Sport for Business Leadership Interview – Rachel Solon

Rachel Solon is Head of Sport at Legacy Communications.

As one of the leading agencies helping rights holders and sponsors to come through this current challenging period, we wanted to get her views on how the COVID-19 restrictions were impacting across the industry.

This series to date has been immensely popular and has provided real insight into how our world is coping.  We want to hear from leaders across our community of members and if you feel as though you could add to the series, please do get in touch.

SfB: How are you doing personally through the crisis?

RS: I’m good, healthy and happy, as are my family, friends and colleagues. Can’t ask for much more. The news can be overwhelming so I’m keeping a positive attitude and remembering how to bring it back to basics.

I’ve loved having the time to cook from scratch and getting out for a walk every evening – the perks of no commute. Through a series of circumstances, I’ve actually spent the last three weeks in rural Co. Down at the foot of the Mourne Mountains. It’s been a blessing in disguise being out of the city during this time and spending it in the countryside, although the internet speed has been an adjustment!

How has Legacy adapted to the new era of working from home?

It’s been a relatively smooth transition from a functional perspective. We already had the tech in place to allow us to work remotely, our daily processes include the use of apps and online platforms to communicate and collaborate.

While working from home wasn’t new for us, having the entire team working remotely at the same time did pose a few immediate challenges; mostly communication and our culture.

Effective interpersonal communication definitely had to become a very conscious decision. Something that came so naturally, sharing an open plan office space, suddenly took deliberate planning.

Although face-to-face meetings easily became virtual conversations, we put an increased emphasis on video and phone check-ins to make sure at a basic human level our employee relationships and support structures stayed the same.

We have such a brilliant team of consultants, it was also crucial we maintain the organic knowledge share and collaboration we took for granted in the office environment. Our WhatsApp groups became all the more valuable for quickly bouncing ideas and sharing news and industry information in a less formal setting.

Our culture is quite unique in Legacy, and something we pride ourselves on. Led by Bernard and James’ first-hand experience of elite sports teams, we very much operate as one unit, taking equal responsibility for the overall productivity and contentment of the team.

It’s something we’ve worked really hard to cultivate and at a time like this we’ve reaped the rewards. I’ve been so proud to see everyone rallying together to support each other and go the extra mile for clients these past few weeks.

But there’s a tendency when working remotely for productivity to be high but for culture to slip so we actively create time for non-work related catch-ups on Zoom or Houseparty. We have a weekly lunchtime quiz on Zoom (we’re all extremely competitive) and are planning a virtual Friday evening drink to celebrate a couple of birthdays.

What are some of the ways in which your clients have been impacted?

There were some immediate and obvious impacts from the postponement of all sport, festivals and public events. Campaign elements centred around fixtures or physical events naturally had to be paused.

Of course it was disappointing as most had been in planning for months, or years in the case of the Olympics and EUROs, but we are working closely with our clients to re-interrogate those plans now through a new post-COVID lens for when sport and entertainment return.

That said, I’ve seen a lot of purposeful opportunities and pivoting too. Our clients’ campaigns always include robust digital strategies which we’ve been quick to refocus, innovate and build upon. The increased appetite for informative and/or entertaining content has provided a valuable opportunity for our clients to stay relevant – as long as the content is purposeful, engaging and something different.

Other clients have chosen to dial back on their sponsorship activities for now and instead dial-up their community based or CSR activities. The reach and positive impact these brands can have in galvanising a community or a response is incredibly valuable. It’s been really uplifting for us in Legacy to help them strategise and innovate in this area. Hopefully, we’ll see some positive results in the coming weeks as our campaigns go live.

How do you see sponsors and rights holders emerging from this?

While there’s uncertainty about the depth of the impact, I feel the overwhelming sentiment is one of positivity. Sport is one of the most powerful and joyous things on this planet. At its core, it’s an industry built on an ethos of volunteerism and self-sacrifice for the greater collective. It will survive. But to say it won’t have an immediate impact is naive. Now is the time contracts are being scrutinised, negotiations are in full swing and tough decisions are being made.

Sponsorship is not a short-term marketing tool and most brands should be in a position to revise their overall strategy for 2020, relook at their budgets and redistribute accordingly. Most businesses will have taken a financial hit during these few months so there may be a short-term impact on the scale of activity but sponsorship is one of the most effective consumer marketing tools so the industry will be booming again in no time.

Rightsholders are in a more difficult position but I know they’re taking tough measures now to ensue COVID-19 does not leave a legacy. We’ve already seen temporary pay cuts to staff and athletes across some of the sporting bodies. While domestic sport and ticket sales will hopefully resume in the coming months, there’s still a question mark over how quickly international sport can return.

Rugby Australia has already indicated that it’s unlikely they’ll be in a position to travel here for the Autumn Internationals, instead focusing on completing their domestic tournaments during 2020.

No doubt other countries will be in a similar position but above all else is the health and safety of our countries is paramount and travel bans will stay in place until it’s safe.

The silver lining, once this is over, will be the strong desire of people all over the country to get out and socialise, to experience sport, music, culture, arts and adventure again. There will be a huge appetite for local and national events and many new opportunities for brands to engage with their consumers.

Do you fear that there will be too busy a backlog of sport and that we will risk people having too much too soon?

Scheduling will be a challenge and 2020 will be a year like no other. All efforts will be made to complete championships and fixtures where possible, much to the relief of Liverpool fans around the globe.

Last Friday the Premier League confirmed a combined objective for all remaining domestic league and cup matches to be played – whenever it is safe to do so.

However, tough decisions to condense seasons and, in some cases, unfortunately, cancel games may also have to be considered. In Ireland, the LGFA and IRFU already made the difficult choice to cancel the remainder of their League games. It will cause disruption and disappointment and there will be teams such as Highfield RFC who will miss out on a historic division promotion.

But there will be no shortage of appetite from fans I guarantee you. Sport plays such a huge part in so many people’s lives, it’s been quite a struggle without it. It will honestly feel like Christmas has come early when sport resumes!

How do you feel that sport is performing in terms of helping wider society through the crisis?

Sport has long been embedded in our society. Clubs are the cornerstone of towns and parishes the breadth of the country. They offer a home away from home and have in return been hugely supported by those communities through volunteering, fundraising, ticket sales, local sponsorship and more.

I think they should be commended for their quick action because when the tables turned and their communities now needed them, they rallied almost immediately to offer help and services, especially to those most vulnerable.

As role models, I feel athletes have also been playing a significant part in keeping the nation’s spirits up. Social media has been awash with organic content from athletes from the entertaining to the informative.

I noticed TJ Reid has taken inspiration a la Joe Wickes providing a weekly PE and hurling skills session on Facebook live and Legacy’s own bossman Bernard Brogan featured last week in a viral video alongside many other sports stars reminding the public about the importance of staying at home.

What have you been most impressed by in how we have all reacted?

I think there’s a fear that society as a whole had started to disconnect from anything meaningful, despite never being more ‘connected’. As cities became more densely populated and rural life became financially unviable, did we lose our community spirit?

It’s taken a global pandemic to see it, but it’s clear as day – at heart we are a nation filled with love and compassion, and when it really matters we are there for each other above all else.

Hopefully, we can take the learnings from this awful period and come out the other side a stronger, better society.

Read and watch more of the interviews in our Leadership series including with Tom Ryan of the GAA, Ciaran Medlar of BDO, John Gillick of AIG, Miriam Malone of Paralympics Ireland and Mick O’Keeffe of Teneo.

Check out our Live Webinar series Events coming up on Sport for Business

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