Sports clubs for social change: embracing innovation

“Grassroots sport as a tool for integration and a bridge between tradition and innovation” was the theme of the Bulgarian EU Presidency Sport Conference that was held on 12–13 June, 2018 in Sofia, Bulgaria. ENGSO Policy Director Kaisa Larjomaa took part in the conference, whose topics managed to touch upon a variety of issues of sport today. The event inspired her to write down a few words about innovation in sport – and its funding:

Until the late 1900s, sports clubs were the “traditional” way of engaging people in sport – and in communities. In an era, where everything is personalised, digitalised and available 24/7, this potential remains. As long as we humans are social animals, we have the need to engage in communities.

In a room full of experts – and sports lovers – it was needless to underline that grassroots sport offers answers to many of today’s societal issues, from physical and mental health problems to social exclusion. Sports clubs can be a driving force in making sport inclusive and bring these benefits to a growing number of people.

Many sports innovations, whether technological or social, have the objective of engaging more people in sport and physical activity. The European Union has played a great role in finding innovations through funding projects.

With the help of EU funding from the Erasmus+ Sport Programme, many great examples have been initiated, such as our ASPIRE project for making sports clubs accessible for refugees. This incentive is vital, and luckily, the Commission has proposed to double up EU sport funding, along with the whole Erasmus programme, for 2021–2027.

In order to stay relevant, sports clubs must embrace innovations, and rethink their purpose and their target groups. The concepts of lifelong learning and social inclusion through sport can strengthen grassroots sports’ role in the civil society – and also bring new participants for sport. Innovation is needed in order to make sports more accessible and attractive to a variety of groups: for young people, seniors, employees, the unemployed, people with a migrant background, people with a disability and so on. Funding is needed in order to foster innovation and make a lasting impact.

While projects deliver innovations, it remains the work of the grassroots sports movement to spread and implement these innovations. A sad and rather universal fact is that when any project’s funding ends, the results also gradually disappear.

The last panel of the conference – Harry van Dorenmalen from SportInnovator, Mathieu Moreuil from the Premier League, Aleksandar Boričić from the European Volleyball Confederation, Pavel Kolev from the Bulgarian Football Union and Oliver Vangas from the Danish Foundation for Culture and Sport Facilities – presented and discussed a variety of technological and social innovations. When it was time for Q&A, I raised the question of funding. What would be a model for sustainable funding for innovation in grassroots sport?

In their brief answers, the panellists mentioned partnerships with elite sport, better governance in order to reassure public and private financiers and sharing ideas. I couldn’t agree more: they are all part of the solution. But the picture remains shattered: sponsorships, corporate social responsibility, lotteries, public funding, crowdfunding…

We need to have a clearer vision, so that we may overcome the funding gap and build innovations that have an impact over time – for the sake of grassroots sport and for the sake of our societies.

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