If sport has a super power it is that people will find a way to get to it. Everyone has a story about catching a Chelsea FC game in a bar in rural Kenya, teenage boys walking for 4 hours to get to a rugby league game in the highlands in Papua New Guinea, children who turn up for immunisations at a soccer clinic in numbers that go far beyond those who who find their way to a medical post and a woman in Fiji sneaking out of her window to get to a volleyball training. If it is done well, sport comes with a built in magnet that overpowers the forces that tend to stop people in their tracks when it comes to getting themselves to other activities.
I have probably seen more grassroots sports programs delivered by more sports in more countries than most and if I have learnt one thing it is once the basics are covered (gear, playing areas, people to do the work, coaches, officials), it is left to the sports administrators' skill and ingenuity to create a product that is compelling, accessible, safe, regular and well managed.
The best sports administrators do these 5 things better than most.
1. They find great partners.
The best sport administrators can describe the assets of sport in a way that shows how sport is useful to community development organisations. They know sport convenes peers regular in a supportive environment, it provides access to mentors, creates a safe space and also gives people a chance to test themselves and master new skills. Sport creates opportunities to develop networks and practise leadership skills. It is high profile and garners broad public attention making it a vehicle for fundraising and cause promotion.
Great sport administrators also recognise community development organisations bring networks, often in rural areas, M & E processes, an understanding of communication for behaviour change and community consultation processes, ways of addressing barriers like gender based violence or water supply, more local leadership and decision makers and sometimes willingness to co-create proposals that lead to new funding opportunities.
Joined together, these assets not only create a strong sport program, they also create an attractive product for corporate sponsorship.
2. They prioritise change, not churn.
Many sports administrators are in the business of reporting numbers and their core activity involves rolling out a product to new communities. The products are usually very high quality, after all there was a massive investment in their development back at HQ. There is usually a train the trainer program for local teachers, coaches and unemployed volunteers. After the training the sports administrator moves on to a new location and runs a new training course, returning every few months to mentor and monitor. There is no doubt participation numbers increase, often by proportions of 30 – 40%. Over a period of 10 or 15 years, the prime lasting change is that a lot of people got to play an entry level version of a particular sport a few times. The sport ecosystem remains untouched and pristine.
The best sports administrators spend the first 6 weeks or so talking to both the community leaders and explaining to HQ that their participant numbers are going to be low for awhile. They undertake behaviour change research to figure out the barriers, motivations and opportunities and make sure the programs are partnering with organisation to address these issues, even they are not directly related to sport. They work with the community to structure a program that fits in with the rhythms of the community especially when it comes to timing, leadership, visibility and home responsibilities. They consider creating the whole sport ecosystem including coaches, officials, volunteers, people to look after the field and gear, activities for children while parents are playing, multi generational management committees, peer mentors and development pathways. They know that they are in the business of change and there is likely to be conflict, new resources and altered status quo so they set up ways for the tension that comes with change to be managed. The best sports administrators considered the resources they have to be levers to open doors to new opportunities, rather than to be thrown into an abyss of activity churn.
3. They go to where the people are gathering
Most sports administrators know it is much easier to take sport to 50 children than it is to convince 50 children (and usually their parents) to find their way to a field. The problem is that most sport administrators have found the same children gathering locations - well run primary schools within about an hours drive of the sport’s capital city headquarters. The result is the same schools are oversupplied with similar looking activities featuring different shaped balls.
Great sports administrators do two things differently. They take the time to get to know their target group carefully, knowing they probably won't have the resources to provided services to “all children” or “all women". Next, they look for specific places the places where that target group is gathering. For example, in Fiji, rugby development officers decided they would focus their efforts encouraging women who are already physically active and had already challenged some traditional gender roles to try the sport. They found these women gathering in the armed forces and worked with physical trainers to introduce Get into Rugby activities in the physical conditioning component of the training. Before long, there were women’s teams competing in the Sakuna cup, an annual inter armed forces rugby event.
4. They focus on influencers first.
For people to invest time and effort in sport, they need to value it. For the value to be sustained, the people who need to value it are the people whose decisions influence the activities of a community.
“Gatekeepers change as you grow up – starting with parents, changing to peers and the to self decisions.” Cusp rugby player, Fiji
If the program is targeting school aged children, the best sports administrators invest not only in providing a great product but also in making sure the parents, principals, employers are becoming the biggest fans of the program. Fathers of girls in a rural football program tell me their daughters were getting 3 extra years of education in the best schools in Solomon Islands and know even more about the game than the boys now. Employers in India note the young people who coach sport activities have extensive community connections and seek them as new interns and employees. Principals in Samoa tell me that when teenage boys have rugby as part of the school day, bullying and fighting almost ceases (the big boys see what the smaller boys can do on the field and they are all one team) and they pay more attention in the classroom because the teacher is also the rugby coach. This forms the ground floor of an ecosystem that influences new markets.
Great sport administrators showcase the efforts of people who have benefited from being involved in sport programs and know how to give them a platform to encourage other people to take part.
Above: Fathers of teenage football players in Solomon Islands discuss the impact of their daughter's participation.
5. They tell people how it went
Most sports administrators know that social media is a free and access to it is more prolific than ever. The best sports administrators go beyond reporting on activities and report on process and impact. They tell the story of how things happened and what changed because of it. They acknowledge that their view of events is only one angle and let other people tell the story.
What’s worked for you? Do you have any stories about building a sport ecosystem in a new community?