This blog was first published in Sport and Dev. on May 12th 2020.
Can we reimagine the role of sport?
In my role as Sports Sector Intern at Ardea International, I am helping sports organisations to reimagine their environmental, social and governance policies. Ardea International have supported Brighton and Hove Albion Football Club to develop a sustainability strategy to reflect the changing risks that sports organisations face. As a masters student at SOAS University, I am researching the ways individual athletes can reimagine themselves as diplomatic actors. SOAS is hosting a webinar on Michael Jordan’s impact beyond basketball in the light of the Netflix documentary, The Last Dance. This has shown me that there is a potential for sport to address challenges beyond those on the court. This can be led by organisations or individuals.
From this outside perspective, it seems global sport has already started to reimagine its role within communities in response to this crisis, with players using social media to send out health messages around the world. At a Football Business Academy webinar, Jacob Naish, the commercial director of FC Nordsjælland said: “training grounds and stadiums are no longer simply about improving the potential for a club’s top line. They are now beacons for communities… places like Brighton, Milan, Liverpool, Fulham and ourselves. You see people opening up their stadiums for novel uses in the crisis such as medical centres, testing, provision of equipment, delivery of food”. In this way, the connection with clubs’ original social role is strengthened in the club becoming a hub for people and not just their sponsors.
The huge financial difficulties global sport is facing means that any reimagining needs to be about making sport more sustainable and prepared for risks. There was public criticism of aspects of sport’s response to Covid-19 but there was also a huge audience for its good work in the community. Juergen Griesbeck, CEO of Street Football World, also at the FBA event, said that “with football you have such a brilliant base, you have half of the world’s population in love with you. My hope once we get to the other end of this, that football is humbler, less arrogant and understands what it takes to stay relevant for people in the long run and not just walk towards the next crisis”.
These lessons will apply directly to responding to other risks across sport. Sports organisations will face public scrutiny if they are found to be using agents that exploit the dreams of young athletes. On the other hand, if athletes speak about the risks they faced in becoming professionals, they could put pressure on sport’s governing bodies. This reimagining of the world of sport in the face of this crisis has so far been bottom up, with organisations and individuals taking the lead and governing bodies playing more of a supporting role. This is largely because the crisis has forced us all to remain very local and largely focused on risks within our own communities. Good governance and leadership are the key factors in ensuring long term sustainability. It is crucial that governing bodies recognise good practice and find ways of encouraging others to follow.
At Ardea International and SOAS University, we are working in partnership to continue this conversation with a joint roundtable on the role that athletes, sports organisations and governing bodies can play in reimagining the role of sport.