Finally, the world of sport is back on its feet, and the whole world is watching.
Therein lies the problem. Sport is one of the least diverse, least progressive, least sustainable industries, yet we pour money, time, and our undivided attention into it year after year. Deep down, most in the industry know that a focus on ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) could change the face of sport forever, and make it an industry that helps push the world forward for the right reasons. The issue is moving past the money and the glory to make this a priority.
But that’s not the only reason to act now. Just like other industries, from retail to oil and gas, there’s an onus on organisations to not only make the world a better place, but to change in pursuit of a healthier, more resilient bottom line. The reputational risk they now face from not acting on issues like sustainability and diversity is huge – and it’s a business issue just as much as a societal one.
Choices that are made on diversity, both on and off the field, track or pitch, affect more than players and fans – as important as this is. Not acting on diversity and inclusion could put sponsorship deals on the line or risk losing funding from ESG-conscious investors. But where can organisations even begin?
The stars of the show
Throughout the history of almost every sport, there’s been a distinct lack of inclusivity and representation. While things have certainly improved, there is still a way to go to see the Women’s World Cup reach the same heights as the Men’s, or the Paralympics garner the same viewing figures as the Olympics. With 2019 research by the European Parliament finding that 85% of media coverage is of male athletes, and 90% of articles on sports written by men, it’s no real surprise we still haven’t achieved a healthy balance.
But the issue goes far beyond demographic representation. In recent months, a complete lack of inclusivity – of athletes like Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles’ health and wellbeing, not simply their identities – has further demonstrated the huge lengths the sporting world still has to go to achieve real diversity on the field. This is only compounded by the fact both Osaka and Biles are women of colour.
But for all the failings, there are bright spots: last month month saw the world’s first transgender Olympian Laurel Hubbard participate in the Games – though she has said she hopes the sport becoming more inclusive means her appearance won’t be “historic”. Meanwhile, sports like sailing are making great strides: organisations such as The Magenta Project are driving this change forward, and new initiatives like SailGP’s Foiling First are not just promoting but taking actionable steps to achieve greater gender diversity in sailing.
The steps we need to see
So we’re seeing progress – but not enough. This is because, for all the increased focus on representation in athletes on the pitch, there is still too little focus on other pieces of the puzzle. The entire ecosystem of the sporting world needs to change – and this change needs to be women-centric.
One major way to enact real change is to embed innovation in design into the sports industry. Engineers need to start designing for women – not retrofitting. Watersports is a good example here: boats could be made more technically, and less physically demanding; wetsuits and lifejackets could be designed to better accommodate women’s bodies; menstruation could be taken into consideration for long-game sports like sailing or marathon running – the list goes on. Just as equipment like groin protectors were created.
This lack of innovation and design on behalf of female athletes in itself is largely due to a lack of inclusion and diversity. Who organisations hire in the back office is just as important as who represents their club or country. Simply put, if organisations, clubs, and governing bodies are run by non-diverse leadership, then we’ll never achieve equality – on the field or off.
And this isn’t about optics. Research has previously found that companies with more women at the top and in management outperform those without. As such, there is a watertight business case for prioritising inclusion and diversity.
Just as parachuting women into boardrooms and grad schemes – while neglecting to hire them elsewhere – will only do so much for corporate gender equality, focusing solely on athletes isn’t enough to make real change happen in sports. The match and the track are the boardroom – the rest of the ecosystem is the whole business.
Across every industry and every business, diversity of people breeds greater innovation and creativity. This attracts greater business value, and greater talent – setting organisations up for a stronger future. In the sporting world, brand equity and the resulting sponsorship deals, big ticket brand partnerships, and ticket sales, are everything.
For organisations hoping to achieve this, inclusion and diversity is a non-negotiable. In sports, there is an even bigger benefit: improving representation on the field and off. Delivering value while inspiring the next generation of professional sportspeople, who will grace podiums in the decades to come – and improving the sports they love in the process – is surely the ultimate goal?