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In this context, it’s perhaps surprising that the sponsors of the world’s favorite sport haven’t done more to leverage the game’s unique position as a powerful driver of social development and education.
Working in South Africa in the run-up to the 2010 World Cup, those of us in the “soccer for social change” sector experienced a post-Super Bowl rush of brands — usually those outside of the FIFA partner family — looking to invest in social programs during Africa’s first World Cup. This made a lot of sense: It’s a lot cheaper to sponsor a nonprofit organization than to sponsor the FIFA World Cup; it guarantees your brand visibility and credibility during the world’s most watched sporting event; and, hey, it might even do some good. The problem was that many of these partnerships were ill-conceived and poorly executed, with only the larger, more sophisticated nonprofit organizations able to cope with short-term investment and provide the sponsors with the outcomes and stories they needed to feel the investment was worthwhile.
This time around, the rush has not been quite as pronounced. Faced with increasing criticism of the seldom-delivered legacy promises of sports mega-events and the unexpected volume, organization and impact of the protests in Brazil, the 2014 World Cup’s big marketing campaigns are perhaps even more traditional than four years ago. Perhaps fearful of being criticized for tokenism or green washing, brands are keeping any message related to social programs firmly in the background. While stopping to acknowledge the anomalous leadership of Nike, invested long-term in Brazil through the Designed to Move initiative, it’s hard not to feel there is a huge missed opportunity here, especially given that there are no shortage of nonprofit organizations using soccer to address critical social issues that are desperately in need of funding.
Rather than treating this as a distinct corporate social responsibility project, Chevy,
Chevy’s partnership with One World Futbol pledges to deliver 1.5 million “nearly indestructible” soccer balls around the world.
Also notable is that Chevrolet selected a charity partner able to deliver on a global scale, with a simple message appropriate to every market; such is the power of a soccer ball. In his recent blog post on CSR Wire, Andrew Mack, the founder and principal of AMGlobal Consulting, talks about the value for global brands of “franchising” CSR approaches: identifying common needs that exist across different geographies and choosing the right partners to create a modular approach appropriate to any environment. It’s significant that the example Mack, a 30-year veteran of international development with the World Bank, imagines as his fictitious example is a program that teaches entrepreneurship through soccer. Chevrolet has heeded this message but with an approach much closer to cause-related marketing than traditional corporate social responsibility.
All of these experiences are relevant for the growth of soccer in the United States, where the game is fighting for attention in a saturated market with a product that is, unusually for American sports, a long way from being the best in the world. Unable to compete in terms of television presence or brand recognition, it makes sense for soccer to play to its strengths and consider the character, values and interests of its fast-expanding fan base of young, socially conscious millennials.
The good news for the U.S. is that soccer is light years ahead: More nonprofit organizations use soccer to address social issues than any other sport, including a growing network in North America.
It’s good news, too, for those of us who work in this sector because in the United States, perhaps like nowhere else in the world, there is an opportunity for a sport to grow with social responsibility at the heart of the business model rather than a late-stage adoption to offset increasing ticket prices or the cost of a replica shirt. This is already apparent at MLS clubs like Seattle and Portland and, perhaps most notably, the NASL’s San Antonio Scorpions, an entire professional team created to support a social goal.
This is what we will be examining, together with some of the most progressive teams and brands in the world game, at “Beyond Soccer — powered by streetfootballworld,” a one-day event taking place at Yankee Stadium on June 10. We believe that the unique power of soccer to create social change and the thousands of years of aggregated experience that exist around the world give soccer in the USA the opportunity to lead the way as a model of how sports business can do well by doing good.
Mike Geddes (firstname.lastname@example.org) is managing director of the U.S. office of streetfootballworld, an international soccer organization that uses the world’s most popular sport to help young people out of poverty and into a brighter future. For more information on “Beyond Soccer,” visit www.beyondsport.org/event/beyond-soccer-2014.
That Sterling-Clippers story line drew headlines far and wide, but there were in fact many stories involving race in the last few months, occurring at all levels of sport. While most of these stories went virtually unnoticed, they reveal how far we have to go:
■ In January, according the Polish newspaper Glos Wielkopolski, a Lodz-Poznan soccer match witnessed the Poznan fans shouting to the Lodz fans, “You belong in Auschwitz,” “Ride on, Jews” and “Into the ovens.”
