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Merrick Haydon, the managing director of rEvolution London, was appointed deputy media manager for equestrian sports for Tokyo 2020 and still hopes he gets the chance to experience “Tokyo 2020 +1”. While 2020 was going to be rEvolution’s biggest year yet, everything changed in March. In this blog, Haydon reflects on the past, present and the future of equestrian sports.

“The bus was waiting outside the hotel. Always early, ready and waiting for its cargo. All around were high-rise buildings towering into the clouds. It was 6am and already the streets were packed and the roads brimming with cars, motorbikes, bicycles, and people everywhere.

The sun was up, but not yet scorching. I had arrived for only the second ever visit to the world’s largest city with 37 million inhabitants in the metropolitan area. It was August 2019 and I was in Japan for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Test Event for equestrian sports.

Roll forward one year and now would be the real event. For the organisers, over 10 years of arduous and meticulous planning. Japan has been an Olympic land since the Summer Games of 1964, which were the first to be staged in Asia. The country was due to be hosting its fourth Games, if we include the Winter Games of 1972 in Sapporo and of 1998 in Nagano.

It was an honour to have been selected and put forward to the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic Games by the FEI to be the deputy media manager for equestrian sport for Tokyo 2020. I hope I still have the chance to experience “Tokyo2020 +1”. An incredible team has been assembled and the facilities are extraordinary.

2020 was due to be a defining year for me personally and for our agency, rEvolution. It was going to be our biggest year yet on record. And then in March, everything changed.

When asked by the WOSJ team to talk about how these past few months have been, it struck me that it was around 10 years ago that I was first interviewed by WOSJ when it was just starting out. I was interviewed by one of the founders and we were at a Rolex FEI World Cup Western European League Qualifier, Leipzig or Helsinki perhaps. How times have changed since then in the sport of show jumping. A new sponsor of the FEI World Cup; the growth of the Global Champions Tour; great champions crowned, particularly Steve Guerdat and Scott Brash; new stars emerging, including Martin Fuchs and Harry Charles; and many of the sport’s icons, such as Eric Lamaze, still at the very top of their game.

Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping

Things first started being impacted by COVID-19 at the beginning of March, with news of events being under threat due to a virus spreading from China. First the Formula E racing season, then the SailGP race in Sydney. This was quickly followed by events closer to home in the UK, including Premier League football.

It was Wednesday 11 March, and my flights were booked the next day to Amsterdam for the first Rolex Grand Slam Major of the year in ‘s-Hertogenbosch. Martin Fuchs was the Rolex Grand Slam’s live contender, having won the previous Major at CHI Geneva in December, and everyone was excited to see if he could continue his quest for a place in history.

I never got on that plane and I haven’t been on a plane since. Life has changed in so many ways and it’s hard to imagine things will ever be quite the same again. That may be good in some ways and, as always, for those that know me, I will continue to look for the positives in everything.

Aside from Tokyo, 2020 would have been my 10th straight Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event in April. Growing up competing in the sport of eventing, Kentucky has always had a special place in my heart and I am often asked which of the equestrian events that I go to is my favourite. While I’ve had the privilege of attending many FEI World Cup Qualifiers and Finals, and many other shows in iconic cities, such as Paris, Geneva, New York, Las Vegas and Dubai; Kentucky wins every time for its raw natural beauty and the great close friendships and memories made there.

Reset & adapt

As an agency working predominantly with sponsors through our specialist PR, digital, activation and consulting services, the immediate and continued cancellation of events so far this year has impacted our business and plans for 2020 and meant we have had to reset and adapt.

Being part of a 100-strong team with our headquarters in Chicago has helped hugely, and the leadership shown by senior management has been incredible. I have learnt so much about myself and others during this time, and I believe it will define us going forward, as it has absolutely made us a stronger team.

Every day since Thursday 12 March we have had a daily team video call. It has united and bonded us and deepened our team relationships. While it is no replacement for the personal, physical interaction and the chemistry of a creative agency in person, it has served us well and we will continue this as we navigate COVID-19 until a sense of normality returns.

While we work across many global sports, including golf, tennis, sailing, and rowing, equestrian sport is at the heart of rEvolution. May should have seen us attend Badminton, the CSIO in Rome and then the Royal Windsor Horse Show. In July we would have attended the CHIO Aachen and in September the CSIO Spruce Meadows ‘Masters’ and Burghley.

Instead, we have reworked ideas and campaigns. We helped support the first ever Virtual Windsor 2020, which was a huge success with a staggering amount of entries and viewers tuning in from all corners of the globe. We have been more creative, innovative, imaginative, and definitely more resourceful.

This pandemic has forced us to reevaluate and reset. Across many sports, including equestrian, we can reflect that there were too many events with too much travelling. More than ever, quality must transcend quantity in the future.

The impact of constant travel filters down from the horse and rider to the grooms, owners, vets, course designers, media, stewards, officials, volunteers, and many more. A reset on the number of genuine, high-level 5* events can only be a good thing. There will be a fight for premium TV rights and digital channels will be awash with content. I hope that the best events become our sport’s shining light, and that also includes a World Games – in whatever format for it to be economically viable and successful – in order to create a sustainable and strong sport for the long-term future.

We are looking ahead to 2021 with optimism and starting to focus on some exciting plans, including the official launch of the new state-of-the-art World Equestrian Center in Ocala, Florida. It will be the largest equestrian complex in the United States set in 4,000 acres. It features a three-acre grand outdoor stadium, with luxury accommodations, including a five-star hotel with more than 250 rooms, and fine dining restaurants overlooking the grand stadium. Plus climate-controlled stalls, barns and arenas. It is set to host some major events in the global equestrian calendar in the coming years and will be a welcome lift to the equestrian world.

New opportunities will also be seen in Saudi Arabia in the coming years, a country we know well having worked with the Saudi Equestrian Federation for five years, witnessing first-hand its greatest ever success with a Show Jumping Team Bronze medal at the London 2012 Games. Bold and innovative developments along the Red Sea coast promise a new exciting age for equestrian sport.

I would like to thank our loyal clients for the unwavering support and also my colleagues who have shown incredible resilience. It has been humbling to see the sacrifices everyone has made to help one another. We will continue through the challenge of this pandemic and we will be better for it in many, many ways.”

See Merrick’s full article on World of Showjumping.
Photo credit: Jenny Abrahamsson with World of Showjumping