Earlier this week, HBO aired the critically acclaimed documentary Miracle (2001), which took us back through all the elements leading up to Team USA's "Miracle On Ice" Gold medal performance in hockey at Lake Placid in 1980. The story lines for that team and those events still transcend time.
As we know, "Miracle on Ice" told the story of the dogged, underdog, youthful Americans battling the evil Soviet Empire, and how their hard work and success captured a nation and helped turn the tide of negativity in the United States at the time. It was a great example of the power of sport, and was a great time for American sport on an international stage, especially with the games on U.S. soil. In so many ways, the ebb and flow of life has changed time and again since those days in Lake Placid. The dominance of the Soviet Union has come and gone along with so many changes in our everyday lives, both positive and negative. Our focus is on adversaries of a much more stealth nature today, ones that are probably more dangerous and deadly than whatever was faced during the Cold War.
However, in the world of sport, one thing that has risen again is the imprint Russian sport is making on the global landscape. The latest example came Thursday, when Russia was awarded the 2018 World Cup, outdistancing several European powers in sport and business to gain the honor of hosting the World's greatest single sport event for the first time. The World Cup will follow the Sochi Winter Games in 2014, and are the latest example of a culture which once embraced global dominance in sport coming to embrace sport fully once again.
There is a difference in the Russian sport landscape today from days of old, though. Whereas the old Soviet Union looked to take its might and exert its excellence across the board with its collective athletes, the Russia of today is looking to use athletics much more as a bridge for commerce and success. Bringing global dollars INTO the country, which will happen with the Olympics and the World Cup, is just as or even more important than the on field dominance during the Cold War days.
Even outside of the large scale events now coming to Russia, the idea of sport for commerce and brand is growing in ways never before seen. Women's tennis now has a large cadre of elite and marketable Russian players, many of whom schooled and trained in the United States, who dominate both the game and the commercial brand marketplace. The New Jersey Nets made their big splash by bringing Mikhail Prokhorov on board as owner last spring, and his presence has had a profound impact on the marketing and visibility of the team... a team which in two years will move into a community, Brooklyn, with perhaps the fastest growing Russian population in the world. Nets sponsors with Russian ties now trump their American ones in many categories, and the team launched a Russian language website this week. The change is even being seen in hockey (the subject of Miracle, as we know), where the KHL continues to exert branding and contract dollars in an effort to become a Pan European league which someday may be a partner of the still dominant NHL.
What does the new Russian sport model mean for the business? For brands looking to activate in the country and the surrounding Republics it will probably still be a slow go, as the economy is still in a mode that is reflective and sometimes less stable than the rest of the world. However, for properties looking to bring the brands of the new Russian economy to a new audience, or for entities looking to engage in brand building around the mega-events now going to Russia, there is great possibility. The Nets, and perhaps with other teams to follow, seem to have broken the code on bringing Russian brands to American consumer exposure, and those brands which do succeed in growing will look to other opportunities. Businesses which can find ways to navigate the Russian system may also find dollars and brand share, so long as they do not compete with the privately held Russian companies that still have a stranglehold on a good number of essential categories.
The new Russia has embraced sport as a way to gain global positioning, just like the Soviet Union of old. However, the difference is the embrace of today is much more on the commercial side than on the physical side, and has many more areas of cash flow, opportunity and brand building than was ever seen during the traditional Communist regime of the past. The similarity, some say, whether it is having elite athletes dominate the world or elite events showcased on Russian soil, is that it is still chiefly about Russian growth and only Russian growth, although that may be changing. Even with all the big picture success, the country remains one in transition, with small pockets of wealth and large infrastructure problems. Maybe this growth in sport can help change that position as well. Big events bring big dollars from outside, and marquee athletes who are flourishing in the west in some sports can be great ambassadors in breaking down stereotypes.
So while Thursday's World Cup announcement brought more disappointment to the United States (who lost out to Qatar for the 2022 World Cup), it brought more promise for an emerging economy, one which was a fierce enemy of the United States not too long ago. It is true that there is no real long-term proven effect that building stadia and bringing transient fans to an area has for the economy. South Africa, for example, is still a lot of TBD following the perhaps most successful World Cup ever. However, if that economic progress continues, maybe the doors to commerce can open more for global brands, which would be positive news for the economy all over, including those based in the States who engage in the business of sport.
Positive news for Russian sport helping the U.S.? It certainly is a different world from the days of Lake Placid. That's hopefully a good thing for all.