Sports chase numbers. Sports gather numbers. They report numbers. If you can count them they can play. It’s a serious game because it connects to market share that connects to funding. Knowing what is going on is a good thing and sports are better at maintaining databases than ever before. The first few paragraphs of the annual report of most major Australian sports boast participation numbers are increasing while in the later chapters all the indicators of a healthy sport ecosystem – player retention, fan engagement, volunteers, diversity, improved community health and well-being, performance – remain as challenging as ever.
According Ben Chestnut of MailChimp founder fame, it’s the same game played by entrepreneurs. Get them to sign up, bombard them with spam. Hope they become a fan. Crew’s Mikael Cho has an interesting take on chasing those short-term wins: “Most people are digging down and trying to optimise what they already have — trying to get that extra 3–4 percent increase. But the more time you spend doing that, the less time you spend stepping back and looking for the bigger opportunities. The ways that you can see 100 percent or 1000 percent increases overnight.”
Despite evidence that participation patterns are changing, all sports continue to look for the same healthy 10-year old who has parents who can pay for registration now and perhaps representation later. While there is an obvious logic that a child who plays sport might improve a sport system when he or she becomes a high performer, fan or volunteer there is no evidence that shows it is the most efficient place to pile all the resources. As a primary school teacher in Tonga said when I asked him about the impact of a new award-winning soccer program “We love it. It gives kids the skills to become great Rugby players.” In a country that is governed by the 3 Rs – rugby, religion and royalty – he is probably right. The only thing we really know about 10 year olds who plays sport is they are getting all of the remarkable benefits of playing sport in that point in time.
Mailchimp’s Ben advocates an alternative method for engagement. He calls it the ”upside down funnel” approach: Love your customers, they lead you to new friend, friends want some loving too, some try it, some don’t .
Some sports have struck out and invested in new, compelling groups and are getting ready to reap the corporate funding and fan engagement benefits. According to HSCB’s Report on The Future of Rugby, female participation is predicted to grow from around 500 000 females players to 6 million in 2026. Fiji Rugby Union's women’s strategy gravitates almost entirely around finding young, active, future influencers in places where they are already gathering - police forces, army and teacher training, church youth groups, business houses and the like. Fiji Rugby's development officer tells me they need to give to the communities first to show they care about the women they are bringing to the game. The plan is that these women will eventually manage and develop the sport so it can benefit their own communities. Over the next 10 years these players will probably become mothers, aunties, teachers and coaches who will not only be fans of the sport but also involved in the development of a new bunch of 7’s players.
A soccer program in Solomon Islands found 12-year village girls who were about to be pushed out of the school system because there were not enough places. They created places for them in high quality local boarding schools around the country and created a world class soccer program at these schools. When interviewed, their fathers reported they were very supportive of their daughters playing soccer because it gave their daughters at least 3 more years of education. They were also proud of the way they returned to the village during the holidays to teach the teenage boys and children their new drills and skills.
In all cases, the more sport was valued, the more it was played. If sport retains its position as a leisure, recreation or distracting activity it fares poorly against competitors that are cheaper, more accessible, more egalitarian and more compelling. If it positions itself as a family connector, a health provider, a gateway to employment or a vehicle for education then it changes its value and therefore changes its competitors. Already sport is proving itself to be ahead of the game on one valuable metric – money.
There are 3 ways to get started to increase the value of sport in communities:
Start at the right place. The players you love need to be able to influence other, new, important markets.
Get your funders to care about impact, not just numbers.
Partner up. Sport organizations should only deliver sport services. If you are adding value to sport you will need other organizations to help you along the way.