Understanding the football ecosystem: managing diverse stakeholders to survive in a high-risk environment

Understanding the football ecosystem: managing diverse stakeholders to survive in a high-risk environment
"It is my pleasure to introduce this month’s article written by DRD Partnership, one of the 11 UK companies that participated with the Department for International Trade at Soccerex Connected. Don’t forget that if you want to learn more about how the Sports Economy Team at the Department works to help UK companies maximise their export potential then contact us at Sport@trade.gov.uk. DRD Partnership is a strategic communications consultancy focused on building value for clients and protecting their reputations at moments of challenge and of change. Its specialist sports practice works both in the UK and internationally, combining the deep experience of their senior partner team with rigorous analysis and interrogation of issues. DRD’s partners have held senior roles in government, diplomacy, the law, international corporations, charities and leading public affairs consultancies. Combining their insight and experience of engaging stakeholders and delivering campaigns across the globe ensures that they are consistently able to meet and exceed clients’ expectations." - Andrew Bacchus, Lead - Sports Economy, Department for International Trade.

Unless you live on a Pacific atoll, you will know that the COVID-19 crisis is creating challenges in football, both globally and locally. Over the past year, few people involved in running, participating and investing in sport have escaped the impact of the pandemic.

For some areas of the game, these challenges, such as funding, cancellation and postponement, are existential. But in others, where the crisis has thrown sustainability and governance into sharp relief, they are reputational. With no matches to speak of and under the spotlight of social movements, eyes have narrowed on a naked lack of diversity in positions of authority. The faltering recovery of the women’s game, which until March had seemed unstoppable, has left many wondering just how sincere its previous backers were.

At whichever level of football they sit, the issues created or exposed by the current climate cannot be dispatched with the proverbial ‘magic bullet.’ They are likely to remain active for years.

More than ever, governing bodies, competition organisers, clubs, sponsors and individuals need to innovate to ensure they are well-placed to survive, sustain and engage with fans and stakeholders going forward. Sometimes, it can be difficult to evolve at the pace of change or perceive what is necessary, until it is too late.

The rapid commercialisation, growth and scrutiny of sport has inevitably led to greater, faster and more acute commentary. High-profile organisations and individuals now find themselves under the ‘spotlight’ with intense 24 /7 social media scrutiny and heightened responsibilities.

The recent hue and cry around the English Premier League’s Project Big Picture (PBP) proposals shows just the layers of scrutiny involved. There, in one issue, we saw the complexity of the modern football ecosystem, which can frequently require the management of many independent stakeholders with diverging world views. Different clubs, governing bodies, competition organisers, owners, players, sponsors, supporters all have an overlapping interest and, in some cases, can even be perceived to “speak” for the same organisation. In that example, we also saw the UK Government leaning heavily on a major institution like the Premier League - something which we can expect to see more of in the future.

But while many of the constituent issues in PBP were brought to the fore by the pandemic (e.g. equitable economic distribution, grassroots, broadcast rights, effective regulation, the role of football in society…) they were not created by it. And before Covid there were already many more challenges in football which will continue to demand an active response (mental health, gambling, ethical sponsorship and supply chains etc.).

As a firm, we work with our clients to help them to manage this ecosystem, its risks and opportunities. By anticipating challenges, understanding public perception, and engaging with the stakeholders that matter (when it matters), organisations and individuals can adapt to properly mitigate risk. Or, if the unforeseeable happens, know that they have done everything they could when it mattered, rather than when it was too late.

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