Pete Fitzboydon | The importance of sport in the post-Covid rebuild

Pete Fitzboydon, managing director of the thinkBeyond consultancy, describes how sport can be at the centre of the social and economic recovery from Covid-19

The impact Covid-19 has had on communities has been devastating. Unity and community togetherness have been affected, people have experienced hurt and suffering while so many lives have been lost.

Thankfully, the talk of vaccinations and improved testing is delivering hope of return to ‘normal’, or at least the much-vaunted ‘new normal’. Conversations are shifting to rebuilding and how countries bounce back. One of the undervalued tools to success of this rejuvenation is, without a doubt, sport. But are decision makers appreciating sport’s potential, and is the industry presenting itself in the right way?

When I clumsily refer to ‘sport’, I’m talking about everything from professional sport, to grassroots community sport, to sessions at the gym, right through to hopping on your bike for a half hour spin and everything in between. We all witness the power of elite sport to unite communities through the flag-waving euphoria supporting our Olympic and Paralympic heroes. Or the misplaced optimism before every major international football tournament (‘this time it’ll be different…’).

Whilst all sports, at all levels, have been impeded by Covid to some degree, it is important to recognise the unique and widespread potential for sport to drive our recovery.

But what of sport’s wider role?

Rightly, a lot has been made of the importance of the sport and fitness industries for their contribution to physical and mental health, especially for young people. But what else?

What about sport’s ability to unite society across cultural and age divides and rebuild a sense of community; the intangible that has been in decline for decades?

Not forgetting its economic value. Not just the direct value of the sports industry, but the massive value of a fit and healthy workforce.

Or even its role in creating a ‘greener’ world, either indirectly using sport’s unique power to inspire people to change their wasteful ways, or even through powering a green transport revolution? Imagine a world where the majority of trips were made under people’s own steam, by foot or by bike. We all witnessed and appreciated the lower levels of traffic in the first lockdown, but what if it was always like that? Consider the physical health benefits alone, let alone the improvements in air quality and CO2 emissions.

Why is sport so important for communities?

The social and economic value of grassroots football for adults, in England alone, has been calculated at £10.8bn per year. Social outcomes for participants include higher general health levels and improved self-confidence. London Sport research found that for every pound invested in sport and physical activity in London, £1.48 worth of social value is generated for individuals and society.

Sport and physical activity are crucial tools for reducing symptoms of depression, as well as helping with feelings of isolation and anxiety.

During the pandemic, mental health has been severely impacted with the number of adults showing signs of depression doubling since before the pandemic and a report from The Lancet found that the increase in probable mental health problems reported in adults also affected 5–16 year-olds in England.

Ultimately, sport can help us:

  • Unite generations, backgrounds and offer support to some of the most vulnerable people, giving them a platform and opportunities to develop
  • Support health and well-being, through increased exercise and togetherness
  • Strengthen mental, physical, social, and emotional resilience

How has the virus impacted sport, and can it bounce back?

Sport, like all industries, has taken a huge hit during the Coronavirus pandemic. Elite sport was paused, community activations were cancelled, and the world shut down.

The decrease in levels of activity have seen a direct impact to measures of personal well-being. Public Health England’s mental health and well-being surveillance report found that self-reported mental health and well-being worsened during the first national lockdown of the COVID-19 pandemic. Psychological distress, anxiety and depressive symptoms peaked in 2020.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recognises that sport and physical activity have a direct benefit for “hearts, bodies and minds”, whilst “physical activity reduces symptoms of depression and anxiety.

This highlights the need for the return of sport, the power of it and the importance of changing approaches to ensure sport is deliverable despite the challenges.

Throughout, we have seen some organisations have to pause all activity, whilst others were able to adapt their activities to suit an online world. This has been extremely challenging in areas where there is limited or no internet access, or individuals not able to access basic hardware to access the internet.

Despite all of these enormous obstacles to have to work through, we have seen huge amounts of creativity from the world of sport, to ensure that they can still support some of the world’s most vulnerable individuals in some way.

It’s about thriving, rather than surviving. This is how sport will bounce back.

Making it happen

The massive potential social impact of sport is clear. But it won’t happen without a concerted effort.

Sports organisations, decision makers and business leaders across the globe ultimately each have a hugely important role to play, and immense responsibility to support and deliver the recovery of communities, utilising sport.

The sport sector needs to adapt to stay relevant. Humans have a tendency of quickly forgetting and returning to the old habits. Sport needs to work fast to innovate and agree on how it should ‘look’ to meet the quickly evolving needs of the public, demonstrate its multi-dimensional benefits and unite forcefully behind that message. Sometimes the speed of movement is more important than the direction itself, and this feels like one of those times.

Businesses should consider their own contribution, ranging from reviewing how it can be woven into their mainstream business goals; how their purpose-driven investment strategies can align; right through to their employee well-being policies.

But crucially, policy makers need to appreciate the wider value of sport. Both the outcomes that can be easily measured as well as those that are more challenging to quantify. To harness the full benefits, the ‘new normal’ needs be designed around sport, not the other way around, and ensure it is woven into every policy from town planning to taxation.

The post-Covid world can be bright with sport at the core, but we need to make a conscious effort to get there…

Pete Fitzboydon is the managing director of thinkBeyond, a global strategic consultancy with a focus on utilising sport for social good.