Does Sport Need More Personality?

Professional sport in the Twenty First century owes almost as much to business as it does to feats of sporting prowess. These days successful sports stars are global commodities that can be traded for exorbitant fees, their marketable image just as significant as their silky skills or athletic attributes.

As such the rise of the sports star has led to a decline in the kind off the pitch entertainment value that used to fuel many a headline in years gone by. Gone are the days when a football legend can pitch up onto a prime time TV chat show three sheets to the wind as George Best once did.

Terry Wogan was the host on that infamous occasion and later recounted, ” I knew the worst had happened. He’d chuntered down several bucketfuls in about five minutes… and he’s as drunk as a skunk.”

In more recent times cricket star Freddie Flintoff donned sunglasses while being interviewed, worse for wear after a night of partying following England’s Ashes win in 2005. A clue to his dishevelled state was  alluded to by thousands of fans singing in the background (“You’re p***ed, and you know you are…”).

Neither of the above cases resulted in the kind of display of public recantation which is common these days (in the vein of David Warner’s recent tearful  apology for ‘Sandpapergate’). Today, sports stars are intensively managed and as a result it can sometimes seem as if they have little or no personality. That’s the way agents, managers and clubs like it – big personalities have become big liabilities and safe, bordering on boring, is the new way to go.

Former England star Michael Owen’s  bland post match interviews  personified this move away from ‘dressing room characters’ that could always be relied upon to deliver some spark but were often on the edge of pushing it too far (Gazza anyone?!). If you’re not a football fan, then this celebrity advert for Dubai, shows the England star at his boring best!

The recent death of darts player Eric Bristow, ‘The Crafty Cockney’, was another reminder of how times have changed. In his autobiography he stated “darts is drinking” and went on to give the following advice to budding darts stars; “The ones that last longer are the ones who keep off the top shelf and keep on the beer.”

Nevertheless, with the advent of the smart phone and social media, not to mention millions of pounds in wages and endorsements at stake, things changed forever. We now live in the age of reputation management and sports stars are coached in how to behave in front of camera.

Often it’s as if sports stars are reading from the same prepared script – sharing praise for teammates and competitors, eschewing cockiness for wholesome confidence and talking in clichés and sound bites that leave little room for misinterpretation or being taken out of context. However good this is for reputation management, it does rather suck all the personality and fun out of being a top sports star.

So some advice for those who are busy trying to manage reputations! Don’t forget the power of authenticity and  do remind your charges to smile once in a while – especially if they have won.  If there is anything to retain from the bad old days it is the endearing sense of real sporting ‘personality’ – far more entertaining for the fans than another clone like media performance to satisfy the sponsors!

Luan de Burgh

April 2018

Luan de Burgh is a speaker, writer and founder of de Burgh Training – a specialist business communication training provider dedicated to helping people perform at their highest potential.