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Coke and sports reinvent in search for relevance
New Coke stood alone for a short three months in 1985 before its axed heritage forebear returned by public demand, simply rebranded as Coca-Cola Classic. This corporate cock-up, still raw in the drinks behemoth’s institutional memory, hasn’t stopped the Coca-Cola Company launching a string of variant drinks over the subsequent four decades. Diet Black Cherry Vanilla Coke, anyone?
Conspiracy theorists have postulated that the New Coke debacle might have been a deliberate, risky double bluff by Coca-Cola, the shock of the new recipe designed to remind consumers just how much they loved the drink that had suddenly become just a memory for their tastebuds. Such was the challenge posed by PepsiCo’s dominance of the US market at the time.
I see similar desperation in many sports restlessly experimenting with their formats, from tweaks to overhauls to chainsaw sculpting. The threat they face is not from a single competitor – although football can sometimes appear as such – but from a small handful of franchises that suck all the commercial oxygen from the sporting arena. Football, yes, plus the Olympics, the major American sports and Formula One, with golf and tennis clinging on in their wake.
The drivers for change are not always entirely financial. Rugby’s exploration of non-contact versions of the game, for example, is a reaction to a perceived head injury crisis that threatens grassroots participation levels. But a search for modern-day relevance, for fans and players alike, and with this media attention and in turn money, lies at the heart of most experimentation.
This applies across all sports, including the giants. F1 regularly adjusts its regulations in the hope of more exciting races; football recalibrates its offside rule to favour the attacking team; baseball’s shot clock has sliced a chunk of time off over-long games. Spectator attention spans have shrunk just as the range of competing leisure products – both within and from outside the sporting world – has exploded. Get a fan into the arena and they are to a large extent captive. Those watching from home, however, are only a click or swipe away from myriad alternatives the instant there is a lull in the action. And that remote audience is tomorrow’s live spectator, and vice versa.
T20 cricket is now 20 years old, and yet still thought of as a parvenu in some quarters. Two decades to become an overnight sensation, to leave its heritage red-ball forebear just about clinging on. Setting aside the ECB’s lunacy in thinking that The Hundred can genuinely compete with T20, the length of time it has taken for white-ball cricket to become dominant stands as a lesson to all those hoping that rejigs, however radical, can swiftly turn a sport’s fortunes.
Note: the ECB itself invented T20 cricket. Its first county match was in June 2003. The IPL began in 2008.
The Head of Major Events at UK Sport, Esther Britten, recently said on an Unofficial Partner podcast that she often laughs at the number of events claiming to be the third biggest in the world after the FIFA World Cup and the Olympics. If you have genuine credentials, then sure this isn’t a bad claim to make, however strange it may sound as a marketing pitch. A reminder, though, of just how crowded the events landscape is.
I’m not certain whether the IPL counts as a single event, but it must be right up there competing for the bronze medal. Or if you want to use a more traditional definition of ‘event’, how about the ICC T20 World Cup? Who’d have thought, say, a decade ago that either of these would have such status?
Deride it as many do – and I certainly do – the International Olympic Committee is a valuable force in the reworking and promotion of sports. Encouraged by the IOC to demonstrate relevance to young audiences and the sponsors who crave a share of their wallets, sports jockey for position to be included in future editions of the Games.
Modern pentathlon is reducing to a ninety minute spectacle for Paris 2024. Skateboarding is now a firm fixture. Breaking’s breakthrough is on the schedule for next Summer. Rowing has introduced coastal races in the hope of their inclusion at LA28 or Brisbane 2032.
Standing still is not sufficient, even for the leading Olympic sports who feel financial pressure from the IOC if their worldwide TV viewing figures dip. Think Coca-Cola and regular experimentation with variants on its core product.
What price heritage in this scramble for relevance? It can give a sport a head-start, providing a core audience and with it interest from a media that is itself rooted in history. The flip side can be a reluctance to innovate among leaders themselves steeped in a sport’s traditions. These leaders, and core fans, can also have an unrealistic view of their personal passion’s wider appeal (or lack thereof).
An estimated 5 million people play American football in the US. Flag football? 7 million
If I have one piece of advice for those with reforming ambitions, it is to ensure that any changes they propose work for the grassroots of their sport, so maintaining the connectivity between elite and amateur. You’ll never have VAR on Hackney Marshes, so is it any wonder it alienates football’s broad fan base? But T20 could have been invented for the village green, so it’s little surprise it has been so widely embraced.
New Coke was only finally withdrawn from market in 2002. Funny business is business.
Palace Petri dish
Last week I hosted an evening for donors to Palace for Life, Crystal Palace FC’s official charity, that showcased the football analytics team at consulting actuaries LCP. This included their fascinating TransferLab software which is used by 30 clubs worldwide to assist them in the market for player talent (CPFC isn’t one, as it happens). I’d asked the LCP team to assess Palace’s four men’s transfer window signings, as well as a couple of the existing squad who’d been subject to rumours of ‘big’ club interest over the Summer.
The major takeaway wasn’t that all the signings made great sense in the context of Palace’s needs (although they evidently do according to TransferLab – phew!), but that Chelsea’s £1 billion spend on players has left it statistically stronger in spite of apparent early season evidence to the contrary.
With all teams now using data analytics extensively, I guess it’s not surprising that every clubs’ transfers can be rationalised somehow. It’s then down to the managerial alchemists to turn the acquired flesh into footballing gold. The joy of the game is that no software can (yet) guarantee that’s a successful process.
When I see reports of the intended independent football regulator, I’m reminded of the years that the new regulator of the audit profession has been in the making, and still with no puff of white smoke. As a perceived populist move, perhaps football will enjoy more oomph from MPs and civil servants and get there before accountancy, but I’m not banking on it. Which leaves the current takeover of Everton FC by 777 Partners to the Premier League and Football Association to opine on, as well as the Financial Conduct Authority.
Having fought an understandable battle against the introduction of a regulator for reasons I’m sympathetic with, the Premier League might nevertheless wish it had someone it could palm this particular, fraught decision onto. Deem 777 Partners inappropriate owners and die-hard Evertonians might be appeased, but that would raise questions as to whether some existing controllers of other clubs would make it through a vetting process if they were ever asked to reapply for the privilege.
A captain’s innings
If there’s been a more erudite sports book published in 2023 than Mike Brearley’s Turning Over the Pebbles, I’d love to hear about it. It’s a beautifully crafted journey into the mind of a genius - both cricketing and otherwise. They might as well suspend the Sports Book of the Year betting now. Or maybe not, as sport is just one of Brearley’s threads entwined with observations on philosophy and psychoanalysis. An awards category of one?
Start young, warrior
I’ve been in NYC and saw this poster for a chain of gymnastics clubs on Avenue of the Americas. Love it!