In 2018, Sports Can Build a Social Movement Better Than Politics

As government, civic institutions and even music fall short to bring people together, the sports industry can do much more to live up to its potential for social impact.
December 28, 2017, 4:45pm
Image via Wikimedia Commons

This is an opinion piece b__y Sebastian Buck, co-founder of enso , and Neill Duffy, CEO and founder of Purpose+Sport.

It’s no secret people around the world are concerned about the direction we’re heading. By one measure, a minority of people around the world trust the institutions that exist to serve them — businesses, governments and non-profits. Here in the U.S., research we have conducted suggests only 42 percent of the adult population thinks the country is heading in the right direction.

In an era of declining trust and declining participation in many of the traditional institutions that bring us together, like faith groups and community associations, what major forces can we turn to that have the power to unite, inspire and reinvigorate? Two forces stand out for their ability to elevate our spirits and shift our perspectives: music and sport. The music industry has a long history of bringing people together in service of positive progress — from Live Aid in the 1980s, to Live Earth in the 2000s, to Global Citizen festivals today.

But as a vehicle for massive positive progress, sport has some key advantages over music. The music industry is fragmented and disconnected; a web of artists, labels, venues that lack the organizing frameworks of sports’ leagues. Bands don’t play a routine calendar of shows like sports teams’ yearly schedules, and popularity ebbs and flows from one album to the next, whereas loyalty to sports teams generally lasts decades. Music artists generally lack the connection to place that sports teams have. And maybe most importantly, sport drives the largest convenings of humanity, ever — over 3 billion people tune in for the Olympics or the World Cup. These are moments when more of us share an experience, when more of us feel something together, than at any time in history.

Missed potential

Massive positive progress happens when movements get built, and movements get built when people feel something. So far, the sports industry has delivered way below its potential because it's stayed anchored in traditional ways of ‘giving back’; offshoot foundations and citizenship programs disconnected from the core business and operations of leagues, teams and major sponsors. NBA Cares, widely considered the sports industry’s best conceived pro-social platform, consists mostly of very traditional activities: celebrity appearances, donated meals and shoes. With tens of millions of viewers, this feels like a huge missed opportunity. For context, that is dramatically higher viewership than politicians, faith leaders or civil rights leaders can command (perhaps only rivalled by a Presidential inauguration). The English Premier League’s community activities are similarly limited; some volunteer days and offshoot foundation grants. Reaching 730 million homes, and three billion people, the potential for global impact is huge.

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#TakeAKnee emerged organically from NFL players, before growing into a social justice movement. Despite unfounded criticism that it was disrespectful to the flag (which was never the intention), NFL and the sports industry missed an opportunity to fully embrace a cultural moment in time — which could have benefited national unity as well as enhancing the cultural importance of the league. As Eric Reid said, “It’s a shame that the league has turned its back on a man who has done only good … to quote the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “A time comes when silence is betrayal.”” Colin Kaepernick was just announced as GQ’s Citizen of the Year; an achievement won largely without the support of the sports industry. Though the NFL and players have reached a tentative agreement to support social justice, the commitment is again of a traditional kind, limited to writing checks — and protests continue.

The most progressive corporate brands of this era have embedded purpose deeply in their core business operations. Unilever’s sustainability plan is one and the same as its business plan: the Sustainable Living Plan, ‘a virtuous cycle of growth linked to our business’. And its brands that have successfully transitioned towards being ‘sustainable brands’ are growing 50 percent faster than the rest of its portfolio, and provided 60 percent of overall corporate growth. This is positive impact in the core business strategy, rather than as an afterthought operated through a foundation, and also demonstrates that social impact is not at odds with business success, but in fact drives it.

Finding a new way

There are examples of the potential of sports. Earlier this year, Common Goal launched to connect the power of the global soccer industry to grassroots community programs using soccer to lift communities (disclosure: our organizations, enso and Purpose+Sport supported the launch). Through a simple mechanism of professional players committing 1 percent of their salaries to a common fund, positive impact becomes hardwired into business success — and creates much greater meaning for a sport that is in danger of losing engagement amongst people who feel increasingly disconnected from unprecedented salaries.

Championed by Manchester United and Spain player Juan Mata, Common Goal has recruited over thirty professional players so far, including Alex Morgan (Orlando Pride / USA), Megan Rapinoe (Seattle Reign / USA), Giorgio Chiellini (Juventus / Italy), and Mats Hummels (Bayern Munich / Germany). These players have linked their own success to social impact, just like Unilever’s ‘virtuous cycle of growth’.

Super Bowl 50, by leading with a purpose of improving the lives of young people in the Bay Area, demonstrated that it is possible for a sports property to outperform the traditional sports business model by embracing a philosophy of doing well by doing good. By adopting this purpose-led approach the world’s biggest one-day sports event became the most shared, most participatory, most giving, most sustainable and most commercially successful Super Bowl in history. Over one third of San Francisco Bay Area adults attended Super Bowl-related events, through which over $13M was committed to 141 local non-profits, which together support 537,000 young people and families living in low-income communities.

Dick’s Sporting Goods runs Sports Matter, a multi-year commitment to invest $25M in youth sports. Athletic participation for those aged 6 to 12 years is down 8 percent over the last decade, and kids from lower-income families are half as likely to participate as kids from wealthier families. Rather than a traditional corporate philanthropy model of just writing checks to non-profits each year, Sports Matter seeks to reconnect communities around their local youth sports teams. By partnering with Donors Choose, sports teams that require funds can crowdsource funding, with each dollar matched by Dick’s Sporting Goods. In this way, the company is building brand awareness and loyalty, while also channeling funding and active supporters towards teams. So far, over 1,800 teams have gained greater prominence.

Common Goal, Super Bowl 50 and Sports Matter are early examples of what’s possible. But as the greatest convening force in existence, we see tremendous potential for sport to go even further. When a local sports team engages millions of people throughout its city, there are opportunities to create much greater connection to each other, to local youth sports programs, and to local issues — and in doing so, strengthen fan engagement and commercial opportunities. Token donations are no doubt welcomed with gratitude by charities, but sports fans have the power to effect real change by asking athletes, teams, even leagues as a whole to make their community involvement truly meaningful.

When national leagues consider their vast reach and ability to coordinate activities, they should consider the opportunity to build big purpose-led shared missions that all their constituent teams, athletes, coaches, fans, sponsors and other stakeholders can support. And when major sponsors think about the massive investments they make in sports, they could think not just of creating brand impressions and experiences, but much deeper fan engagement and loyalty by enabling initiatives that really make a difference in people’s lives.