It seems incredible that the answer to the decline in sport participation could be solved with a few pen strokes. While it's obviously not the whole answer, there is considerable evidence that tells that if a person has indicated they support a cause or might be interested in an activity, they are substantially more like to get amongst it when the time comes.
In his book, Fostering Sustainable Behavior: An Introduction to Community-Based Social Marketing, Douglas McKenzie Mohr’s cites many examples including:
When asked if they would financially support a recreational facility for people with a disability, 92% made a donation if they had previously signed a petition in favour of the facility, compared with 53% for those who had not been asked to sign the petition.
Ending a blood-drive telephone call with the query, “We’ll count on seeing you then, OK?” increased the likelihood of individuals showing up from 62% to 81%.
Individuals who were asked to wear a lapel pin publicizing the Canadian Cancer Society were nearly twice as likely to subsequently donate than were those who were not asked to wear the pin.
Why does it work?
When individuals agree to a small request, it often alters the way they perceive themselves. For example, when they sign up to support Park Run in their community, it subtly alters their attitudes about running and they come to view themselves as the type of person who might be interested in running 5km some day. When asked to later comply with the larger request (e.g. volunteer or run in Park Run), there is a strong internal desire to behave consistently. Behaving consistently is viewed as having integrity and being honest whereas behaving inconsistently is untrustworthy and unreliable.
According to McKenzie-Mohr, the need to behave consistently is further supported by findings that a substantial amount of time can pass between the first and second request indicating that the initial request alters the way we see ourselves. Furthermore, the second request can be made by a different individual, indicating that these changes are not transitory; otherwise we would only feel bound to comply if the second request were made by the same individual who had made the initial request.
How has it worked in sport for development?
Here are a few examples I have observed recently:
In village near Suva, Fiji, participants are asked to sign up for a multisport festival. They pay $1 when they register and get a $5 bag of rice from a sponsor when they turn up to play a few weeks later.
Fiji Rugby asks a community how they can help before they start talking about girls and women playing the rugby. By helping first, they elicit a culturally strong commitment to reciprocate supportively. For example, Fiji Rugby organised for a girls’ toilet block to be fixed at a school when they noticed it was in disrepair after an initial meeting. The school responded by supporting Fiji Rugby's later requests to run programs for teenage girls at the school.
The Goal netball program in India runs information and games sessions for parents of potential players. When the parents have made the commitment to attend the session, they are likely to make the commitment to support their daughter to do the same.