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Neill Duffy on the evolution of the purpose argument at Global Sports Week

After having spent the last 10 years honing my practice at the intersection of sports, business and purpose, Global Sports Week held in Paris at the beginning of February felt like what I imagine a Bar or Bat mitzva must represent for a young Jewish people as they turns 13 and become accountable for their actions.

The fact that a major international sports conference took the decision to place Purpose at the heart of its agenda is in itself an indication of how the business of sport is at last waking up to what has been going on around it for the last ten years.

This shift is fuelled by a growing expectation amongst citizens that organisations need to stand for something more than just profits and want to work for, buy from, invest in and advocate for those that do.

For me, the underlying mood at the well-attended 2 day event was paradoxically one of excitement and uncertainty. Excitement, particularly amongst the younger delegates, that Purpose presents a huge opportunity for the business of sport to start doing real good in the world while doing well, but an uneasy uncertainty about HOW to realise this potential and what it really all means.

The panel I moderated in the first session on Day 1 entitled “Selling sport in the age of the citizen fan” with Guillaume de Monplanet, SVP and General Manager at adidas France, and Mathias Vicherat, SVP and General Secretary at Danone reinforced the fact that the corporate sector is WAY ahead of the sports sector in its understanding of how the world is changing, how today’s consumers expect corporations to behave, how this impacts upon the way they run their business and how this necessitates that they innovate and transform their business models in order to remain relevant. It also reinforced the fact that Purpose is actually a business conversation and not simply something that sits at the fringes of how a business operates which is so often the case with CSR and philanthropy.

It was clear from our conversations that adidas and Danone have both clearly started activating their investments in sport in alignment with their organizational Purpose.

Danone’s announcement that the Danone Nation’s Cup, the world’s largest annual football tournament for under 12 boys and girls, would become the first major football tournament to sign up to Common Goal and commit 1% of the competitions total budget to fund football for good projects signaled that sponsors are starting to explore more purposeful ways to move beyond the traditional approach to sponsorship activation – self focused awareness, hospitality, fan experiences – and to do so in a collaborative way involving multiple stakeholders.

By contrast, the majority of leaders of sports properties that I listened to over the two days were all using the Purpose word but seemed unclear as to what their organizational purpose actually was, how Purpose is dramatically different to the traditional approaches to philanthropy, CSR and sustainability that they currently pursue and how they are transforming their businesses to embrace the change that is underway. As such, it seems clear that the business of sport is still very much at the start of its transformational journey towards a more Purpose centric raison d’etre but at least the journey is underway.

What was hugely encouraging at the conference was the active part that young people attending the conference played, joining the conversation in a mature and knowledgeable way and in many instances making more sense that the speakers on stage.

The 50 Young Sports Makers that Global Sports Week had assembled from all over the world to challenge the status quo did just that and reinforced the fact that young people today expect so much more than just platitudes exemplified by the challenge they laid down to sports leaders - “Are you ready to change now”?

Equally encouraging was the participation by 9 organizations selected for the Global Sports Week Booster that are actually delivering social and environmental impact on the ground through various sport for good initiatives. The 3 minute pitches that they each delivered to delegates were great examples of the power of sport to change lives for the better in the real world. 17 Sport, the purpose led sports impact consultancy which I co-founded and lead with my partner Fabien Paget, will work with these 9 organisations over the next 12 months to help them access the Global Sports Week community and scale their impact beyond the level which they could achieve on their own.

I also really enjoyed my podcast conversation with Unofficial Partner host Richard Gillis and Beyond Sport Founder Nick Keller. Richard’s questioning of the state of play around Purpose in Sport in general challenged the strong held beliefs that Nick and I both share around the power of sport to drive transformational change at an individual, community and societal level while providing us with the opportunity to talk through the opportunities and challenges facing the business of sport as it starts finding its feet in this new age, the age of Social Good.

I am already counting down the days to the next Global Sports Week and hopeful that by then, the business of sport will have started to get to grips with how to embrace, in a truly authentic way, what I believe is the biggest opportunity that sport has had in recent times to redefine its role in society and contribute in a meaningful way to a sustainable future.

Neill Duffy is CEO and Founder of 17 Sport, the world’s first sports impact company operating at the intersection of sport, business and purpose. 17 Sport purpose is to build a more positive future for the world through sport by providing purpose led strategic, commercial and management solutions for brands, properties, athletes and non-profits wanting to manage their investment in sport in a more meaningful way. Operating out of offices in Paris and San Francisco, 17 Sports works with the biggest brands, properties, athletes and non-profits in the world.

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