The Business of Sport

What could be the biggest sports story this week? Take your pick from possible typhoons at the rugby World Cup, shock results in the Euro 2020 football qualifiers or the NBA’s craven apology to the Chinese. Or, maybe not.

What could be the biggest sports story this week? Take your pick from possible typhoons at the rugby World Cup, shock results in the Euro 2020 football qualifiers or the NBA’s craven apology to the Chinese. Or, maybe not.

Sport is not just professional. It weaves its way into the fabric of society at multiple levels and so it is entirely possible that the biggest sports story this week will be the emerging Twitter/tabloid betrayal blockbuster between footballing wives Coleen Rooney and Rebekah Vardy! We may forecast this with tongue firmly embedded in cheek but there is a more serious point that sport has an enormous impact on many societies at multiple levels including social cohesion, health and commerce. In fact, we have timely data to tell the story of sport at a local level rather well.

The recent publication by Investec and the Irish Federation of Sport of “An Assessment of The Economic Benefits of Sport in Ireland” is an interesting read. The big takeaway for us was the surprisingly large commercial footprint which sport has in Ireland despite a relatively small population and professional franchise sector. Sport actually accounts for 2.7% of total personal consumption expenditure equating to €30 per household per week. For context that’s the same spend as clothing and footwear. That’s real money but what about the implied value of volunteerism?

Investec’s economics team used average industrial wages to calculate an economic value of volunteering for sport at €1.1 billion. That’s not far off what is generated in our entire maritime industry(don’t get this writer started on the missed sea opportunity!). In real employment terms, the numbers are equally impressive with almost 40,000 individuals in full time work in sport. That’s about the same number as the entire primary school teaching staff in the country and accounts for 1.7% of total employment in the country. That percentage should be bigger when the potential additional returns to the state are taken into account.

Sports tourism already generates €500m annually but consumer trends suggest this number can grow much further. The growing demand for touring “experiences” has severely impacted the “fly and flop” beach business models of the likes of Thomas Cook. Given Ireland’s climate there is an opportunity to gear up for increasing numbers of experience-hungry travellers. Not for the first time, government thinking is off the pace to coin a sporting phrase. It’s Budget time this week but Central Government spend on Sports and Recreation Services is now lower than 2009 depite tax revenues increasing by 77% in the same period. That’s enough to make you sick before we even consider the obvious health benefits of sport.

Investment in sport could offset our ballooning HSE costs and waistlines. The Department of Health research states that 62% of the population is overweight or obese and incurring additional costs of €1 billion to the state. The European Commission in a separate report has calculated that for every €1 outlay on sport there is a multiplier effect of 1.95x in economic activity ie the government could earn a return of €1.95 for every €1 invested. That looks way more attractive than zero interest bank deposits or negative yielding German bunds. Even Angela Merkel might think we are working (for those with Euro 2012 flashbacks…).

It is easy to be critical but we are hopeful that the government’s excellent track record on attracting multi-national employment might allow the relevant cabinet departments to pitch sport in a similar vein. The good news is that sporting activity is an employment intensive service/good. As always we tend to look across the water and that might help too even in a Brexit world. Sport accounts for 3.75% of employment in the UK or more than twice the levels seen in Ireland. One suspects sports related business pitches in the near future will attract greater government support with the jobs still a huge priority, particularly post a probable rocky Brexit outcome. Two other government/electorate priorities also spring to mind.

Mental health is a huge social problem and increased sports participation has been shown in studies to boost mental wellness and cognitive cecline in older adults. Also, gender equality is a big area of current government focus and the trends are good in sport with the gender gap closing by more than half since 2011(per CSO figures and Irish Sports Monitor).

Finally, as society lurches towards mobile screen addiction and nonsensical social media celebrity do not fall into total despair. Sport remains the most commercially valuable live content on the planet. No Netflix, no WAG nor streaming device can generate the social capital of watching sporting thrills and greatness in real time. So, for those with an entrepreneurial bent get thinking. There’s a strong possibility governments and private investors will sit up and take notice of the rich returns available in sport in a low returns world. Sport loves a crowd and one would be confident that equity crowdfunding will equally love a sports story. Tell it soon with the data and, as they say, if you’re not in you can’t win.

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