Next month the Olympic torch comes to London, host of the 2012 games, ahead of this year’s Beijing event. One of the cornerstones of the successful bid to host the Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2012 was our promise to inspire increased participation in sport in the UK. This promise is driven by a belief that the Games can motivate a new generation of young people to take part in physical activity. We have even set ourselves a target: the Government hopes to have two million more people actively engaged in sport by 2012.
However, the promise of inspiration and increased participation is nothing new – it is one of the oldest and most common Olympic promises to be made by bidding nations, yet it is also the one that has yet to be fulfilled.
Barcelona, Atlanta, Athens and even Sydney have all failed to instil a lasting sporting legacy in their respective nations. Granted, there are other worthy legacies of hosting an Olympic Games. A new physical infrastructure can regenerate entire regions, while economic change can generate jobs and enrich tourism and trade.
But the historic precedents for increased participation are not good. The Holy Grail is to use the Olympic phenomenon as a catalyst to rally the nation and inspire genuine and lasting change.
Grassroots sport must play a part if we are to invigorate the sporting drive of people of all ages to make a healthier population. It is in delivering meaningful events that effective change can occur. And that’s where the opportunities for brands lie.
But it’s not an easy challenge, as natural behavioural patterns will count against the push for increased participation. Our involvement in physical activity drops off at five distinct moments in our lives, from when we start secondary school through to the discovery of self image, leaving school, starting work and finally having children.
Emotional links are crucial elements in using grassroots sport to reach young people. It’s a passion shared by millions of people, and it’s part of the mainstream social framework, as people get together in a common cause, as a participant or a supporter.
This insight enables brands to build relationships with people in a new and innovative way. Sport is clearly linked to peer perception and social networking. It is possible to build and develop your brand equity in a way that breeds loyalty and trust among those with whom you engage.
The concept is a reversal of traditional marketing methods. This is not top down, but bottom up, and it’s not a quick fix either. We’re not talking about building a Facebook application and hoping for the best. Engaging in grassroots sports must have a reasoned, long-term strategy at its heart. The benefits can be huge, particularly as the media landscape becomes increasingly fragmented and young people become harder to reach effectively.
The Government has pledged to find £750m of official Olympic sponsorship, which means that becoming an official sponsor will require a significant financial outlay. That’s not an option open to all, but it doesn’t preclude others from getting involved and investing in other ways.
Many brands will consider investing in pre-existing grassroots properties and try to add value. This could be anything from funding some new equipment for your local women’s football team to re-designing the face and structure of the Swimathon.
The second way is to create your own branded content, although creativity and credibility are key. Last year’s Hovis London Freewheel event tapped into the capital’s burgeoning obsession with cycling and attracted an unprecedented number of cyclists to the traffic-free streets of the capital for a day. And events such as the Nike Run London and the Sainsbury’s Sport Relief Mile are examples of how a brand can tap into people’s passions, while remaining at the heart of an event.
We may not have the responsibility of ensuring that this country’s Olympic dream becomes reality, but we will all want to have our share of the so-called legacy. It’s the brands who demonstrate a lasting commitment to sport now that will have their own legacy in the future. And, in doing so, they will create a tangible commercial platform to engage our nation’s sports enthusiasts once the dust settles on East London and the Olympic torch moves on.
Andy Anstey is director of grassroots