Community Innovation: Thinking beyond the Oche

Community Innovation comes from necessity. Creating community is big on our minds at the moment – Community is what’s needed to support the vulnerable, community is what’s needed to pull us all together while staying apart. Community ideas are flying around and funders are frantically trying to filter the effective from the less so.

At times like this it can be useful to look outside of our immediate bubbles. Sometimes inspiration comes from unlikely sources.

Sometimes there’s a person who appears at key points in your life; a mentor, a conscience, or a leadership figure – maybe a person who inspires you or motivates you. I never thought that for me, when it comes to community innovation, that person would be Barry Hearn.

Photo by Matthias Mullie

It was an uncharacteristically hot and sunny October day, as I left from our hotel which straddled the famous Monaco Grand Prix tunnel and walked along the edge of the seaside path on my way to the convention centre for Sportel 2006.

Sportel was the most important annual trade show for sports broadcasting, where all of the sports rights holders would come to sell the broadcasting rights to the international broadcasters, who in turn were all present and accounted for.

You walk up through the impressive front doors and are hit by the air conditioning as the building opens out in front of you. Long multi-storey escalators descend in front of you into the pits of the building where the wood-lined seminar and conference rooms sit, acoustically perfect.

Back upstairs and into the main auditorium where the trade-show is in full swing. Lines of booths in all directions where the rights-holders have literally pitched their stall to try and sell their wares to the broadcasters making their way around the room.

For most, this is the culmination of 12 months or more of hard work. A good five days at Sportel could mean many years of exposure for your sport on prime time tv channels across the world. Everyone was pitching hard, negotiating, sweating their assets. Everyone except Barry Hearn.

In the corner of the high-ceilinged room, at the end of a line of identikit booths sat the booth of Matchroom Sport/Matchroom Boxing. It’s from here that you would expect to see Barry, and his son Eddie, holding court with various global broadcasters. Instead, there was just a lonely looking table and a sign taped to the wall.

Sold out. Gone to the beach.

Photo by Prateek Katyal

Fast forward to around 2015 and I was working for a sponsorship consultancy, which in turn was working for an international gambling company. We had been analysing the Danish market to understand which sports and pastimes held an emotional value for the Danes and also provided a growth opportunity for sponsorship.

It was a fascinating exploration of cycling, handball, and something else that 5 years on, I cannot recall – the only memory that stays with me was that our in-depth analysis, scoring against an objectives matrix, demonstrated that gut feeling and the ‘obvious choice’ aren’t always the best route to success. Clear objectives and strategic evaluation pay off.

We settled on a Handball Broadcast sponsorship that allowed us to gain maximum exposure at an undervalued price per thousand, hitting key demographics of people grouped around customer potential.

Photo by Max Adulyanukosol

A couple of months later, I got a call from the betting company. They had been offered a last-minute, incredible offer for the title sponsorship of a darts tournament. Apparently the man who had phoned them was incredibly charming, persuasive, straight-talking, and was going to make them an overnight success.

“Is it Barry Hearn? I asked, would you like me to speak with him?”

The deal was done.

Photo by Pablò

Working with Barry and the Matchroom crew was an incredibly impressive experience. More of a family feeling than a global organisation, Matchroom managed to build a team of ultra enthusiastic professionals who knew their sports.

Barry and his team and built global TV properties from everyday sports; sports of the working class, and through community innovation they have built a loyal following.

The board of the company for whom I’d done the deal soon became well acquainted with Barry and his frank approach to business, expansion, and Anglo-Saxon vocabulary.

We went on to work on deals for boxing matches, further darts tournaments, top-flight European and Premier League football shirt deals. All of it spearheaded by Barry Hearn and his son Eddie. All of it impressive.

Community Innovation
Photo by Will Porada

And here we are in 2020, mid pandemic lockdown and a situation that none of us foresaw just six months ago. I’ve spent the day celebrating my son’s tenth birthday indoors instead of at the beach and the whole family have been confined to their own homes and reduced to singing Happy Birthday via Zoom.

I unconsciously scroll through the BBC news website until something catches my eye: a darts board. A story about how a darts tournament will be beginning this week with each player playing from their own homes and filming it themselves, broadcasting live around the world in a socially-distanced compliant manner.

A feeling of amusement creeps forward from the memory banks in the back of my head as it works its way towards the front control panel as featured in the film Inside Out.

The world has locked down, sport has been put on hold, pubs shuttered closed, and the feeling of community that is built around sportspeople, teams, and sports has left a gaping hole in our schedules.

Out of crises comes invention, out of necessity comes community innovation. The coronavirus has given us the chance and the opportunity to rebuild our community support systems in a new different, better way. A chance for us to work on new mental health projects that reduce isolation and improve community opportunity.

We need to rebuild our community support systems better than they ever were before. This is the blank page we needed but never had a moment’s breath to actually wait for. Don’t wait, let’s innovate now.

Who could possibly bring us back, remotely? Who would be the first to rebuild their sports community online?

I didn’t even need to read on. Barry Hearn. Of course it is.