In 1995, South Africa was hosting the Rugby World Cup for the first time after being kept out due to apartheid. The South African Springbok team, composed of only white Afrikaneers, played in the final against New Zealand’s All Blacks. After the home-win, the country’s first black president, Nelson Mandela, appeared on the field with a Springbok jersey despite the fact that the jersey had always been despised by the black population of the country as a symbol of oppression. After Mandela’s move, the divided nation came together and leaned towards broader social reconciliation. “Sport has the power to change the world,” Mandela said in a speech five years after that match. “It has the power to inspire, it has the power to unite people in a way that little else does.”
With intense passion and indefatigable loyalty, billions of people around the world root for their favorite sports team. The “beautiful game” of soccer leads the way with somewhere between 3.5 and 4 billion fans and more than half of the world’s population watched France hoist the World Cup trophy in 2018. The total global sports market in 2021 amounted to more than $1.1 trillion. And by the year 2027, sports sponsorship is projected to reach nearly $90 billion. All of this adds up to an immense amount of scale, financial resources, reach and passionate followers. What if all of this human interest and economic power could somehow be put to an even greater use to better serve and shape society? If you’re a fan of doing good, you’re in luck.
Today, responsible capitalism is more than just an idea, it is a ticket for entry for business. Spurred on by the climate emergency and the pandemic, stakeholders are not just looking, but requiring companies to do more for society, and sports teams with their immense potential to create change, should be no exception. Sports is in an ideal position to turn its tribalist, emotional connection with billions of people around the world into positively impactful models that inspire fans and serve stakeholders. Their way forward is Purpose.
Purpose serves as both the north star guiding decision making and an anchor in times of turbulence. It provides clarity, meaning, focus and alignment. As humans, we share an essential human drive for this alignment- this connection- with a larger group, as it helps us feel bonded, represented, and empowered. It’s also what got us out of caves and into communities.
There is solid science to support that humans are driven by this need to connect. Joshua Green’s research at Harvard describes how our moral brains evolved to solve the “me versus us” problem by creating emotions such as guilt, shame and loyalty necessary to control selfishness and promote co-operative, tribalist modes of living that strengthen community ties. In 2015, research by UCLA Neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman found that human brains, “experience threats to their social connections in much the same way they experience physical pain.“
For sports fans, this alignment is particularly powerful as they connect with others through their shared passion for their team, and it frequently becomes a lifelong devotion. You don’t see a whole lot of people with their favorite restaurant tattooed on their bicep. And interestingly, it doesn’t matter what else you have in common, as long as you’re a fan, you’re a friend. The intense group affiliation of the sports fan was neatly summarized by the American journalist, Hunter S. Thompson who wrote, “…fans share a universal language that cuts across many cultures and many personality types. A serious [football] fan is never alone. We are legion and football is often the only thing we have in common.” Sports communities, with their ability to bridge cultural and social difference, have a unique opportunity to serve as platforms for positive social impact.
PUTTING PURPOSE IN THE GAME
Many fans and owners of sports teams will say the “Purpose” of a team is to achieve victory, and ultimately a championship. But looking closer, that ambition is a goal in time; in other words, it’s a vision for the team, not their Purpose. Striving to play well, is what a team does every day– that is their mission. But its Purpose is something more, something higher. Aristotle said that one’s vocation – purpose – lays at the intersection between one’s talent and the need in the world it fulfills. In other words, an organization may discover its unique and timeless Purpose by understanding what its true strengths are and learning what impact it can have in the world. Where these come together lies its timeless Purpose. Because of the impact sports has on society and the sense of community it engenders, the reason a sports organization exists goes far beyond merely winning.
Simply looking at the impact that teams and players can have within a community supports this thinking. Regardless of a team’s success, players and coaches can commit time, resources, and energies to make an impact with their fans and the communities in which they live and play. Because of their star power and fan base, they also already have a path to communicating and embedding their Purpose to a wider audience. Each sports entity, digging into its history, culture, and influence on its stakeholders, would be able to define its unique talent and the need in the world it fulfills and articulate its own Purpose. As previously described, the desire for a lifelong connection to a group may be one of the needs in the world sports teams and organizations are able to fulfill. However, among other values, the same teams could also transmit to society a culture of respect, dedication, teamwork, goals-orientation, or fitness.
Once defined, Purpose can serve as a lens for decision-making across the team’s brand, strategy, and culture. It should inform hiring decisions, community outreach programs, and create meaning and alignment for the team and fans alike. A well-defined and embedded Purpose also drives employee performance, engagement and job satisfaction, all factors in determining long-term success. It not only gives the fans a reason to make deeper connections with their team, but it also gives the players an opportunity to forge stronger connections with each other, their organization, and their community. Research tells us that a well-defined Purpose drives ROI in a company, and a sports teams should be no different. Playing to win is one thing, but what if you’re playing for even more? Reflecting on the stories we remember from sports, it’s not just the winning goal, but the runner who stopped to help a competitor, the team that beat the odds to just make the tournament, and the coach that taught his players to believe in themselves. Those are the stories that stick in our minds.
PURPOSE IN PLAY
Purpose has already been at play in sports, in fact, it has been a driving force of the Olympic movement since the modern games began. The overall Purpose of the Olympic movement is to make the world a better place through sport. It is anchored in the Olympic Charter which codifies the principles of Olympism and states, “The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.” Every four years the world comes together not just to compete, but to connect and help make our world a better society. We have seen this Purpose activated beyond the playing fields and arenas time and again. In 2016, in Rio the Refugee Olympic Team marched into the stadium to represent and bring awareness to the more than 65 million refugees worldwide. Every year, on June 23, the International Olympic Committee encourages people around the world regardless of age, gender or athletic ability, to get active and improve their health. And at every games there are myriad stories of athletes with zero chance of winning, who’s personal stories are told and celebrated.
Super Bowl 50 is another example of using Purpose for greater good. The chairman of the Host Committee, Daniel Lurie, articulated the plan for the Super Bowl to go beyond winning and losing, “We want to get this out into the world, that (global) sporting events can not only be a platform for sport, but also a platform for community and doing good.” (Forbes, Feb 3, 2013. “Super Bowl 50 Hosts Reinvent Philanthropic Vision for the NFL, Aliko Carter). After making this commitment, the committee boldly backed it up with programs to socially, environmentally and economically benefit the entire San Francisco Bay area. They established the 50 Fund which aimed to close the opportunity gap for youth in low income communities, worked to make it the greenest and most sustainable sporting event in history with carbon offsets and usage of renewable energy, and donated a percentage of sponsorships to local organizations. Sports can indeed do more than provide entertainment, it can and does change lives on and off the field.
THE POTENTIAL OF PURPOSE
The impact that a purposeful transformation has can be tremendous. Sports organizations – as the actors in a trillion-dollar industry, with enormous scale, resources, and a reach – are overlooking the necessary rocket fuel for implementing change. For sports entities, excavating their Purpose is the first step to channel their potential toward positive impact and may be a key ingredient to help resolve industry-wide challenges. Games come and go, but Purpose is timeless. Once articulated, Purpose mobilizes and motivates organizations to make bold commitments, becoming the pillar around which they move, learn, and evolve. Sports teams and organizations have an incredible potential to deliver positive impact to the world, they just need to discover how. The answer starts with discovering and embracing what really makes them great.