How do you launch a charity sports tournament in a world without sport?

The behind the scenes story of how Dark Horses launched a campaign for the NHS Charities Together Cup in just six days is a compelling tale of sport, creativity, culture and compassion.

Nicola Kemp

Editorial Director Creativebrief


“I’ve got a one year old, so there might be some shouting.” It’s a rainy day in lockdown and Matt Readman, Head of Strategy at Dark Horses, is sharing the story of how the agency launched the NHS Charities Together Cup, from his home in North London. From an initial call to client approval of a creative idea in just 24 hours, to a film being produced in just four days, this is a story of how constraint can drive creativity and help to fill the cultural void created by a world without live sports.

For those of us navigating the juggle of working from home with kids, our homes are almost never quiet. Yet the highs and lows, often accompanied by equally high-pitched shouting, which accompany live sport are notably absent. So, how do you fill the emotional and cultural void left by the lack of live sports? (Ask any sports fan and despite the volume of headlines claiming the contrary, the answer may well be, nothing can take the place in the human heart that live sports occupies). 

Yet while the pitches, courts and venues remain empty, sport’s cultural capital and ability to connect and inspire continues to build. The reason football clubs became a lightning rod for media anger surrounding furloughing and pay cuts is a reflection of the sport’s huge cultural significance.

“In general, this will be a very positive thing for sports,” says Readman noting that most of these tournaments haven’t been cancelled since the Second World War. “For non-fans there is often a feeling of being overwhelmed by the amount of sport. By reminding the world what it looks like without sport, when it does come back it will be more appreciated.”

Sport is connected to culture and storytelling and what captures sports fans is following these stories.

Matt Readman

Sport connects culture

In the midst of the Coronavirus crisis the sports and entertainment community have come together to tell a new story altogether. “It all started with an entrepreneur called Leo Skagerlind [CEO of Celebrity Esports],” explains Readman. Skagerlind, whose wife is a frontline nurse, was playing FIFA with his son when he had the idea of getting a tournament together. Looking for support for the communication, marketing and creative approach they called Dark Horses’ founder Simon Dent, who immediately got on board.

The team launched the creative campaign for the NHS Charities Together Cup, an ambitious FIFA tournament to raise funds for the NHS Charities Together COVID-19 Urgent Appeal. Sporting superstars including Paddy McGuinness, Ben Stokes, Leah Williamson and Jonny Brownlee have signed up. While brands including Lynx and BP and broadcaster ITV are also supporting the live matches. Dark Horses created the campaign to launch the Cup in just six days.

Craft in a crisis

“You have to react fast, or your opportunity is gone,” explains Readman. The Dark Horses team is used to working to tight deadlines, but the Charities Together Cup raised the bar. “We had the kick-off call at 11am and by 2pm we were briefing creative teams,” he explains. 

Within 28-hours the team had a fully-fledged creative concept signed off by the client. A team of five directors shooting at their homes over the weekend put the footage together. The spot, which taps into the plethora of craft activities taking place in the midst of the crisis, features families and individuals creating their own NHS football tops featuring the names of some of the celebrities playing in the tournament.

The beautifully shot film has no rough edges, or video call footage in sight. In short, the constraints of the shoot are not reflected in the creative output. “We wanted to tap into the euphoria surrounding major tournaments as well as the growth of home-made culture. Now is the perfect opportunity to make your own shirt,” says Readman. However, the team were focused on the fact that this homemade and rough and ready approach should not extend to the look and the feel of the spot itself.

“It is a real testament to what can be done,” says Readman, explaining, “The filming was fairly uncompromised despite the situation and the fact that the directors were shooting from home.” The film was produced through Homestudio at MindsEye.

Yes, we are proud of the quality of the content, but it is nothing if it doesn’t do some good.

Matt Readman

Message over medium

The launch of the NHS Charities Together Cup comes in the midst of a fascinating time for sport and society. In fact, at a time when consumers are physically distanced, the power of sporting communities remains vital. “Sport is connected to culture and storytelling and what captures sports fans is following these stories. These communities are still coming together, and rights holders and brands have done a brilliant job in rallying the community together,” says Readman.

Yet he doesn’t fall for platitudes about the crisis changing media consumption patterns forever. “One of the things I am very conscious of is predicting permanent change,” he adds. “In reality many things will return to where they have been in 2019 before this crisis began. Sports is built on tradition and history and I don’t see that changing.” However, he notes that this crisis has accelerated existing change, such as the rise of Esports.

“Before this crisis began, we wouldn’t envisage pensioners on Houseparty and there is a particularly interesting window for when sport returns,” he adds. Noting that if stadiums are empty, sport will be very TV focused affording brands the opportunity to maximise the impact of the second screen. Particularly in the midst of a potentially jam-packed sporting schedule. 

Constraint breeds creativity

Yet while we collectively crave the return to normality that the return of live sport may signal, the current crisis is nonetheless fuelling new ways of working. “One of the things everyone is getting good at is factoring in the constraints from the outset,” explains Readman. He explains that one of the classic problems in the creative process is not wanting to place restrictions on creative ideas. However, in this case, with the restrictions being so obvious these constraints helped to create a concept that could be brought to life quickly.

Notably, the team was not constrained by a lack of willing talent; across the board creative teams, producers and strategists worked evenings and weekends to get the project over the line. “You're catching us in the thick of it,” Readman shares, noting that perhaps the biggest differentiator in this project is how much the team cared and how much they want to raise money for the NHS. He explains, “So much blood, sweat and tears went into this work but the emotional investment behind it is that everyone is doing it for the same reason: to raise money for the NHS.”

“Every agency across the world is asking and looking for ways to help in this crisis,” he adds. “That fact isn’t lost on us and we appreciate the opportunity to help. Yes, we are proud of the quality of the content, but it is nothing if it doesn’t do some good.”