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SBJ/Jan. 25-31, 2016/Sports in Society

Pope Francis sees sports as a world changer

Vatican to launch conference with help from marketing firms

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The leader of the Catholic Church is putting his faith in the power of sports to bring about social change.

Pope Francis will make sports a focus of his papacy’s third global initiative on education, following his efforts to highlight income disparity and climate change.

With the help of two North American sports sponsorship and marketing companies, the Vatican is launching a multifaith sports conference in October called “Sports at the Service of Humanity.” The three-day event will examine the role sports can play in society, from establishing relationships to helping promote health and wellness.

The Vatican will focus on three educational areas to help people grow: school, sports and jobs. The inclusion of sports represents the first time such a high-profile global institution has focused on the topic as a driver of social change. It also marks the first time that the Vatican has marshalled its wide reach on such a topic.

The Vatican retained Canadian-based Lang Marketing to develop and operate the October event. In turn, Lang Marketing subcontracted to Atlanta-based The Aspire Group, which will organize and sell it.

Pope Francis, catching a baseball in St. Peter’s Square, wants sports to fuel social change.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
The event will be an invitation-only conference for around 150 of the world’s sports, government and religious leaders. The event will be held in the Vatican from Oct. 5-7. Formal invitations will be sent out by this summer.

“There has never been such a meeting at the highest level of the Vatican on sports and faith,” said Monsignor Melchor Sánchez de Toca Alameda, the Vatican’s Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Culture. “It is not a one-off event. The idea is to create a movement that brings in all religions and all countries.”

Pope Francis authorized the event because he believes the Vatican can tap into the worldwide popularity of sports to bring people of all faiths, races and nationalities together in peace.

He had the idea of using sports to fuel social change soon after he was elected in 2013, according to Monsignor Sánchez de Toca. He attended a conference called “Believers in the World of Sports” in October of that year and saw the potential of using sports to unite disparate groups.

“We believe sports can be a powerful tool to make people grow,” Monsignor Sánchez de Toca said.

The conference’s organizers said they have yet to develop a specific list of the people they plan to invite, citing only the top sports, political and faith leaders across the globe. Monsignor Sánchez de Toca said he expects United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and IOC President Thomas Bach to be involved, and spoke of his desire to have people from all faiths represented. The event will consist of speeches, panels and working groups to articulate those principles and values.

“The official mission is to validate and endorse sport in the service of humanity,” said Bernie Mullin, chairman and CEO of The Aspire Group. “We’re looking to develop a declaration of principles and a set of guiding values that articulate how sport and faith can serve the greater good, and we want to develop partnerships to put these principles into action.”

The Aspire Group is in the process of selling three sponsorships at about $1.8 million (1 million euros) each to cover the event’s costs. One presenting sponsorship is close to being finalized with a global brand that is active in sports, and another supporting sponsorship is close to committing. Mullin also has started talk with a third potential sponsor on an apparel sponsorship. An Aspire Group executive would not say which companies are considering the sponsorships.

The plan is to limit the commercial support of the event to the three brands.

While the sponsorships will help underwrite the event, delegates will pay their own way to attend it.

The Aspire Group has set up an advisory group of about 30 people that hosts a weekly call, including Big East Conference Commissioner Val Ackerman, former Coke executive Scott McCune, DLA Piper’s Peter White and Special Olympics Chairman Tim Shriver. Those calls have focused on everything from the topics that should be covered and the people who should be invited.

“This is Pope Francis and what he stands for as he outlines his vision around helping those on the edges and those disadvantaged and those dislocated people. It’s very inspiring,” McCune said. “To think about using sports as a vehicle to do that? To me, that’s the ultimate sports marketing project.”

Sports will be a big part of a global initiative on education undertaken by Pope Francis, a soccer fan who frequently has spoken of his affinity for the San Lorenzo team from his home country of Argentina. Mullin described the conference’s mission as an endorsement of sports as a way to unite people of different faiths and different cultures, with an eye on bringing “the world together in peace by using sport.”

“It’s ping-pong diplomacy on the most massive global scale,” he said, calling it a global effort “to serve humanity better through sports.”

“That means more youth sports programs and opportunities for kids, particularly underprivileged, inner-city, at-risk kids around the world; kids that perhaps their parents can’t afford those sports programs,” Mullin added. “Programs that work on the guiding principles that guide humanity — play by the rules, sacrifice, teamwork, be part of a team and be part of a larger good.”

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