Much has been hyped and speculated about what role the opening of Cuba will have in American, and global business in the coming months and years. While most experts see this as a gradual turn, not something that can happen just overnight, with many cultural, financial and political mountains to climb still, one of the biggest benefits that can be shared might be through sport, both on the competitive and the financial side.
For several years, sports like baseball and wrestling have found ways to build bridges between the loves of those both still in Cuba and America.
The Olympics and the Pan Am games have become an increasingly fertile ground for ways for the athletes of these two countries interact freely, albeit with little American business being able to penetrate the island nation. However within days of President Obama’s announcement in 2014, the International Olympic Committee announced a new deal for broadcast in Cuba, and several governing body heads looked to ways to find create more good will through sport for the short term as well as the long. While most of the speculation about Cuban “exports” revolved around cigars and baseball players, quietly other sports like soccer, boxing, basketball, wrestling, have started to find ways to work with the newly-opened frontier not far from the Florida coast.
Where will the financial “wins” come through sport in Cuba? As the economy grows, equipment and apparel companies may be the first to gain ground, not through sales but through donations and good will projects. An Under Armour taking the time to sponsor young athletes of all backgrounds on a trip to Cuba, in a time where equipment and apparel can be left behind and donated, will go a long way in helping seed the economy while helping the youth of a country that is still struggling financially. As tourism expands, Cuba will probably look to bring American dollars in, and a state-sponsored basketball, baseball or soccer tournament, similar to what we have seen in placed like Jamaica and Puerto Rico and Paradise Island in recent years, will be a great calling card. The Cosmos first trip to the island, and baseball’s continued inroads (with the World Baseball Classic serving as the next launching point perhaps this spring) have been a solid next step. If the college market opens (several schools have started cultural and athletic trips), expect a collegiate tournament to be brought in as well, all under the name of good will but with the tourist dollar attached to it. While Cuba has developed its own pharma industry and is growing in tech manufacturing, its biggest asset remains its location and its beaches, and somewhere down the line its refurbished resorts which also once held gambling (which will be a long way off but will be somewhere in the mix down the road). Those assets of good weather, a vibrant culture and an enterprising people will prove to be very valuable to brands as they look to engage with Cuba in the short term, all under the umbrella of good will and sport.
For sure there are lots of hurdles still to climb. The response from the new administration is still being looked at very cautiously by those who still both despised the Castro regime and its repressive history, and worry that this move will not help the Cuban people in ways they need it most; with basic life needs, jobs and skills to cope in a growing and changing world. Like China, some will rush to see dollars and not understand the history or the culture, and they will get burned. The brands, and the sports, that take the time to invest and understand will win out. However sport can be a great bridge to help build goodwill, and even expose social activism as we have seen recently, and the brands around sport might find a solid way in, and some great brand good will themselves, as Cuba becomes an open, agreeable and accessible business market in 2017 and beyond.