Rugby’s not a contact sport, it’s a collision sport – dancing is a contact sport

To paraphrase legendary American Football coach Vince Lombardi – he was saying this about football, but it still holds, I think you’ll agree.

Rugby is getting quite anxious about the impact of these collisions – quite understandably.

Former England hooker and world cup winner, Steve Thompson has made a documentary for the BBC about how the early onset dementia which ended his career has impacted on his life. It’s pretty harrowing stuff.

Researchers are finding ever-more-worrying evidence of the link between rugby impacts and long term brain damage. The largest study to date of former rugby players quantifies the link between neurodegenerative disease and repeated traumatic head injuries. The study was led by Dr Willie Stewart, a consultant neuropathologist. It compared former Scottish international players with the general population and found players were twice as likely to get dementia and more than three times as likely to get Parkinson’s disease. There was also a dramatic 15-fold increase in risk of motor neurone disease. Current players train harder and compete more than those studied, which suggests these numbers will get worse.

In a separate study in New Zealand, researchers at the University of Canterbury found rugby players suffer levels of trauma, during a game, similar to that experienced in a car crash.

This is all pretty terrifying and the authorities are all over it, as they should be. Though not as much as some commentators would like.

It does raise one very stark and obvious question for me. Call it the herd of elephants in the room if you like. While we’re quite rightly becoming anxious about the dangers in rugby, how can it be that we still have another sport, commanding huge audiences and prize money all over the world, which consists of big men whacking each other in the head. This isn’t just incidental to the game, like rugby. It is the game.

The dangers of boxing could hardly be more obvious. The recent Benn-Eubank fight in the UK was called off due to a doping issue, but the fight’s back-story should make us stop and think.

As Tortoise Media reported the story:

“Boxing is stalked by the ghosts and tragedies of the past. The chaos of this week in British boxing cannot shut out the distressing memories that still haunt the Eubank and Benn families. Michael Watson ended up in a coma for months, and his life has never been the same, after he and Chris Eubank Sr met in the ring in 1991. Nigel Benn showed such ferocity four years later that his opponent, Gerald McClellan, went blind and suffered terrible brain damage. Chris Eubank Jr’s fists sent Nick Blackwell tumbling into a coma in 2016. Both families have been scarred by the damage done in the ring.”

And that’s just one story of many.

I fully admit that the spectacle of a fight between powerful athletes is something to behold. I have enjoyed watching boxing in the past. It’s exciting and there’s a certain instinctive human appeal in the physical contest. I’ve even had boxing lessons, for goodness sake.

But looked at next to the current furore in the rugby world, it just looks like a crazy anomaly.

Note that boxing is taught to kids aged 7 and above. My local club starts at age 8.

Is that a good idea?

Is that sport?

Amazon’s rugby sponsorship reveals a sport in trouble

Sports sponsorship is a hoot.

Once upon a time, corporations would simply lob money towards the Chairman’s sport of choice, and the reward would come in the form of tickets, hospitality and opportunities for mingling with your idols. Oh yes, and there was probably some kind of sales benefit in there too, but it’s terribly difficult to measure exactly, so we won’t worry unduly about that.

Not so much nowadays. The commercial imperative for sponsorship is, at least in part, based in science. Marketing teams can seek out sports or teams whose audience matches their desired profile and identify a partnership that makes sense, both in terms of targeting and in terms of brand values. The targeting bit is obvious – match the people who might buy the brand with the people who love the sport or the team – but the values equation is more subjective – find the team or the sport that reflects the values your brand, or your people, aspire to.

Red Bull is the most obvious (and probably the best) example of this. The high energy drink has been associated with adrenaline-fuelled events since its very early days. The fit is perfect. Betting brands have a clear overlap with football teams – say what you like about the ethics of that.

F1 Grand Prix of Abu Dhabi

When there’s a good match between a brand and the sport it sponsors, it really does cheer me up. Guinness‘ long-running sponsorship of rugby union is another beauty, which has also spawned a wealth of great advertising.

But rugby union has been strangely missing from the wish-lists of major corporations in recent years. The rugby authorities have been famously conservative over the years, and I’m sure they could have liberated a whole lot more money if they were less discriminating. This does them credit – they need some of that because they have been lurching from one PR crisis to the next over recent years.