■ In February, eight white wrestlers from Phillipsburg, N.J., were suspended from the state high school tournament after they posed for a photo with an effigy of a black rival hanging from a rope.
■ In the same month, members of a University of Mississippi fraternity placed a noose and flag with the Confederate symbol on a statue of civil rights hero James Meredith.
■ Three Mahopac (N.Y.) High School students were suspended for sending racist tweets after their boys basketball team lost to Mount Vernon in the state tournament. Mahopac students allegedly shouted racist remarks at the mostly African-American Mount Vernon High players throughout the game. Mahopac’s coach, who is black and an alumnus, resigned.
■ In April, the imposing statues of Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the campus of San Jose State were vandalized when someone smashed the gold medal around Smith’s neck.
■ Also in April, a fan threw a banana at Dani Alves in a soccer match between Villareal and Barcelona. Alves silenced the crowd when he ate the banana. Villareal was fined $17,000.
■ Last month, Montreal Canadians defenseman P.K. Subban received hateful tweets and had a water bottle thrown at him by a fan. Also last month, Pape Diop, a Barcelona soccer player who is black, was subjected to racist chants during a match against Atletico Madrid.
■ Serie A club Atalanta was fined $55,000 by the Italian Football Federation after a May 11 game against AC Milan in which fans threw bananas at Milan player Kevin Constant.
■ Some University of Texas fans were accused of racism after they created shirts that said, “Black is the new Brown,” when Charlie Strong was named head coach after former coach Mack Brown resigned.
Finally, just as I was completing this column, the following was reported:
■ Mario Balotelli was verbally abused with racist taunts by Italian fans during a training session in Florence.
■ Adam Goodes, the winner of this year’s Australian of the Year football award in that country, had his Facebook page attacked with hateful, race-related posts.
■ FIFA opened disciplinary proceedings against Paris Saint-Germain for racist behavior in a Champions League match against Chelsea. It has been 21 years since FIFA launched its “Kick It Out” campaign to combat racism in soccer, but it does not seem like there has been much progress. In a March survey, Kick It Out found that more than half of Premier League and Football League players have witnessed racist abuse in stadiums and a quarter of them have been subjected to it. Furthermore, 20 percent of the respondents said they had witnessed racist abuse in locker rooms or at the training ground. Seven percent said they were racially abused themselves.
These examples involved players and fans alike. How do leagues and teams send a message that such actions are unacceptable? Fines and punishment are a start, but looking in the mirror and making front offices more diverse — hiring women and people of color in decision-making roles — does even more. Showing fans and players that racism is unacceptable at any level of sports remains a work in progress.
And so we go back to the MLB report card.
Although the report covers every professional position in the league office and for each team, the most attention is almost always paid to the decline in the number of African-American players in MLB. It is ironic that this sticks out in the minds of most who read the report card.
This year, baseball tied an all-time low with 8.2 percent of the league’s players on Opening Day rosters being African-American. Story after story was written about this fact and the reasons why most young African-American children play basketball and football instead of baseball. Yet frequently ignored is the fact that 39 percent of those playing in MLB are players of color when you include Latinos, Asians and Native Americans.
Additionally, one of Commissioner Bud Selig’s legacies will be taking MLB from being run by mostly white men to a league where 28 percent of the professional positions in MLB’s central office are held by people of color and 30 percent are held by women. At the team level in senior administrative positions, 20 percent are held by people of color and 26.5 percent are held by women. At the professional level of the teams, 22 percent are held by people of color and 27 percent are held by women.
Part of the commissioner’s legacy has to be that he consistently took a stand to bring about these changes and help MLB adopt what may be the best set of diversity initiatives in all of professional sports.
The NBA’s report card is due out in a month. The NBA has consistently led all professional sports on racial and gender hiring practices.
The scrutiny is on professional and college sports in terms of hiring practices. It is always our hope that sports will take a leadership role in bringing about positive social change. To some degree the respective racial and gender report cards are a barometer of that fact. However, the long list of recent racial incidents in the world of sport cited above show we have a long road ahead.
Richard E. Lapchick (email@example.com) is the director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida, which annually publishes racial and gender report cards on MLB, the NBA and WNBA, NFL, MLS, college sports, and the APSE. Follow him on Twitter @richardlapchick and on Facebook at facebook.com/richard.lapchick.