I am leading a discussion about ‘how to handle what’s next’ at the USA Today Sports Philanthropy Forum later today in McLean, VA. To help set up the discussion I wrote the following — about how the sports world is in a position to help us address causes in new, powerful ways because of the important role that sports play in people’s lives. Take a look:
Everything is changing – and what it means to sports and causes
Our society has changed – dramatically – over the past few decades.
We often talk about these changes in the context of business (flattening), government and politics (opening) and community (connecting). But changes are being seen everywhere, in every community and every sector of our society, and they are being felt by all of us. Technology and the Internet, and their role in our lives, has changed how we communicate, get and share information, the media we consume, and the reasons we engage with each other – online and offline. And make no mistake, these forces are also shaping, and re-shaping, how we experience sports and how causes are addressed in equally significant and dramatic ways.
Information moves faster, people are more closely connected, and the expectations we all have for what we want see and hear, where we donate, who we trust, and what kind of relationship and support we want from an organization, is also changing. The ubiquity of technology and the reach of the Internet make it possible to spread a message farther and have it be embraced by more people than ever before. The rise of social platforms leaves no doubt that we are one global, inter-connected community and capable of taking action on issues we passionately share. Organizations receive instant feedback and real-time measurement of their impact directly from their most important constituents. Those who listen and embrace that feedback, develop deeper, more meaningful relationships with their audience. The available tools make it possible for everyone to have a platform from which to speak, and anyone to spark a bottom-up, grassroots-fueled revolution that has power no individual or entity could generate.
As a result of these massive, disruptive changes to our society, how organizations operate, organize, and communicate must be re-imagined. The contribution that media can make to raising awareness and supporting education must be re-considered. The passion and interest of individuals all around the world must be re-focused and re-directed. The support that athletes, sports teams and leagues can provide to causes and serious issues should be re-envisioned.
In short, everything must change.
Sports as a change agent
Religion, in its most basic form, is a socially shared set of beliefs and rituals that allows us to transcend the material world and impart meaning to our lives. The same is true for sports.
Sports and religion both have organized hierarchies and places of “ceremony” and devotion where followers gather. For many fans, Sundays revolve around the big game, the way church attendance provides a focal point for a weekend. Fans wear a team’s colors and carry its flags, icons, and mascots as public displays of their faith and commitment. At stadiums, as well as in groups gathered around television sets in bars and living rooms, repetitive chanting, hand-clapping, booing the other team, doing the wave, and other activities create a similar shared experience that many get during a responsive prayer or the singing of a hymn. Sports and religion share a vocabulary: words like devotion, dedication, sacrifice, commitment, spirit, prayer, suffering, and celebration are used as commonly when describing teams and contests as they are when discussing one’s faith.
Sports are not technically religion, of course, but all over the globe people worship sports much the same as they do religion. For many, sports are the main thing in their lives, and without them, they would not feel complete.
Sports unite individuals in a celebration of common interest and shared belief. In religion, that common interest and shared belief has been used to advocate on behalf of causes and social issues. In fact, religion has been among the most powerful agents for changing human attitudes and behavior. Sports too can help to shift the way people think and take action to support important issues and causes. Few groups in our society have such potential to drive meaningful, measurable change – and few would benefit as greatly as the sports world could, in the process.
A total reset in thinking
When you accept that sports plays a similar role to that of religion in many people’s lives – and motivates a significant amount of passion, and investment of both time and resources among fans and followers – then you can begin to understand how sports has a powerful opportunity to help shape how our society addresses serious issues and causes.
The huge growth in professional sports paralleled the growing amount of leisure time that people gained thanks to the efficiencies that came with ‘modern life’. With the current rise of connected media, we are seeing a growing amount of connected time (e.g. kids spend upwards of 11 hours each day with media of some kind). Those connections create a powerful opportunity to create more meaningful experiences for fans, teams, and communities. And with those meaningful experiences will come measurable change.
The tools and channels that have been created in the last few years have generated a lot of excitement and attention – but technology can’t change society on its own. Building a large email list does not reduce the number of hungry people in the United States. A video that is seen by a million people online won’t cure cancer. A million followers on Twitter can’t teach a child to read. To create change, we have to begin by recognizing that the ways that we reach, educate, engage and mobilize audiences isn’t working anymore – that technology can facilitate the activities and behaviors we believe are needed, but the content we deliver and communities we support are critical components as well. We have to re-think how to communicate and drive action.
The current ways that the sports world focuses on cause follow the traditional patterns we have seen develop in other sectors of our society. Teams talk to reporters about the good work they are doing and host events to raise money to support their favorite causes. Athletes record public service announcements and make appearances to show demonstrate their interest and commitment to a particular issue. Television commentators urge the viewing audience to make a donation to support a charity during the broadcast of a game. These are important commitments, but they aren’t enough. Awareness is only the first step. Fundraising is just one of the needs that must be met.
In today’s world, success doesn’t come as a result of good communications or creative marketing. Making a big donation isn’t exciting to people anymore. An ad campaign won’t get much attention. The audience wants to see results. Fans want to be your partners and feel that they are doing something to help as well. They want to share ideas, help identify the most urgent need, ensure the work that you are doing is efficient and effective. They want to believe that their support of your efforts will result in support of a cause or issue that they understand and value. Your fans expect that the commitment that the sports world makes to a cause or issue will have a meaningful, measurable impact. In short, fans expect that you will help them change the world.