It seems to me, rugby is a hugely attractive sports partner. Not only is the audience attractive (it’s Britain’s 6th biggest sport with a passionate, affluent and highly educated following); it’s also a sport with a tradition of dignity, fairness and high moral values. That’s important because it means that (with a very small number of high profile exceptions) your brand ambassadors won’t turn up in the headlines, having dome something unmentionable, which would now be reported ad nauseam, under your brand’s logo.

As a fan or a brand user, it affects you both ways. Just as you want your brands to find the right sports and teams to be friends with, you also want the sports and clubs you care about to have good, decent, reputable sponsors.

So, as I watched the autumn international rugby series recently I experienced a sinking feeling. The series (or at least the broadcasting) was being supported by Amazon Prime.

Amazon is one of the modern world’s necessary evils. Whatever we feel about its failure to pay tax, its abusive workplace practises and its monopolistic status, it is bloody useful.

But in terms of corporate reputation, there’s hardly any company on earth I admire less. And I’m not alone in that perspective.

So I really don’t want to see Amazon climbing on the back of my favourite sport. Rather than improving the reputation of the brand, this association actually diminishes the reputation of the sport. It’s that bad.

I’m worried that, with its rigorous (and excellent) sales and marketing evaluation, Amazon will see the value of its rugby partnership and follow up this toe in the water with further, more substantial, rugby sponsorships.

For my part, I just say “please, God, no”.

It’s intersting to see what happens when fans take this further. In the German Fußball-Bundesliga, fans of some clubs were so disapproving of the backers of their team, they effectively boycotted the team.

It led to RB Leipzig, the team supported and, pretty much created, by Red Bull, to become what many have called “the most hated team in the league

Which is ironic, because, as I mentioned earlier, I see Red Bull as a shining star in the world of sports sponsorship.

But sport can be tribal like that. It’s irrational and its complicated.

Wimbledon is upon us

I do love a good sporting trailer, but this Wimbledon animation by McCann London does nothing for me.  It’s all craft.  And wonderful craft too.  Credits:  Nexus Studios’ Smith & Foulkes – yes it’s dead clever animation.  But frankly, Sky Sports does it much better just by harnessing moments of passion and the noise of the crowd.

She is a thing of beauty, no?


Not the kit.

The press release, silly.

“The collection features a commissioned artwork featured on the jersey from underground street artist Hazul Luzah. The design, in his signature contrasting line-work and free hand geometric pattern, throughout the jersey … features a combination of White, Dazzling Blue and Maldives Blue. The jersey also features top shoulder bonded tape … and a button shawl flat knit collar. The socks feature an elasticated ankle zone”


Bliss.  As ‘The Fiver’ succinctly puts it: Porto unveil their third kit with a blizzard of nonsense.

Football therapy


It has long been my belief that football’s feverish popularity demands more explanation than the usual sport / tribal / male bonding stuff we hear.

For some years, I took my young son to watch Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.  The main result was that he learned to swear convincingly and with the correct intonation.  The experience should have provided a clue.

This classic photo of Dele Alli taunting the crowd, after scoring the winner for Tottenham against Chelsea, makes everything clear and should put our minds at rest.  Just out of shot is a big guy being physically held back by his mates – was he actually going to burst out and attack Alli?  Or was it just bluster?  A few weeks ago, there was a genuine crowd invasion at West Ham, with accompanying low level violence, leading to all kinds of condemnation and hand-wringing.

The role of football (please don’t call it soccer, even if you’re American) is to give a safe place to vent the pent up vitriol which would be unacceptable in normal daily life.  A few minutes in the stands at any Premiership match should verify this.  The hatred expressed   – typically at your own players rather than (though also in addition to) opponents and, of course, the referee, can only be explained as some kind of perverse therapy.

The most unpleasant people I have ever met were parents watching (and screaming at) their sons in junior football matches.  Here were people who would get into fights with each other in between taunting and belittling eleven year olds, with language to make your hair curl. I fully expect if you met those same people in any other walk of life, they’d be fine polite, upstanding members of the community.

So the fans screaming and gesticulating at Alli are probably the nicest of people, if you met them socially.  Just avoid them on match day.

Nasty Leeds (LOL)

It’s no accident that The Guardian’s satirical football bulletin refers to Leeds United as ‘Nasty Leeds’.  They had previously been known as ‘Dirty Leeds’, which was, for some reason deemed insufficient.  Leeds is one of those football teams who manage to pick a fight with anyone and everyone.  Every match they play seems to be a grudge match of some sort; either a fierce local derby or an re-enactment of some past rivalry, injustice or unsavoury incident.

