Alastair Cook, Peter Moores and Paul Downton pose with Rupert Ellwood of Waitrose during the official sponsorship launch
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Wordplay

What branding does to sport

Cricket is much more than just a product to be packaged and sold by advertisers, right?

Simon Barnes |

When I heard that the England cricket team was a brand, I felt despair. So far as I am concerned, England is not a brand. Coca-Cola is a brand. Its meaning and purpose is a product of the marketing industry. In other words, selling stuff. It's something to do with a nice logo, a waisted bottle, wish-fulfilment adverts, association with high-quality sport, and above all, the United States.

The England cricket team is none of those things - not to me, not, I suspect, to any of us. Nor is any other national team. To speak only briefly, the England cricket team is about my grandfather, my parents, my friends, despair, the cruelty of hope, my dreams of being MJK Smith, fabulous opponents like Sobers and Lillee, impossible times like Headingley 1981 and The Oval 2005, and a lifetime of cheering and groaning.

Not a lot like a soft drink, then.

Everything is a brand these days. Individuals become brands themselves, carefully picking their clichés to keep the brand pure. That way they pick up the endorsements and pave the way for a profitable post-playing career. You know, selling stuff.

Cricket is about cricketers playing cricket. It certainly has nothing at all to do with old men in suits trying to sell stuff

Remember when we had a World Cup of cricket? No longer. These days we have the ICC World Cup, while football has the FIFA World Cup. These are no longer events: they are brands. Suddenly the administrators are the stars. Suddenly what matters is not the sport but the people who run it.

My dear old farts, it's not about you or your rotten organisation. Cricket is about cricketers playing cricket. It certainly has nothing at all to do with old men in suits trying to sell stuff.

These days there is talk in the England set-up about "the brand of cricket we play". This is a very recent departure and, at heart, a deeply alarming one. It dates back to England's post-World Cup reinvention as a team of mad, attacking swashbucklers.

And yes, sure, good move, England had been lagging behind dreadfully in the one-dayers. But brand? There's an implication that cricketing strategy is itself a commercial consideration rather than a sporting one. A team plays in a certain way because the sponsors demand it.

We're in dangerous territory here. Last year Herbert Hainer, then the CEO of Adidas - now there's a man who knows about branding - criticised the style of football played by one of the teams the company sponsors. With Louis van Gaal as manager, Manchester United's style was "not exactly what we want to see".

Mike Atherton was a master of stodgy resistance, but would he fit into the

Mike Atherton was a master of stodgy resistance, but would he fit into the "modern brand" of cricket? © Getty Images

Perhaps it was pure coincidence, but Manchester United got rid of van Gaal and replaced him with José Mourinho. The football is still uninspiring, but Mourinho brings his spurious sexiness to the party. The Mourinho brand is still pretty effective to the marketing people.

So how are swashbuckling England going to play Test match cricket this summer? Is all-out attack essential to the future of the new brand? If so, that's the end of the heroic draw, when Mike Atherton defied the South African quicks for more than ten hours in Johannesburg in 1995. And no doubt the end of attritional bowling, when Ashley Giles bowled outside leg to Sachin Tendulkar in 2001 until the batsman lost patience - and was stumped for the only time in his Test career.

The notion of brand comes down - to use a truly ugly modern phrase - to the monetisation of sport. Sport used to make money because people found it entertaining and were prepared to pay to watch it. But now sport has become a business, it is increasingly being run on the principles of business, rather than of sport. It's not for players, it's for spectators.

So how are swashbuckling England going to play Test match cricket this summer? Is all-out attack essential to the future of the new brand?

In other words, sport doesn't set out to be sport and make money more or less incidentally. Sport now goes out of its way to make money. Once, sport just happened to be entertaining; now, entertainment is sport's function. So while it sometimes makes sporting sense to play defensively, it's not the way to the marketing people's hearts. And they are not interested in sport. They are interested in selling stuff.

Brand is about marketing, advertising, sponsorship, getting the name seen and associated with all manner of wonderful things. So everything is now a brand: Adidas, Manchester United, José Mourinho, Manchester United's history and present playing style, Manchester United's centre forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic (net worth more than US$100 million). And yes, the England cricket team.

This principle reaches its ultimate sporting expression in Formula One motor racing, which is in sober fact a competition between one brand and another. Ferrari won the first race of the season against Mercedes.

The notion of the brand is eating into sport, making it less deep, less dense, less satisfying - perhaps more amusing if you are looking to kill half an hour or so, but with much less bottom, less meaning, less significance. Branding has made sport richer. As a result, sport is getting poorer by the day.

Simon Barnes is a former chief sportswriter of the Times and the author of more than 20 books

 

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  • POSTED BY SokkieTreffers on | May 13, 2017, 8:57 GMT

    We are subjected to this corporate mumbo-jumbo in all facets of life now. As an educator I was sent to a conference where a man whose job amounted to corporate motivational speaker told us to work on our "personal branding," all the while showing us slides of people who looked like they were extras from American Psycho. By the way, Mr Barnes, I just been reviewing the highlights of the 2008 England vs South Africa series and your commentary was excellent. Cricket needs more voices who are immune to current trends in business. A job at the IPL, however, is not looking like an easy fit. I can't imagine you saying "Vitara Brezza glam shot." Without wanting to vomit, anyway.