Wednesday 30 December 2020 8:00 am

Three things to expect from the business of sport in 2021

What does next year hold for sport in a commercial sense? Here, Neil Hopkins, global head of strategy at M&C Saatchi Sport and Entertainment, gazes into his crystal ball.

Grounds for optimism

Fans are back. Not many of them, but they are back. With vaccination under way, at some point in 2021 the tentative trickle of supporters returning to stadia will become a steady stream.

Make no bones about it, thousands of fans receiving the Covid-19 jab will be just the shot in the arm professional sport in the UK needs. 

Not only will full(er) grounds provide a much-needed financial boost to British sport but it will enable the UK to reassert its reputation for matchday experiences that are rarely equalled anywhere in the world.

It was clear from the lukewarm response to the artificial crowd noises that have soundtracked Premier League games since the restart that there really is no substitute for the visceral intensity of a live crowd that can turn even the most modest arenas into seething cauldrons.

It has even had an effect on results.

Data company Nielsen calculated the percentage of Premier League home wins has dropped from 44.8 per cent last season, with a crowd, to 41.6 per cent so far this season (at the time of writing), without a crowd. 

Away wins, meanwhile, have increased dramatically from 30.2 per cent of last season’s games with spectators to 37.9 per cent without a crowd this term.

If anything, so keen are fans to return that the atmosphere at big events next year, from the Premier League to Test match cricket, could well be unlike anything we’ve ever seen as supporters embrace the chance to do what so many have missed doing for so long.

Delayed gratification

Last year was going to be one of the biggest years sport there’s ever been.

Not only was a repackaged and expanded Euro 2020 going to take place across a dozen host cities stretching from Dublin to Baku, but the Olympics and Paralympics would also take place in Tokyo.

Along with a multitude of other events, these were postponed but, crucially, not cancelled.

This means that, as we emerge from lockdown, we can look forward to a glorious summer of football, with England at home for as many as five games, should they reach the final.

That will be followed by one of the most eagerly anticipated moments in the history of the Olympic movement as it seeks to fulfil its role in bringing people back together after so long apart. 

Rarely has the opportunity to compete at the highest possible level meant so much to so many athletes, not to mention their coaches, families and fans.  

These mega-events will still go by the names of Euro 2020 and Tokyo 2020, perhaps prompting a sense of deja vu, but there is no doubt that the organisers and sponsors will do everything in their power to put the experiences of this year firmly in the past.

Doing the right thing

It is no secret that the pandemic has placed every sport under considerable commercial pressure. 

With the exception of the Premier League, where the hosting of matches behind closed doors has ensured the terms of lucrative long-term TV deals have mostly been honoured, teams and governing bodies are feeling the pinch.

The broadcast income most receive (if they receive any at all) is not remotely comparable to the Premier League, meaning their commercial sustainability is determined by a combination of matchday revenue from ticketing, merchandise and food and beverages and commercial revenue from sponsorship. 

The former has been decimated by the ban on supporters in grounds, leaving the latter as an absolutely crucial lifeline.

What 2021 will reveal is which sponsors are committed to helping the sports they have supported in the good times to get back on their feet after the worst of times.

Of course, many businesses are under financial strain themselves but, as the economy recovers, fans will expect them to continue to play a supportive role.

Research suggests that not only are nearly 60 per cent of fans more likely to buy from a sponsor of their favourite team or player, but over two thirds of them would also pay more for that company’s product.

This loyalty is not lost on the likes of O2 which has recently extended its 25-year partnership with England Rugby despite the downturn. 

This is incredibly valuable income for a sport that has had its finances rocked, with the RFU themselves reporting a £10.8m annual loss in October.

It could prove the difference between being able to fund grassroots programmes designed to identify the next generation of England players and having to mothball such initiatives indefinitely.

In 2021, supporters will repay those companies that continue to stand by the sports they sponsor. 

They’ll also make those that don’t pay dearly.