Never Forget the Human Element

Welcome to Tuesday Team Talk. Every week, the H+K Sports team will give a unique perspective on the stories making the headlines across the world of sport.

As a sport fan, it can be very easy to forget that ultimately, it's all about people. The bright lights, big names, sheer entertainment, we often end up seeing the real world as a kind of extended video game (making this joke by a young Stoke fan about being more realistic than FIFA particularly prophetic) or fantasy league, just names on the back of a shirt. And when you’re in the sponsorship business, it gets even harder. A professional need to reduce individuals to a cost benefit analysis makes it even easier to ignore who they are as people, their stories. It means that when brands make justifiable decisions about sponsorship of athletes, the human impact of those decisions can be far greater than we ever comprehend, particularly for those athletes that are already more vulnerable.

Which brings me to Louise Cook. The story of the 28 year-old rally driver is probably one of the most inspiring stories in sport you’ve never heard of. In 2012, Cook made history when she became the first woman to lift an FIA Rally Championship title that was contested by both men and women. It’s a genuine sporting triumph, a story of a female athlete breaking through in a sport dominated by men.

Yet fast-forward 5 years and Cook is almost forced to sell her prized trophy just to be able to fund her next race, because several of her sponsors have stopped her funding. Having made a key step forward for women’s sport, less than half a decade later Cook can’t afford to compete. Sadly, the huge pay gap between women’s and men’s sport is so engrained it’s become a given, but when you hear a story like this it comes sharply into focus. Of course, athletes and teams losing funding isn’t a problem just for women’s sport. Just today London Welsh were forced to leave The Championship based on a lack of revenue. But the number of sponsors of women’s sport is generally lower, and the amount of money in it is reduced, which does make situations like Cooke’s even more likely.

Louise Cook’s is a tragic story, but not just because of her gender. Not just because of her name or her entry in the history books. It’s tragic because of the person she is. To hear her speak you can feel in every word how important her sport is to her, and how heart-breaking it was to put her prized trophy on eBay. It brings home the fact that every athlete we get to hear about, started as a kid that really loved a sport, and wanted to be great and that got to the top by hard work, sacrifice and because they really cared. Their careers become their lives, their dreams become who they are.

So when we are asked to reduce sport to facts and figures, to quantify an athlete’s value, we are making decisions that could signal the end of something they worked their whole live for. Absolutely, it is to some extent an unfortunate side effect of what is overall a positive force in sport. For every story of someone who loses funding and is forced to retire, there are corresponding ones of people who were able to follow their dreams due to sponsorship and funding. But my point I suppose is that it is incumbent on us to treat decisions on sponsorships with the gravity they deserve. To consider the people inside the shirts, not just the value of the names on their backs.


James Fenn

Hill & Knowlton Strategies Search