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Organizational Change
The Business of Sport Starts to Find Purpose

In the aftermath of 2020, the business of sport has been awakened to the fact that in the age of social good, creating positive impact is a growing requirement for any business’s license to operate.

For the last 15 years, I’ve been on a mission to inspire the leaders across the business of sport — sponsors, teams, leagues, events, athletes and agencies — to embrace a more purposeful approach to how they manage their investments … in short, to do more good, while doing well.

While there have been several successful case studies to point to along the way — including Super Bowl 50, the most giving, sustainable and commercially successful Super Bowl in history, defined by its core purpose of improving the lives of young people — my experience has been that the business of sport has been hard to convince of the need to consider an alternative to the prevailing Freidman-inspired sports business model, where profit is the measure of success.

The COVID-19 pandemic, racial justice protests and climate change walkouts we all experienced during 2020 have, however, changed everything — and awakened the business of sport to the fact that, in the age of social good, creating positive impact is now a requirement for any business’s license to operate.

The events of 2020 have highlighted the shortcomings of the prevailing sports business model. Athletes are once again leading the calls for change, but player strikes are high-risk and unsustainable. Meanwhile teams, leagues and events continue to struggle to meet the moment. Why? Because the business of sport is not designed with Purpose in mind; it finds it hard to adapt to the changing expectations of fans, athletes and sponsors. Its responses — writing big cheques to support non-profits working on issues, hosting memorabilia auctions, setting up committees to evaluate things while still continuing business as usual — are short-term Band-Aids to buy time.

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But the stakes are higher than they have ever been. Today’s consumers and employees are educated, motivated and savvy — as the below insights from Nielsen reveal. They are empowered to mobilize and demand that you walk the talk. They expect more from the business of sport:

70% 

of sports fans believe teams and leagues should support athlete protests and initiatives. 

70% 

of sports fans believe teams and leagues should create marketing campaigns to support diversity. 

77% 

of sports fans believe brands are more powerful when they partner with sports organizations to create social change

64% 

of sports fans have an increased interest in brands that join the fight against racial inequality

This new paradigm will require a shift in mindset amongst the owners and managers of sports teams from the current frame — where doing good is something that happens at the fringes of a sports organization as CSR or philanthropy — to a new frame, where doing good becomes the leading reason the organization exists; and what it stands for becomes as important, if not more important, than the sport itself.

Oakland Roots Sports Club is a great example of a purpose-led sports team – its stated purpose is to harness the magic of Oakland and the power of sport as a force for social good…and it drives everything that the team does. This is quite different to how most sports teams describe their purpose — which is to win competitions and increase the commercial value of their franchise, while doing a little bit of good on the side. Formula E, The Ocean Race and the highly anticipated Angel City Football Club are examples of other sports properties that have been first movers in this space and are reaping the rewards of greater relevance amongst Gen Z fans and sponsors.

In order to remain relevant in this new age, brands that sponsor sport are equally going to have to shift their mindset from treating sport as a cost-effective media buy to a platform through which they can express and amplify their own organizational purpose and provide the fans with the opportunity to co-create good alongside them. P&G’s recent renewal of its partnership with the International Olympic Committee — which they describe as a first-of-its-kind, citizenship-driven partnership through which they have pledged to take action to make progress in equality and inclusion, environmental sustainability and community impact — is a great example of how progressive sponsors will start activating their investment in sport in a Purposeful way.

If the business of sport is to achieve this important shift and become fit for purpose en masse, there is much work to be done. This was the impetus for our recently published book, Legacy Sport – How To Win At The Business Of Sport In The Age Of Social Good. And it’s the driving force behind 17 Sport — the world’s first sports-impact company operating at the intersection of sport, business and purpose (17 referencing the UN SDGs; particularly, Goal 17) to help sponsors, properties, athletes and non-profits to manage their investment in sport in a more Purposeful way; and Soul Purpose Sport — the world’s first personal impact accelerator for sport, launching in January 2021 — aiming to inspire, educate and enable sports owners and managers to make this shift.

We look forward to reporting back, as we continue to build capacity to leverage sport’s immense power to become a force for social and environmental good.

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