The Industry Column - thinkBeyond

11 Sep 2014

Alexandra Chalat, MD of thinkBeyond, looks into what the world can learn from sport.

Last October, I went to the Frieze Art Festival in Regent’s Park – an enormous spanning of exhibits, famous art collections and new works on display. The event is aimed at potential buyers and art connoisseurs. (I, of course, was not their target audience). Given my background in sport for social change, I was interested to see what a huge, annual event like Frieze had done to use its prestige and draw for the good of the community. There was, for the first time, a ‘family space’ where people could take their kids and experience more ‘accessible aspects of art’, and Frieze does have a foundation, providing art education and opportunities for emerging artists to get their big break, which is commendable and necessary. But as one of the largest art festivals in the world, as well as staging multiple traveling shows, I was surprised that there wasn’t a stronger message around social responsibility, and the use of art to engage those less fortunate – and not just to learn how to create art, but to use it as a catalyst for change.

In late January, when the NBA staged its latest London game, the league delivered one of their typical ‘NBA Cares’ events the day before the Brooklyn Nets and Atlanta Hawks faced off. As usual, it was a super impressive endeavour, with about 100 kids who may or may not have ever played basketball getting a chance to play, learn lifeskills, and interact with top players. This happens before every game, in addition to the more extensive work the NBA does across the US, Asia and Africa on a year-round programming basis. 

Although there has been a lot of cynicism around legacy programmes of the Olympics or World Cups, they are incredibly impressive when compared to other industries. Initiatives that get kids to play more sport or give a go to those who might not have had a chance to play are abundant. But the sport industry has done much more than that. Social responsibility programmes are using sport as a catalyst – a way to improve society, to address major societal challenges around employment, exclusion, and health. The amount of programmes and organisations still proudly sporting the ‘Inspired by 2012’ badge is inspiring in itself. The sheer power of that ‘London 2012’ brand is genuinely being used to trigger positive social change in communities across the UK.

When it comes to mega sporting events, from All-Star Games to the Olympics, community engagement and genuine social responsibility has become integrated into the overall planning and delivery. Most prestigious arts fairs, sold-out touring concerts, and music festivals have foundations, or programmes that encourage the protection of music education or provide opportunities for and up-and-coming artists. But very few seem to actually be using arts as a tool with the objective to address key social issues.

There are some interesting and genuinely impactful charities and projects around the world using theatre, dance, arts, and music to educate and provide opportunities to people, addressing social issues from HIV/AIDS to mental health. But when it comes to corporate side, the ‘professional’ element of the industry, the platform and power of the arts doesn’t seem to be fully recognised. Even the Venice Biennal – the prestigious bi-annual art, dance and architecture festival that has been referred to as the ‘Olympics of art’ – doesn’t have strong flagship CSR or community engagement efforts. Perhaps the organisers feel that supporting young, talented artists is a sufficient contribution to society. 

But supporting potential stars is no longer enough for the sports industry. The companies, agencies, host cities and governing bodies that drive the sector’s major events, tournaments, and tours are creating a leading industry in social responsibility. Leagues like the NBA aren’t alone – the Premier League, Premiership Rugby, NFL and NHL are all using their credibility and platform to make a difference, with programmes addressing some of the toughest issues, from water shortages to obesity to gang crime. Companies like Barclays and Western Union are taking a shared-value approach, specifically relating to the major sporting events they sponsor, recognising that healthy communities will in turn give them more business, and sport is a key way to achieve that goal.

The reason why is obvious – it’s good business. It gives sponsors an opportunity to activate in a positive and more creative way. Players and former players care about making a difference. Cities don’t want a mega-sporting event to set-up camp unless it benefits their communities. Our industry is demanding more and in turn, it’s raising the bar of what ‘CSR’ really can achieve.

This industry has seen the value in making these efforts, and also recognising sport’s unique power. Perhaps the arts might want to take a lesson from the sport industry’s playbook.

Contact her at [email protected] or on 

This article first appeared in SportsPro magazine -