2021 is coming to a close, and although there is only just over a week left of the year, it still feels like anything could happen.
Such has been 2021 - truly, a rollercoaster of drama, emotion, excitement and disappointment.
We’ve had teenage sensations reach the top of tennis, a new talisman for English rugby, heartbreak in the cricket, the wildest F1 finish of all time, and - whisper it - football very nearly came home…
But while the pitch, track, court and stage saw drama aplenty, there was plenty going on behind-the-scenes.
With the pandemic still raging, climate change at the top of the agenda, and fan action cast into the spotlight, it’s been an exhausting 365 days for those that work tirelessly to ensure sport happens as we expect.
So, without further ado, we wrap up the Top 5 Risk in Sport Stories of 2021.
COVID Cancellations and Bubble Life
The year began in lockdown, and truthfully, it may well end that way as well.
But in the meantime, the world of sport worked with agility, creativity and innovation to overcome the pandemic and adapt to regulations - ensuring that throughout the year we were treated to emotion and energy of the highest order.
Every event that went ahead though, was not without risk, and in contrast to 2020, we’re now able to see the effect that the pandemic has had on athletes and organizers’ alike.
We kicked off the year with the 2021 Six Nations, though played behind closed doors. Many felt that the intensity and atmosphere was lacking throughout, and while the country was in awe at the return of live sport, there is a feeling that the product suffered as a result of empty stadia.
‘Behind closed doors’ became a running theme for the year - the Olympics, Paralympics World Darts Championship, World Snooker Championship and the Grand National all took place without fans for the first time ever, and athletes have talked at length about the mental effect of performing for no-one.
By the summer, however, fans were back, and the centrepiece of the year saw EURO 2020 finally played out across the continent. England came within a single penalty of making history, and their performance ‘galvanised’ the nation (more on that later).
But players were tasked with traversing Europe in strict bubbles, lockdowns and quarantines. We’ve talked at length before about the effect the ‘life on the COVID road’ can have on the mental health of athletes, and we saw fatigued performances throughout the tournament.
Long COVID continued to impact athletes - with footballers most affected. Kai Havertz - Chelsea’s dynamic German midfielder - has spoken openly about his struggles since contracting the virus.
Finally, 2021 really was the year of the vaccine - or not, as the case may be in sport. The NFL and NBA both had high profile vaccine challenges - both eager to encourage vaccination in all without mandating and violating athlete’s civil liberties.
As we leave 2021, however, the future still looks far from certain. The Omicron variant is raging worldwide, and the risks we’ve faced over the last year look set on continuing. Ultimately though, sport pales in comparison to the risk of the disease, and Miller continues to support its clients through changing risk profiles and business activities – such as the hosting of vaccination centres - as we continue to battle the pandemic.
Stardom & Celebrity
Raducanu. Smith. Rashford. Saka.
In 2021, all four shared one common trait.
An explosion from the back pages to the front, from sportsperson to superstar, from local legend to national figure.
They also shared unquestionable criticism, slander and hate, simply for being young, successful and outspoken.
In 2021, the idea that an athlete was just that - an athlete - was firmly quashed, and the age old ‘shut up and dribble’ adage was resigned to the annals of history.
To be an athlete is to be an activist now, it is to have a voice, and it is to be yourself.
Both Emma Raducanu and Marcus Smith found themselves criticised for not caring enough about the game - before both went on to dominate like never before - while Marcus Rashford and Bukayo Saka both fell victim to abhorrent racism simply for missing a penalty and speaking out about inequalities.
As young athletes navigate a new world - where digital media is instant and accessible to everyone – Miller is here to help support them and their advisors on the tensions between endorsement contracts and sharing their values.
After years of planning, discussion, organisation and stress, COP26 finally took place in 2021 - welcoming dignitaries, ambassadors, entrepreneurs and activists alike from around the world to discuss the impending risk of climate change.
Throughout the conference, sport remained wholly uninvolved, but as the debate drew longer the shadow that climate change casts upon the world of sport grew bigger.
This year alone we’ve seen the NFL and NBA teams of New Orleans forced to temporarily relocate, the Tokyo 2020 marathon moved for more temperate conditions, and England’s preparation for the Ashes hampered by rain from the La Nina climate.
With the sweltering Qatar 2022 on the horizon, and a winter Olympics in Beijing that’s already at threat of not enough snow, climate change is likely to be an ongoing issue for all in sport.
Aguero, Eriksen and Personal Health Risks
In recent years, sport has undergone a data revolution.
Every movement analysed, every position recorded, every touch calculated, and every chance rated.
The insights that data then provides - for broadcasters, journalists, performance gurus and trainers alike - has grown immensely rich.
Financial decisions are being made with them in mind.
But 2021 saw – on more than one occasion – that all the data in the world cannot mitigate against the very real and unpredictable risk to health.
On 12th June, the world of football held its breath as Danish midfielder Christian Eriksen collapsed to the floor during his EURO 2020 match against Finland, suffering an acute cardiac arrest and needing immediate medical attention to save his life.
Eriksen survived, thankfully, but the incident saw an uptick in the use of data to track player health and has now, in turn, led to the premature retirement of Manchester City and Argentina legend Sergio Aguero.
The European Super League
We close off the year on perhaps one of the biggest political stories that sport has faced in years – the advent, and subsequent abandonment, of the European Super League.
In a seismic move for European football, the Premier League clubs of Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United, Arsenal and Tottenham joined AC Milan, Atletico Madrid, Barcelona, Inter Milan, Juventus and Real Madrid in an agreement to establish a "new midweek competition" with teams continuing to "compete in their respective national leagues".
The ESL said it also planned to launch a women's competition as soon as possible after the men's tournament starts.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, UEFA and the Premier League condemned the move when the news broke, with Johnson claiming the Government would “look at everything that we can do with the football authorities to make sure that this doesn't go ahead in the way that it's currently being proposed".
Fans revolted and protested, demanded change, and within just four days the plan had been abandoned.
Reputational damage followed, and the entire year has been dominated by the clubs attempts to rebuild ties within their fanbase and communities.
It was a damning incident, over as quickly as it was announced, but one that reinforced the fact that any sport organisation’s ultimate arbiters are its fans. Reputational risks are changing in the digital age, and fans can mobilise digitally like never before.
And so, we close 2021 with renewed hope for 2022 that the world may soon return to normal.
The last year saw challenge after challenge, but the world of sport battled through brilliantly and helped entertain and enthrall fans around the world. Long may this great industry’s world-class resilience and creativity shine through - Miller is proud to play a part within it.