While politicians, professional sport leagues and their owners, and some news outlets, among others, will frequently discuss the economic benefits of sport, the evidence is actually somewhat mixed. In fact, if we consider the role of sport franchises in promoting economic development and job creation, there is little evidence that the outputs are greater than the inputs--that is, the monies communities spend to keep them there.
What, then, is the role of sport, or more broadly, physical activity in the community? The most recent issue of Sport Management Review addressed this question, focusing on sport-for-development (SFD). In this case, sport is used as a tool to address broader concerns. In many cases, sport activities will be coupled with other educational or cultural elements as a way of promoting a larger individual or social goods. For example, some programs are designed to use sport as a tool to educate people about HIV/AIDS, while others use sport as a way of combatting homelessness.
While all articles in the SMR special issue meaningfully contributed to the SFD dialogue, I focus on one of contributions: Mike Edwards' essay on how sport can aid in capacity building.*
We can think of capacity building as a community's capital--including people, monies, physical, and technological resources--to engage in collective action, solve problems, and improve the well-being of community members. Edwards suggested that sport could help cultivate seven areas of community capacity:
- Skills and resources: sport facilities and infrastructure provide the resources and skills needed in a community.
- Social relations: through positive interactions among players, fans, and community members, sport can generate social capital and enhance the sense of community.
- Community dialogue: as partnerships and collaboration are needed to hold sport events, and sport can help build a collective identity among community members, it might also help facilitate community interactions and dialogue.
- Leadership: when delivered effectively, sport can serve as a site for leadership development among players, coaches, and administrators.
- Civic participation: people are often motivated to become involved in sport activities, and as a result, citizens might increase their involvement in community processes and decision making.
- Value system: when designed with mass participation in mind, sport can help in the development of democratic processes and inclusivity; when designed in this way, sport can also aid in teaching ideal cultural values to the participants.
- Learning culture: by participating on diverse teams and gaining feedback on performance, participants are able to critically reflect on their shared experiences and potential the community's history.
In considering these positive outcomes, it is important to remember that sport, in itself, is value-free. Instead, it is the design and delivery of sport that allows for possible benefits or drawbacks. The same can be said for using sport as a tool for community development and capacity building. Edwards argued, "the key to facilitating meaningful community development is to engage with community partners to identify real social issues and their causes, design SFD interventions to specifically address those social goals with appropriate non-sport programming, and to build community capacity to ensure cultural relevance, adoption, and sustainability" (p. 16).
* Edwards, M. B. (2015). The role of sport in community capacity building: An examination of sport for development research and practice. Sport Management Review, 18, 6-19.