An invitation to act
The public is more engaged than ever before, more capable of collecting and sharing information with a wider audience – for free – than at any point in our history. This drives greater interest in media – as well as sports and causes – and the creation of a more diverse and interesting culture. Coupled with the passion and commitment that people show towards sports and we are now seeing an unprecedented opportunity to mobilize action in new and exciting ways.
This is an invitation to act.
Think bigger. The potential for technology and the internet to redefine how sports fans look at serious issues, how they get involved, and what say do we want to have in that is huge. Gone are the days when the majority of the population would sit for hours to read a newspaper from cover to cover or tune in to watch a whole game on television. Our information experiences have changed and our focus and goals in terms of sports and causes should change as well. The idea that we will find a mass audience for anything, no longer exists. What must be changed, or adapted, within our society to ensure that the commitments that sports leagues and teams have, and share with their fans, is focused and activated to achieve the desired results? What can we do with small, dedicated, passionate audiences instead? How can the sports world use its unique connection with communities and individuals, bring together disparate ideas and passions, for a common civic goal? If we think bigger, we can elevate sports – and everything that it touches – to a place in our society where it influences how we think, act, and perceive everything around an issue.
Tell more stories. Because of the unique relationship that the sports world has with the media and its fans, the structure to support wide-reaching efforts to communicate, educate, engage and mobilize audiences is already in place. But no single publication, channel or service has the ability to cover the full range of what is happening in the sports world or how the fans are involved. And when it comes to cause and serious issues there is almost no mainstream discussion at all – there are huge gaps in what is covered. Many people, your fans included, know what is happening in the world or what kind of help is needed. The sports world can be its own media. You can seize the opportunity to create coverage, to share information and to tell more stories – to help inform your audience and support their interests in the causes they support and the issues you believe are important. The sports world should use its influence, its reach, and the channels it controls, and content it creates, to elevate the discussion about the sports world’s impact on causes and issues to new levels.
Do More! Everything about sports is big — its big business, big entertainment, big audiences, and big excitement. But when it comes to causes and the commitment that athletes, teams and leagues are making, the reach and impact is still small. Sports should do more. Sports should be bigger. There can be more voices, more access to information, more collaboration, and more ambition. Fueled by technology, we all have the ability to learn or discuss whatever we believe is relevant, to produce and distribute information so that it reaches audiences any time, any place, with a more diverse (and deeply invested) audience, and through any device. Beyond just being fans, everyone can be an ambassador for a cause or a champion for the work that is needed to address a serious issue. The sports world can invite its fans to help expand the reach and impact of its work in support of causes and issues, to help shape and define and respond. And by demonstrating your commitment to your fans, and welcoming their deeper involvement, not only will you have an impact on these critical issues, but you will also create a relationship with your fans that will result in more dollars, and interest, in every other aspect of your work.
We haven’t seen the sports world – or any organizations for that matter – fully embrace these kinds of opportunities that the technology and the internet have created in the world for two reasons: first, organizations are still spending too much time trying to contain the conversations that their audience is having, to shape and channel their interests and behaviors to suit a particular agenda. Second, organizations largely focus on how to communicate most effectively, the best ways to deliver a message – and the tools –but not the content of those messages or how they relate to their audience.
Organizations still want to have control. But no organization or institution has control anymore. The audience is in control. Organizations should be looking to support and enhance the interests of their audience, to engage them in conversation (and to listen to what they are saying). Anyone can use the tools that are now widely available online to conduct campaigns, and send notices, solicit funds, and do so more efficiently and cost effectively than ever before. But technology is not the answer. What you do with those tools is what matters. How well you know your audience and an organization’s ability to meet their needs and satisfy their interests is what will define the outcome of your work. Instead of looking at email open rates and the size of their friend lists to determine success, organizations should be inviting their audiences to participate and provide feedback, listening to their feedback and adapting based on what they hear, and in doing so building trusted relationships that can be leveraged long into the future.
We need to fundamentally shift the way we think about addressing causes, find a new approach. The sports world has an opportunity to embrace the idea that they can play a unique role in mobilizing the public behind causes and serious issues – and that there are benefits to them as well if they go beyond the standard approaches. The sports world can go beyond their current levels of commitment, in dollars, but also in terms of energy and focus, time, and expertise – and help to re-shape the way causes and serious issues are integrated into the lives of their athletes, the work of the teams, the structure and operations of the leagues, and the partnerships that exist with media and other organizations.
Fans are so consumed by the sports they follow they are willing to devote their lives to their favorite teams, as parishioners do to their congregations. They read the daily sports pages in newspapers, devouring reports and features about their favorites team and players as the devoted read and re-read their holy scripture each day looking for guidance. They learn to speak the language of sports, to dissect box scores of games, and to re-create narratives of great plays and dramatic endings, just as the faithful tell of their religion’s triumphs while evangelizing to the masses. People look to sports for entertainment, a sense of community, a sense of structure, and to live out their dreams.
Fans are looking to the sports world for guidance on how to address serious issues and causes. They want to be met by an athlete, a team, a league, their partners, and the community of fans that they have chosen to join, and given help to accomplish what is needed. They want to support causes. They want to change the world. And with your help, now they can. We just have to start by changing everything we are doing.
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