What kind of sport is this? Five marketing questions facing the future of Paralympic sport

HM The Queen called their performance “magnificent”. BA’s gold-nosed, weakly punned plane 'VictoRiOus' has touched down. We’ve got a couple more days of heroic medallists on The One Show, and then we’re done. It’s Stoke v West Brom and Saturday and the sports industry rolls on.

Does that really have to be it?

Does this extraordinary, multi-talented cast of Superhumans that have bestrode the international stage in Rio have to disappear into the background until Channel 4’s next epic trailer four years from now kicks it all off again?

Sport, by and large, is a blunt instrument when able-bodied people are involved. Create a competition. Whistle up a crowd. Switch some cameras on and collect the money in a hat at the end. The longer you can elongate the process, or heighten the intensity of anticipation, the more money you collect. From cock fighting in the Middle Ages to today’s Premier League, that basic core remains.

But the Paralympics might not work that way and its success is telling us something that feels significant. How might this warm Paralympian glow be realised into a deserving and genuine commercial legacy? Some issues to mull over…

1 Stories or performance?

When former F1 driver Alex Zanardi won the first of his three gold medals,

who couldn’t be moved by his stunning reaction? Alex Brooker’s Last Leg speech did it justice. A wonderful story of a man overcoming unspeakable pain and life changing injuries to reach the summit of performance.

But what did he win? A week on, I’m embarrassed to say I don’t know which event he competed in. Zanardi's story, and every Paralympian’s story, are so powerful, it overwhelms the athletic endeavor or achievement.

It’s reflected in our conversation. Data compiled by our insight team proves the point. At the Olympics there is a clear positive correlation between Team GB winning medals and the number of tweets and TV viewers. Put another way, medals drive engagement.

Paralympic conversations tend to be rallying calls around the events themselves - #superhuman, #roar, #YesICan, #inspirational. There are key individuals that represent these rallying calls (Dame Sarah Storey, Ellie Robinson). With apologies for the Brent-ism, we really do believe “They’re all winners,” and its that that we fall in love with.

2 Commercial sponsorship or corporate philanthropy?

The way we talk about disabled sport helps shape the sponsorship market’s response to it. What are we doing here? Seeking a return on our brand’s investment in a sports property just like we would Uefa, Fifa or the IOC?

Or are we building a relationship between a brand and society by supporting elite performance and grass roots participation in disabled sport?

There was a moment in the run up to the Rio Paralympic Games when it looked like it wouldn’t take place at all. The response from some high-profile quarters was to call for sponsors to step in and pay the bill. "Sponsors have the capacity to help," said Hugh Robertson, vice chair of the British Olympic Association and former sports minister in the Cameron government.

Are we here to build a better society? Or are we here to attach our brands to a sport?

3. Substance or gloss?

In the dark years before London 2012, famous disabled people were a patronised marginal group: the odd character in a wheelchair in the Queen Vic, a few telethons and some tin rattling. In four years and two weeks, Channel 4 has utterly transformed attitudes to disabled people in Britain. From the peerless Superheroes campaign to The Last Leg, it has condemned the worthy but worthless efforts of the past.

Gratitude is just one emotional response from a brand’s support for Paralympic sport, but others are available. Disabled people are people. They excite, amuse, entertain and inform our brands' audiences. What’s more, they’re far better storytellers than the majority of dross rustled up in Soho’s creative departments.

4. Every four years or 52 weeks a year?

The future growth of Paralympic sport depends on building a compelling sporting programme that takes the wonderful quadrennial party and moves it in to the day to day sports news agenda: the best of the best competing against each other more regularly, giving sponsors a sustainable campaign platform.

What a shame it would be if the legacy of Rio was this Google trend map for Paralympics in the UK.

5. Fashionable charity or sustainable commercial sport?

The end of the Rio Paralympic Games is more than a critical period in the development of an important sport sector. The Paralympian movement has the propensity to improve the lives and wellbeing of all disabled people, whether they’re into sport or not. They open our eyes, and make us more tolerant, more supportive, less ignorant.

The Superhumans have done their bit. They have proved beyond any doubt that they are sports stars of the highest order. It’s about time all of us gave them a helping hand.

Jim Dowling is managing director of Havas Sport & Entertainment Cake

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