The sports system is a multifaceted, multi-billion pound industry made up of public and commercial organisations. Governments are responsible for setting a country’s sports infrastructure, in terms of how sports are taught in schools and the quality of public facilities. Whilst, on a more commercial level, sports governing bodies function much like business, creating demand amongst the public for their respective sports.
How and why are sports so powerful?
The power of sports lies in their ability to captivate people in an almost unparalleled way. For example, approximately half of the world’s population is set to watch at least part of the Brazil 2014 World Cup (Economist, June 2014). With their immense ability to engage such a vast number of people, it is no wonder that brands are keen to align themselves with sports.
In an article entitled ‘Is sports sponsorship worth it?’ in the June 2014 edition of McKinsey Insights, the authors estimate that FIFA, the international governing body of football, is set to make $1.4 billion during this World Cup from sponsorship deals with 20 major companies. Although high, the authors also note that it is far less than the amount US corporate companies spend on national sports sponsorship, estimated to have been $20 billion in 2013 alone. To put this into context, sports sponsorship accounts for one-third of US television advertising spend and one-half of digital advertising.
In my experience there are three key elements that draw people in to sports:
- Emotion: Somehow we manage to invest our deepest feelings, hopes and dreams in a team or a particular individual. I know this from having spent countless hours shouting at the TV or in sports stadiums. As irrational as it sounds, when Serena Williams loses a match, I don’t want to speak to anyone for a least a few hours or days. I need time to come to terms with it, pick myself up and move on.
- Patriotism: With the World Cup going on, you can’t help but be amazed and somewhat moved by the camaraderie people feel when watching their country play football. Also, in the last few years we’ve been lucky enough to host the Olympics in 2012, have a Wimbledon champion in Andy Murray, and now host the Commonwealth Games later this month. There is no doubt that these amazing occasions and experiences bring us all closer together.
- Inspiration: Athletes are one of the most amazing examples of what humans can achieve if they work hard and believe in something enough.
How can we increase the benefits of sports to wider society?
Sports clearly have a positive impact on society, but by mainly focusing our attention on the glitz and glamour of professional games and tournaments, we miss out on key benefits. The less commercial elements of sports are as powerful, if not more so. They help to enhance individuals and, consequently, society as a whole.
Growing up I was lucky enough to play lots of competitive sports, both inside and outside of school. I then found tennis, and decided it was the one I wanted to focus on. I remember having a conversation with my uncle as a teenager, which basically went along the lines of: “You are too old now and there is a one in a million chance of becoming a professional athlete. You need to stop wasting your time with this game.”
Thankfully I didn’t listen to my uncle when he told me to stop playing tennis ☺. Because, although he was right in some ways—I didn’t make it as a professional—he was wrong in many others. It was when I started working that I realised the lessons I learnt growing up through my sport, and continue to learn as I play now, serve me just as well in other aspects of my life.
For me, the benefits of sports for an individual are best summarised by a Forbes.com article that I read late last year, entitled ‘Why You Should Fill Your Company With ‘Athletes” In this, the authors identify six key traits that people who have played and/ or continue to play sports display in the work place. These are broadly categorised as follows:
- A drive to practice a task rigorously, relentlessly, and even in the midst of failure until they succeed
- Ability to achieve their goals, despite the obstacles in their way
- Constantly improving and expanding their skill set
- Exceptional entrepreneurs: thinking about the bigger picture and keeping long term goals in sight
- Self-awareness: athletes know that success is not dependent on just one thing—talent alone won’t get you to the top. They therefore seek balance, such as in what they eat, how hard they work and how much they rest
- Working well in teams: the classic there is no ‘I’ in team is true—athletes know that success requires getting the best out of people around them
Not only are the benefits that sports bring individuals undersold currently, but it seems that even less attention will be paid to them in future. With sports participation amongst the general public in England declining and sports becoming less of a priority for schools, we are unlikely to see the key traits identified by Forbes reach a mass audience.
In order to truly harness the power of sports within society, we need to broaden our thinking and the way we position them.
People already love and take to sports easily, but no longer should it just be about selling their commercial aspects. We need to make people realise that sports give them so much more on a personal level. Once we achieve this, benefits will filter into people’s day-to-day lives and lead to better functioning societies as a whole.