To mark one year to go until the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, our H+K London Sports team hosted a memorable Q&A event addressing the major issues affecting sport today.

Broadcaster Mark Pougatch moderated a lively debate from a panel across the world of sport. London 2012 Olympic gold medalist Greg Rutherford, England Women’s football player Alex Scott, British Olympic Association (BOA) Commercial Director Simon Massie-Taylor, Marketing Director at Aldi Adam Zavalis and Sports Editor at Guardian Online James Dart addressed the key issues dominating the global sport agenda.

Here are our top 10 watch outs from a lively debate:

1. Olympic legacy continues to divide opinion across the sporting landscape

Since the end of London 2012, the stated aim of the games to ‘inspire a generation’ has come under huge scrutiny. There was much discussion about how successful the legacy has been. While there have been conflicting reports on the direct effect of the games on participation, this is clearly a topic at front of mind for the upcoming Olympic Games. Adam Zavalis, Marketing Director at Aldi spoke about the opportunity Olympic legacy offers – "There's an opportunity for brands to play a positive part."

2. Performance enhancing drugs continue to dominate

The revelations in the Sunday Times about doping in sport were a key topic of conversation. Greg Rutherford was keen to stress that the majority of athletes are clean. He felt that it was the responsibility of the clean athletes to prove it is possible to win without using performance enhancing drugs. Rutherford spoke strongly on the IAAF, claiming that there was certainly something wrong in the way drug abuse has been dealt with and that widespread changes are needed at the organisation. Rutherford stressed that athletics is in risk of becoming "another road cycling" in the way drug use is now seen.

3. We all have a responsibility to grow women’s sport

On the back of the great success of the England Lionesses at the FIFA Women’s World Cup, women’s sport is a huge talking point. Alex Scott, one of the stars of the women’s team, spoke of the fantastic growth in interest she has experienced since the end of the tournament. An extremely interesting take came from James Dart. He stressed that while coverage of women’s sport is growing (The Guardian’s coverage of the WWC final was one of their most visited football stories all year) the media is still failing women’s sport to an extent. He made it clear the media has a role in supporting development of sport for women.

4. Real change is needed to secure the future of sport

One of the topics that caused the most heated discussion was securing the future of sport. Greg Rutherford in particular spoke with great emotion about the topic. He has gone on record in the past saying he wouldn’t want his son to compete in professional athletics. Rutherford again stressed his point of view, commenting that the lack of support and level of politics in athletics means it isn’t a path he would encourage. Rutherford also said that based on current trends "the sport in its current form will likely not exist by the time he is ready to compete."

5. The pressure of achievement can affect Rights Holders, Sponsors and Athletes alike

Another topic discussed was the practice of setting overly ambitious targets for medals at the Olympic Games. This topic certainly caused debate, with the athletes generally believing it was good to set goals. In the room, there was a belief that it was an unhelpful practice, on the basis that it could lead to accusations of failure, post games. Simon Massie-Taylor of the BOA was keen to stress that it was far too early for the BOA to be setting medal targets. It was a big day for Massie-Taylor, as it was the day the BOA launched their Bring on the Great campaign for Rio 2016.

6. Sport in schools needs to be about more than taking part

Sport in schools and the way to encourage young people in sport was another talking point discussed. It was widely agreed that the process of rewarding participation in school sport, and discouraging competition will not deliver world class athletes. As Greg Rutherford said, "the infrastructure, in my opinion, has failed." Alex Scott recalled how she got into football, trying to keep up with her older brother. As Pougatch was keen to point out, now he can’t keep up with her!

7. Choosing a sponsorship is all about values

Some of the key insight on sponsorship came from Adam Zavalis, Marketing Director at Aldi. While some may question why a German discounter is sponsoring Team GB, Zavalis stressed it was all about values and having an authentic narrative. Aldi has been in the UK for 25 years and has a real legacy as a British brand. For Zavalis, it was the values of the BOA that were most appealing. Having considered several sports, Team GB offered a set of values and positioning that Aldi felt comfortable with. A good example of why thinking carefully about what to sponsor is so important.

8. Digital publishing in Rio will be a whole new ball game

In today’s digital age, the way sport is consumed has completely changed. James Dart gave an expert view on the world of digital publishing. He spoke about how the offer had grown; from just him on the digital team for the Sydney Olympics, to a huge London 2012 offer to an even greater offering for Rio. Dart made it clear that it is mobile content that will drive the strategy for Rio.

9. Athletes on social media, a shadow of themselves?

Personal brands are key and social is where brands can build them however both Rutherford and Scott spoke about occasions where they have been criticised for voicing an opinion on social media. They both saw it as an important opportunity to build their profile, but were clear that because of the backlash you receive, it will never be their true selves that come across on social media.

10. The funding model in UK sport still has its critics

The Sport England elite funding model, often criticised in the past again came up for discussion. The case for funding was made for sports like Basketball, who have had their funding cut because of a lack of medal success. It’s clear though from the reaction in the room, that this policy remains a controversial funding model.

