audiences and resulting revenue mixes. More McKinsey research shows that as much as five years of consumer and business digital adoption has happened in the last eight weeks. 

However, this accelerated change does not necessarily mean that change has followed the same path that it would have without the Pandemic. Covid has changed the way we think about hygiene, the way we interact and the way we work and this will have a lasting impact. 

The accepted norm in sport that the big will get bigger and the smaller will struggle to survive is hugely over-simplifying matters.

Many smaller sports have been dealing with the reality of not being one of the chosen ones scheduled on linear broadcasters for some time and have adapted their business models accordingly.  The Americas Cup and the World Surf League have pioneered this approach over a number of years and it has actually led to more broadcast deals as a result of the success of its digital-first strategies, exponentially growing global audiences in the process. 

We may well see a change in the world order as a result of the Pandemic but not necessarily as we might have expected. Strong leadership that is prepared to adopt change thinking combined with investment in the right areas will be the key differentiator, regardless of whether your organisation is large or small.