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Measuring what counts: The impact of sport on society.

It’s been more than 51 years since the Green Bay Packers met the Kansas City Chiefs at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in the AFL-NFL World Championship Game, later to be known as Super Bowl I. Yet even today, the impacts of mega events are still almost exclusively measured in terms of economic impact.And while few would argue there isn’t at least some economic impact derived from the various leisure spending and tax revenue generated by a mega event, the problem is that the revenue attribution varies widely, the costs and benefits from such events are shared unevenly and opportunity costs are a moving target so no one really knows for sure. One person’s shield in defending their trickle-down assertions of economic impact becomes another person’s sword for picking apart claims of wasteful spending.

So how should the ways in which a mega event’s — a Super Bowl, an All-Star game, Final Four or even an Olympic Games — effects on a city, a country or its citizens be measured? Can we, after more than a half-century of examining and debating the costs and benefits of mega sports events, create a larger, more embracing view of what they do and can achieve?
As sporting events continue to grow in cost and spectacle, citizens are often left holding both the burden and the bill. Increasingly more are asking: Are these events really worth it?

Perhaps by unearthing metrics that quantify the purpose-driven elements at the heart of sport and its impact on society, we can begin to focus on the ways in which sport truly can influence the good and welfare in host cities for generations to come.

We know empirically sport has been proved to play a major role in lowering incarceration rates, fostering a healthier and more active citizenry and helping lower health care costs, increasing job and customer relations skills, and serving as a catalyst for long-term well-being. But are we looking for these benefits deeply enough?

A few weeks after the television trucks have pulled out and the fans have gone home, another host committee will soon announce the results of an economic impact study conducted on behalf of the committee. In advance of that study, we’d offer a few complementary views by which true impact may be gauged and perhaps help future hosts plan more efficiently and gain more from their efforts.

Public-private partnerships

Threats affecting community stability are vast — from economic inequality to environmental issues; geopolitical and societal discourse to job skills and unemployment. These are among the many real challenges our cities face. And while government and philanthropy can make some impact in addressing these risks, sport has the ability to reset our communities around programs with shared values. The values inherent in sport have the power to influence action and create lasting change to galvanize societies and future generations.

Through a combination of host committee, league and sponsors, programs can be created to help combat the issues many of our communities face today — incarcerations, obesity, job training and literacy, just to name a few. The effect sport can have on these societal issues can be quite astounding and investment comparatively small. On Jan. 13, Ken Belson writing in The New York Times detailed the steps Arthur Blank has made to revitalize the communities adjacent to the new Falcons stadium. While Blank’s success is hardly assured and not without criticism, it has already had the effect of training people who have found employment both in his new facility and in the broader community.

Organizing committees are responsible for delivering the event. But a growing trend among host committees is in the very definition of its remit. The responsibilities are too great and the stakes too high to merely deliver an event. The “event” must be greater than what happens on the field of play and the accompanying weekend festivities. By creating deeper points of community engagement, leagues, governing bodies, teams and brands can have an opportunity to gain greater and more meaningful opportunities to create value for both society and business. These must be planned from the beginning of the event, and the plan for the event must generate revenue sufficient to operate legacy programs that are tailored to the needs of the local community.
Organizing committees

Brands

Many brands leverage the passion of sport to align with impressions and engagement, but most of these activities are episodic in nature, and not tied to greater community objectives. In fact, if done authentically, brands stand to gain far more from consumers loyal to companies that create legacy in their communities and build lasting change. Simply put: Creating shareholder wealth and lifting a community through lasting programs are not mutually exclusive.

Fans play a part too

Not only do investments in community programs allow brands to promote positive societal change but they can also introduce and strengthen interest in the sport. For most sports, grassroots activities build the foundation for a sustainable fan base. Fans are looking for deeper connections and deeper opportunities to share the spirit of their city. Fans want to play proud host, but they also want tangible evidence in the form of positive social change in the areas of education, health and wellness, and real dollars going into their pockets. The new sharing economy helps share the wealth through channels such as sharing apps and trickle down entrepreneurialism. By tapping into the fan’s psychological boost, brands could make their sports marketing more effective and sustainable and create early engagement with future fans and future consumers.

Driving business, building equity

There’s a wide-open space for greater corporate leadership in better defining the true impact of sport on society — both in financial and indirect terms that exceed the short-term gains from one-off events. Finding agreeable measurement models in which true value can be judged in economic and societal terms will help lift the game and all who play in its vast web of influence.

We encourage all host committees to dig deeper and look at the many ways sport can help overcome developmental and societal challenges as an intrinsic part of their charge and mission, not as a mere ancillary activity.

David Fuller founded sports marketing and experiential boutiques based in New York and serves as a faculty member at New York University. Robert Boland is the director of the masters of sports administration program at Ohio University and principal in Boland Sports Group.

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