Alexis Schäfer | Delivering societal change through sport

Alexis Schäfer, commercial, partnerships & broadcasting director at the International Paralympic Committee, says that as brands look to build cause-led marketing programmes, the narrative behind Paralympic sports and athletes coupled with the enthusiastic and creative support of broadcast partners has proved a compelling combination

Alexis Schäfer

Society and sport need pioneers. Sir Ludwig Guttmann, a WW2 German refugee, developed the idea that sport could be used for the rehabilitation of people with disabilities. His vision ensured that, 60 years ago, the first Paralympic Games were held in Rome – 400 athletes from 23 countries made history.

Since then the Paralympic Games have grown exponentially in size, scale and impact:

  • At Rio 2016 there were 4,328 athletes from 159 countries and a record cumulative global TV audience of 4.1 billion
  • We are the third largest sports event on the planet in terms of ticket sales
  • We are the world’s No. 1 sports event for driving social inclusion.

That last point is an important one as brands increasingly develop purpose-led marketing strategies – the Paralympics are different from other rights properties.

Without doubt you get world class sport, where the standards are raised at every Games, but we transform attitudes towards the world’s largest marginalised community, the one billion people across the globe who have a disability. We create opportunities for them to be active members of society. We ensure that host cities and countries initiate change through laws and accessible infrastructure. The Paralympics are different because they offer the prospect of delivering societal change through sport.

And people are increasingly alive to this opportunity. Nielsen data shows that global awareness of the Paralympic Games in 2015 was 65 per cent, but that figure increased to 85 per cent by 2020. The demographics of this target group are slightly younger, higher educated and are often from households with children.

Understanding and reaching out to the target audience for the Paralympics is important for the future development of the Paralympic Movement, the IPC and for brands that want purpose-driven campaigns.

Pioneering broadcast

Those seeking inspiration should look no further than the UK’s Channel 4. In 2012 they changed the broadcast landscape of Para sports. From powerful promotional campaigns to running a recruitment scheme to ensure 50 per cent of their on-screen presenters had a disability, Channel 4 have delivered record audiences for Para sport.

Going into the London 2012 only 14 per cent of the British public were looking forward to them. Post-Games research revealed that 83 per cent of viewers agreed Channel 4’s coverage improved society’s attitude towards people with a disability. Crucially, it had legacy. By 2018, there were 3.85 million disabled people in employment in Great Britain, a million more than in 2012.

Channel 4 wants to maintain their prized position as a world leader in inclusion. In their recent pitch to retain the UK Paralympic media rights to the Paris 2024 Paralympic Games, they outlined that a new element of their partnership will be reaching out and informing persons with disabilities that everyone has a route to exercise.

The storytelling potential of the Paralympic Movement and its ability to achieve transformational change is captured by the Netflix documentary Rising Phoenix.

This film of the Paralympic Games and nine Paralympic athletes debuted on the streaming platform in the middle of our #WaitForTheGreats one-year-to-go campaign. Despite the fact the Games were postponed, it helped us deliver record levels of engagement on Paralympic social channels – #WaitForTheGreats secured over 143 million Twitter impressions in two weeks.

Engaging content comes in many guises. Last week World Para Swimming shared on Facebook a 30-second clip of US swimmer Jessica Long putting on her prosthetic legs got 44 million views in a week and helped World Para Swimming add over 35,000 new followers.

Telling the compelling stories of Paralympians, however big or small, helps change global attitudes towards disability. We want the Paralympic Games to have an even greater impact on society by placing disability at the heart of the diversity debate and by using Para sport as a vehicle to drive the human rights agenda.

That’s why we recently signed a co-operation agreement with the International Disability Alliance, the global authority on disability rights. Along with other strategic partners who will come on board in the next year, we will develop and implement mutually beneficial strategic inclusive campaigns that will be at the heart of Tokyo 2020 and all future Games.

For businesses, besides building brand awareness and exposure, their involvement and support for the Paralympic Movement is an opportunity to build an inclusive work culture which can bring growth. Recent Accenture research found that companies championing inclusive work environments for employees with disabilities achieved on average across four years, 28 per cent higher revenue, doubled net income and 30 per cent higher economic profit margins.

Partnerships accelerating growth

Investment in Para sport means that most athletes in leading nations are benefitting full-time from the latest training regimes and sport science. In turn, the standard of sport is high performance and evolving at a rapid rate. At Rio 2016 four visually impaired Paralympians ran the 1,500m race faster than the Olympic gold medallist. The long jump world record of German amputee Markus Rehm would have won gold at the last three Olympic Games.

Athlete standards are improving worldwide thanks to partner support. Over the last three years Toyota has invested hugely in the National Paralympic Development Programme, which aims to increase the knowledge, skills, capacity and opportunities for National Paralympic Committees (NPCs) at all levels to develop Para athletes and Para sport. It helped 74 Para athletes compete in the 2019 World Para Athletics Championships and seven countries will likely make their Paralympic Games debut in Tokyo.

The success of the Paralympics has always been built on partnerships. It’s the theme at the heart of our recently launched request for information for media rights in Europe for 2022 and 2024. We want to work with partners to deliver something different.

Of course, it is important for us to increase the revenue base so that we can support the organisation of the Games and the betterment of our media products. However, with this process, our intention is also to open and refresh new and ongoing dialogues with interested parties to understand how we can enhance the Paralympic Games experience, increase the reach of Para sport as a celebration of human diversity, and ultimately maximise the social impact of the Paralympic Games.

That way, together, we can continue Sir Ludwig’s pioneering vision.

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