When “feisty” Dennis Wise became Leeds manager a few years ago, he stated that he wanted them to recapture their true character: “I want them to be horrible and nasty, like the great Leeds teams of the past”.

So it was with a slightly bashful smile that I observed Leeds’ latest embarrassment.  Last week, the Club introduced a new badge, which was immediately lambasted by large numbers of fans, through social media.


The coverage has focused on the fans’ reaction.  The club has promised to consult more widely and review the design.  That’s code for “start again, ‘cos we screwed up”.

The original rationale for the badge is that the ‘chest thump’ is an action known as the ‘Leeds salute’.  The not-always-explicitly-stated issue is that it looks a lot like a kind of fascist salute.  “And nobody wants that” as the armchair football critic might observe.  (But clearly not an accident either, as the armchair Leeds-watcher might observe.)

On the other hand, I would contend, the Leeds badge has a certain “comedy Fascist” quality, which is more funny than threatening.

It’s almost perfectly represented by the characterisation of would-be Black shirt leader Roderick Spode, in the Bertie Wooster stories by P.G. Wodehouse.

Screen Shot 2018-01-29 at 12.45.26 (2)

If you don’t believe me, enjoy the clip.

Better to laugh at these things than to get upset, I often feel.






From our ‘Fun and Games in Central America’ Department

Delighted to see an example of real leadership in action.  Panama’s President Juan Carlos Varela announced overnight, on twitter, that there would be a National Holiday, following the country’s unexpected qualification for the 2018 World Cup.

I suspect he may have been drunk.  Which makes it even better.

VarelaCan you imagine one of the stuffed shirts that pass for leaders in Britain doing that?

Infographic Heaven


For fans of the current craze for infographics (I’m not convinced that’s even a word, but we’ll let it go) it doesn’t get any better than this.

The Economist has created this neat illustration of the relationship between success and financial clout in the English Premier League.  It is a thing of beauty, despite my carping.

Wage spending (expressed along the x axis) correlates very closely with success (expressed on the Y axis but also as blue-ness and as size of the bubble).

Two issues emerge:

First – a ‘chicken and egg’ question still remains – does wealth drive success (as we are encouraged to assume) or does success over time lead to wealth. Or indeed are both driven by something else (history, tradition, fan base, being in the parlance ‘a big club’?)

Second – how amazing was Leicester City’s performance this season?  They are the only League Champions ever (and only the second team to finish in the top four) to have had a wage bill below the league’s median figure.  Truly a ‘rags-to-riches’ story.  They do trouser quite a lot of money now as a consequence, both as direct prize money and through participation in next year’s Champion’s League.  So expect them to move sharply to the right on this chart.  It remains to be seen if they will remain quite so high up on the other scale.


More woe for Coe


Big sponsorship news today is that, according to reports, Adidas is withdrawing its sponsorship of the World athletics governing body IAAF, because of the recent doping scandals.  That’s quite interesting.  Adidas, who are the first name on IAAF’s list of global partners, appear to have broken their ties three years before their fixed term contract expires.  What’s more interesting is that this is the same Adidas who still sponsor FIFA to the tune of much larger sums, despite the fact that most of FIFA’s executive committee is either under arrest or under investigation for corruption.  How damning is that?  IAAF is now a more toxic brand than FIFA.  Wow.  That’s damning.

It does give an insight into what it is the sponsor is actually buying with these partnerships.  The difference here is that FIFA may have become a byword for malpractice, but football itself is still a hugely attractive proposition.  Nobody supported their team any less enthusiastically this weekend because of the governing body falling ever further into disrepute.  In contrast the doping scandal in athletics calls the sport itself into question.  If your favourite athlete won a medal at the last Olympics or World Championships, you may now be wondering whether that was actually legitimate – or was it drug-fuelled?  Some athletes are calling for their performances to be upgraded retrospectively because they were beaten in major championships by ‘drug cheats’ – even though the cheating only came to light later.  It’s all up in the air.

Add to that the fact that athletics is nowhere near as attractive as a commercial proposition as football, in any case, and you can see why Adidas has concluded the positives no longer outweigh the negatives to justify a marketing investment.

What a tragedy after the sport was in the ascendancy after the fabulous London Olympics in 2012.   Lord Coe, the new President of the IAAF, will need all his powers of resilience to get back into credit. For the moment, the future looks bleak.