We caught up with David Hopkinson, the former Chief Operating Offier of MLSE and the current Global Head of Partnerships for Real Madrid C.F, to talk about the potential financial impacts of COVID-19 on the sports landscape, whether athletes should be role models during unprecedented times and what lessons in leadership we might be able to learn through this. Here he shares his thoughts.

— ON HIS LEADERSHIP STYLE THROUGH COVID-19

I think there’s a way to get some of those same messages out in a different context. I think one of the things that is essential to the role of a leader is, a leader takes the fear out of the room. That’s one of the things a leader has to do, is take the fear out of the room. Fear creeps in in any environment —  well that’s taken on a very literal meaning right now, where people are scared. The insidious nature of this disease with a 14-day incubation period, from the time you self-isolate you don’t even know if you’re carrying it, if you’re infected by it, if you may have inadvertently spread it. That’s really quite sinister psychologically. 

— ON THE POTENTIAL FINANCIAL IMPACT OF THIS HIATUS

What’s unclear to us is how many matches we are going to play in the remainder of this season. Our games aren’t cancelled right now, they’re postponed. And, there’s some things that we’re shuffling in the International Football calendar that will make it possible for us to finish the season if things clear up here in the month of April. If we end up playing all of our season, then the economic impact will be substantially mitigated, you might still see some behavioural change, maybe people are slower to come back to an 80, 000 person stadium. But really, we’ll be ok.

If we were to lose the balance of the season, that’s hard. You’ve got an impact with fans, so you have no gate receipts, you have an impact with sponsors, who may be seeking refunds or other adjustments, you really are in a whole world of hurt there if your business has been effectively  closed and those opportunities to generate revenue are permanently lost. Delayed in schedule? It’ll be ok, Cancelled? That’s not good.

— ON THE SHIFT FROM A NATIONAL PERSPECTIVE AT MLSE TO A GLOBAL ONE WITH REAL MADRID

Back at MLSE, we really did think from a national perspective, what did it mean from a Canadian context. Canadian context means typically one language, maybe two. From a tone, we really had one voice, but Real Madrid, I think our website is available in eight languages, we have different platforms strategies for different markets. I think one of the things that we have the opportunity to do here is to have one voice but different context and tones depending on the region, depending on what makes sense in those distant marketplaces. We’ve got fans it seems in every nation in the world, so maybe there’s something here with how you communicate effectively across borders around the common cause. 

— ON WHAT LESSONS WE CAN LEARN DURING THIS TIME

I think most people are really good people. This is a chance to examine how we collaborate and cooperate in a connected world. We talked about connected worlds before in the context of the internet, the global economy, so on and so forth  but this is connecting us in a really unique way. Something that fascinates me about what we’re going through is how each nation has sort of been on their own to figure out what to do. I’m really optimistic that as a species we take a lesson from this, things like the coronavirus, things like a pandemic, don’t care about borders. We’re going to need to have a different response. It’s painful to me to watch each of these nations learn one by one how to respond to something when they could have been taking lessons more effectively from their neighbours. 

— ON WHETHER ATHLETES ARE ROLE MODELS

Our athletes, whether it’s our football players or NBA players, like it or not, these people are role models and people do look to them for cues as to how to behave, that’s a lot of responsibility. I can think back, it must have been 30 years ago, Charles Barkley saying I’m not a role model.  Well, you are. Like it or not, you don’t have to decide to be one or not. You hope that in every circumstance, the person, the athlete does everything thoughtfully, but they’re human beings and they make mistakes.

— On PLAYING GAMES WITH NO FANS – CAN YOU HAVE ONE WITHOUT THE OTHER?

I don’t know, we’ve never really seen it. We were gearing up for the match and they cancelled it altogether. My personal sense on this is why do you go to a sporting event? You go to these matches because you want to high-5 a stranger. You want to be part of that throng. That’s how communities are built. Each of us who are fans have experienced that and that joy. I think a match played without that environment will never be anything like the full experience. 

Whether it’s fans in the seats or a studio audience — performers and athletes, they want to perform in front of fans. That’s a huge piece of, I think, why they’re so driven to succeed the way that they are and have risen to an elite level. I think the greatest athletes are yes, especially gifted athletically but also showmen, show-people. That takes an audience.

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