Sports for Healthy Communities (3/8)

Jeff Prudhomme
May 30, 2018 · 5 min read

Policy Two from the Future of Sports & Society Discussion Project

Photo by Arisa Chattasa on Unsplash

The Basic Idea: Sports for All, Sports for Life

What if our core goal for sports is to improve health and to promote healthier communities? This policy idea focuses on the goal of using sports to do just that — to promote health and wellbeing across all sectors of the general population. It aims to do this by maximizing equitable access to sports participation through all stages of life for all sectors of our communities. Participation in sports can boost physical and mental health at all ages, which is beneficial for the whole population. By targeting sports for all, for all times of life, this policy approach aims to foster healthy communities. To do this, the policy would pool public resources to make sports activities available to all sectors of the population rather than focusing public spending on elite athletics or solely on youth sports.

Consider Finland, where sports and physical activity are considered a right and where they embrace the notion of sports for life and not just for elite athletes or children. They consistently rank near the top of participation measures for sports and fitness activities (compared to the US, where only about 50% of the population exercises regularly). Some ways Finland makes this possible: making sports facilities easily accessible, providing incentives to employers to enable employees to engage in sports, and embracing the fun of sports like competitive hobbyhorse riding, competitive air guitar, or swamp soccer. What if we likewise adopted this approach as a public policy focus?

A core premise of this policy is that there should be universal access to various forms of sports participation because sports participation is beneficial to human health and to the health of our communities. Given this impact on community health, sports participation should be seen as a basic right, not a private luxury. Sports can foster social cohesion as well, boosting community spirit. For sports to have these effects on personal and community health, resources need to be directed to address community deficits and inequitable distribution of sports opportunities. This will require public investment to expand access to sports participation. It could also require a concerted effort to return economic value from elite or professional sports to community sports. The guiding rationale is to maximize access to sports participation for all sectors of the population in a way that is not limited by socio-economic status, race, age, gender, or ability status.

What if communities focused on using public resources to engage all sectors of the community in sports and fitness activities? Sylvania Recreation in Ohio aims to meet the sports and fitness needs of all members of their community with sports facilities and programs that are financially accessible to all. Their video shows their dedication to the spirit of play.

Some Possible Features

Focus on health

  • Focus on health and wellbeing for the nation, including mental, emotional, and physical health for individuals across all community sectors
  • Coordinate sports policy with health and wellness policy, showing the positive benefits of sports and fitness initiatives
  • Set a framework for national, state, and local coordination of sports-fitness and health efforts
  • Provide public funding for research on sports and health so there is a body of knowledge separate from commercial interests
  • Engage the private sector by providing incentives and showing it is in their economic interest to invest in healthy communities


  • Inclusiveness for all residents, and all sectors of the community — address existing areas of unequal access, such as: race, economic status, gender identity, ability status, age, etc.
  • Create gender integrated sports opportunities and non-binary sports structures to assure equal access for all gender identities
  • Create adaptive sports programs for those with disabilities, including “Buddy” programs to integrate people of different ability status
  • Expand access for families by providing childcare at Community Sports Centers and/or co-scheduling of activities for children and adults, etc.
  • Set or incentivize workplace policies to enable sports participation for all
  • Connect urban or community design to sports and physical activity, designing communities for more active lives, to encourage more sports and fitness participation and to make it easier for all residents to participate in sports in their communities (so opportunities to play are everywhere)
  • Make economic development and community revitalization responsible for including space for physical health and sports
  • Set minimum per capita requirements for sports and recreation space in community development

Community Sports Centers

  • Build more community sports centers, fewer hospitals: focus on health promotion not just disease treatment, connecting community sports centers to other community health resources or clinics (health/wellness programs, primary care, rehab centers)
  • Publicly invest in community sports centers for all sectors of population and making them readily accessible for all (focus public spending on sports for the whole span of life, not just on school sports)
  • Pool community resources to provide a greater range of sports opportunities for the whole range of the population
  • Make community sports centers readily accessible to all

Tens of billions of tax payer dollars support sports stadiums for professional teams and their billionaire owners. Some politicians have suggested removing these public subsidies and ending the bidding war of communities trying to poach each other’s professional teams. What if we invested those tens of billions into community sports for all community members?

Return Sports Value to Communities

  • Set national policy to return economic investment from professional sports leagues back to communities, since without community sports, elite sports are unsustainable
  • Tax professional sports, as well as sports gambling and fantasy sports, to fund community sports
  • Either stop public investment in professional sports facilities, or set conditions to reward the public for such investment. If communities provide public subsidies to professional sports, then: communities should receive an equity stake (including a community ownership stake of pro teams), publicly subsidized facilities should be multi-use, integrated into the community, and open for overall community use, and community sports facilities should be included along with elite sports facilities.
  • Set a national policy of non-competition among municipalities or states to avoid bidding wars for the relocation of professional sports teams
  • Set best practices to avoid exploitation of community members (e.g. developing young athletes as prospects for professional teams) and to focus sports activities on health promotion, skill development, and social cohesion in the community
  • Set guidelines for any sports-based community development to protect the community and individuals from commercial exploitation. When private funding is used, buffer communities from the impact of private interests; set corporate social responsibility guidelines for philanthropic funding to focus on good of the targeted community. Program evaluation and metrics should focus on the benefit of community

Exploring Possible Impacts

  • What might be the health implications for this policy approach? How might it impact the health of individuals? How might it impact communities?
  • What changes might be necessary in our communities or in our workplaces to make this policy workable?
  • How else could the policy be implemented to improve community health?
  • What other broader social or cultural implications might this policy have? What tradeoffs might we face?

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