National Conversation on Sport: ‘It gave me a sense of identity… a starting point and the rest followed’

Even without my own personal experience with sport as a young man, it is easy to see that when used with intention, sport offers people, communities and society a strong pathway for positive change. For some it can be as simple as developing a life skill, for others, it can be a life saver. My own story was a mix of the two.

Sport brings so many benefits, says Nick Keller
Sport brings so many benefits, says Nick Keller

I was a terrible student – described as unteachable – but I found solace on the sports field – particularly in rugby where I gained belief and confidence in myself that I didn’t have off the pitch. Sport offered me a foundation and gave me a sense of identity. It gave me a starting point and the rest followed.

More recently, watching my two kids in lockdown has reinforced my belief in sport for positive change. My sons have both taken up a new passion for skateboarding, helping them move away from using their devices all the time and into the fresh air. I actually think it’s that element of physical risk and peril that is keeping them hooked, but they’re also learning that the more you commit to something, the more rewarding it is.

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I think we are seeing a cultural shift in the link between fatalities caused by the virus and obesity, which is why many governments are looking at the role of prevention in public health, and the role sport has to play. Of course, you could turn to diet and general fitness, but sport brings so many multiple benefits – mental health, emotional wellbeing and social cohesion to name a few.

Post-pandemic we need to address the inequalities that have been exacerbated, as well as the enormous knock on effects such as the mental health crisis we’re seeing across all generations. Sport will play a fundamental role in helping communities recover, whether it be helping people to take care of their physical and mental wellbeing, or through communities connecting across team sports or group activity.

So, where does business come in? The reality is that sport is best delivered directly into communities. There is of course the megaphone of the big sporting organisations, teams and events – those campaigns reach far and wide and do have tremendous impact – but real interventions happen through great coaches, mentors and community leaders. It is understandable why companies are drawn to the platforms that sport has to offer, as they invariably provide a greater depth and breadth of reach to communities in an authentic way.

Two of our long standing clients, ESPN and Bloomberg, have done incredible things using sport in different ways. Bloomberg connected with its clients and employees through physical activity and wellbeing engagement, and ran the 12 Bloomberg Square Mile relays from San Francisco to Shanghai. Not only did this boost stakeholder engagement, but it also raised over $1.6M for local charities through The Extra Mile. In 2020, Bloomberg moved everything online through a Virtual Club, helping people maintain their health and wellbeing through mini virtual events across a range of sports including cycling, running, walking, and even our first chess experience!

ESPN wanted a strategy to support growth in new markets that complemented its access through sports and leadership corporate citizenship pillars. Focusing on Latin America, it worked in partnership with regional and local sport-for-development organisations, to build accessible and sustainable safe spaces to play and learn in underserved communities. To date, ESPN ‘Built To Play’ has been activated in nine locations around the world, partnering with the communities to build safe sports spaces that also run high quality sports-based programming for young people that engages, empowers and develops life skills and provides entry routes into education and employment. Which Scottish/UK companies could do something similar here?

For business leaders, the important lesson is to remember that your primary role in business growth doesn’t have to be contrary to driving social impact – the two can work side by side to support the sustainable health of society. Such an approach can and does deliver to all – shareholders, employees, clients, suppliers and customers – and will enhance your own leadership.

We are delighted to have the Observatory for Sport in Scotland helping us to debate and discuss how sport can play a pivotal role in positive social change in Scotland and globally.