James Fenn is an Account Executive on our sports team at H+K Strategies London.

Sport loves a milestone. On 10 June 2015, it will be one year before the start of Euro 2016 and 100 days before the start of the Rugby World Cup. This coincidence places two sports alongside one another that provokes as much debate as it does anticipation.

There's a playing field very close to where I live. Not a big field, but big enough to accommodate one football pitch that is positioned adjacent to a rugby pitch. I have often seen either one game or the other taking place but never both together… until the other day. Two matches being played side by side, both well supported by enthusiastic friends and families. That’s where the similarities end. The rugby match had 30 players in an intense physical encounter, respecting rules, obeying the referee. The football match had 22 players in a significantly less physical encounter, disrespecting rules, directing abuse at the referee. Both matches were being played by U12s!

One could not help but recall the marketing mantra of those who plug the importance of youth sport participation: “sport instills discipline and values that form lifelong learnings…” and so on. The chasm between football and rugby when it comes to respecting the authority of a referee is well documented but with Euro ’16 and a Rugby World Cup both on the horizon, spectating these two sports side-by-side felt more like a social experiment rather than a casual walk in the park.

So why do we think a young group of footballers aged 11 and 12 think it’s OK to run after the referee questioning his decision when less than 50 yards away, we see the very opposite on a rugby pitch? It stimulates a fascinating debate that is very much informed by the application of behavioural science.

A learned colleague, Matt Battersby, is currently studying this subject at the London School of Economics and is creating a proprietorial behavioural insights model to help us better understand our clients’ audiences. So we got talking.

“Social norms are very powerful as we are strongly influenced by what we see others do or seemingly approve of. For example, research has shown that one of the most effective ways to encourage people to reduce energy consumption is to provide a comparison of their energy usage with that of their neighbours on their energy bills. Unfortunately, at the moment the highly visible instances of footballers being abusive to referees are likely creating the impression that this behaviour is the norm so encouraging children to do the same when they play football.”

Of course, Matt is right. But why is rugby so different? Probably because from the first moment you start to play rugby, discipline and a respect for the referee is bred as a social norm. Take the brilliant example of legendary rugby union referee Nigel Owens disciplining Treviso scrum half Tobias Botes. Now compare this to the infamous example from 26 years ago when a UK current affairs programme placed an open mic on David Ellery, who was refereeing a match between Arsenal and Millwall. Football often displays a blatant disregard for authority whilst rugby embraces it.

Many would – and have – argued this is because referees in rugby wear open microphones. Being able to hear and understand why certain decisions have been made helps entertain and educate the audience. Crucially, it also allows fans to hear the interaction between players and officials, something being taken to the next level this autumn when every game at the 2015 Rugby World Cup is expected to have both RefLink and RefCam. The RFU is on record as saying football should have followed its initiative years ago. The Australian FA did try last April, only for their noble attempt to be pulled by FIFA.

Aggressive, petulant outbursts by role models create social norms but they also have the capacity to create shame when subsequently viewed by the offending player/s; and shame can have a significant impact on behaviour.

“There is lots of evidence to show people behave better if they think they’re being observed” Battersby says. “Even merely hanging up posters of staring human eyes can change people’s behaviour. For example, an experiment in a University cafeteria showed that twice as many people were likely to clean up after themselves if there were posters of eyes on the walls rather than posters of flowers.”

There would certainly be shame in watching back a football match where any dialogue between player and referee contained more bleeps than audible conversation! After a difficult start, placing an open mic on football referees would inevitably lead to a positive change in behaviour amongst the players; that creates a new social norm of respecting the referees’ decision; that is observed by fans; who will start to mimic the same behaviours of their role models; that improves on-pitch discipline at all levels of the game; that has a positive impact on spectator behaviour too (no crowd segregation in rugby; significantly fewer arrests); and ultimately these improved behaviours transcend sport into everyday life.

By itself, mic’ing football referees is obviously not the answer to eliminating anti-social behaviour. But it would be a big step to answering the call for sport to become more open and transparent. Governing bodies, not just football, have long understood they are not just sport administrators; they’re agents of social change. Behavioural science helps us better understand why - and then how - to instigate such positive change and these changes bring commercial as well as social benefit: companies will find it much easier to be associated with sports that help amplify their own brand values, thereby increasing sponsorship revenues.

As Nick Timon said in his brilliant ‘Purpose By Powerpoint’ article, “… purpose is built on beliefs and beliefs are something that exist deep in your corporate DNA, they’re part of what you stand for and why you exist in the first place.” So for the good of its own commercial health and society at large, sport must demonstrate purpose not just talk it… and football talks a lot about ‘values’, ‘integrity’ and ‘building a better future.'

In all probability, the 12 year olds I watched in the park the other day would have behaved differently if football had decided to mic up referees after that David Ellery documentary was first broadcast in 1989.

Andy Sutherden, Global Practice Director, Sports Marketing & Sponsorship

Photo credit:Maxisport / Shutterstock.com

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