What if sports leagues acted more like AA, or religions?

A path to greater business success and social impact

My colleague and fellow football (soccer) fan, Andrew Wisniewski, brought this story to my attention today: Premier League seeks first creative agency.

Sports leagues’ motivations to engage a creative agency are likely similar to any other big entertainment franchise: increasing viewership, strengthening positive brand attributes, and ultimately lead to bigger sponsorship and TV contracts.

But what if sports leagues thought about themselves less as entertainment franchises, and more as giant self-organizing communities — closer to religions, or Alcoholics Anonymous, in nature?

There are obvious parallels… regular local meetups, cultural conventions on what you wear, say, sing etc. Complete strangers have an immediate, strong bond around shared interests.

What would be different?

Firstly, leagues would think more about grassroots engagement than relying on top-down content distribution. They would disperse tools and actively support self-organized local community groups. You can go to bars in Los Angeles or Bangkok and find them packed with as many passionate Arsenal or Manchester United fans as in North London or Manchester; but did the Premier League have anything to do with creating or supporting that, beyond putting on the show? Not at all — in fact the Premier League has hindered this kind of behavior by making it expensive and difficult for venues to show games.

If there were local chapters around the world, supported with organizing tools, sports leagues could instantly become some of the biggest organizations in the world. Fans organically do this kind of thing today with an array of forums, Facebook groups and websites, but without a little support from the leagues, the community is fragmented and poorly organized. Apply the local leadership tactics that the Obama campaign and social movements around the world have employed (codified by Harvard Professor Marshall Ganz), and you could have resilient, self-organized chapters in every city (or even, every neighborhood), meeting to watch games, share stories, play together. This would be awesome for fans, who would have a new sense of belonging and instant community wherever they go, but also a driver of viewership, affinity, loyalty.

Secondly, a globally networked grassroots organization would have incredible power to achieve meaningful things. The Premier League is watched by 4.5Bn people in 643M homes; a grassroots organization could in short order be of greater scale and impact than Rotary Clubs, Cub Scouts, Masons and Alcoholics Anonymous combined—maybe religions would be the only bigger organizations (but probably not). That creates amazing opportunities, from the social cohesion inherent in strong communities (people of all ages, races, political persuasions coming together around shared interests), to social progress.

A few years ago, a few of us now at enso worked with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and FC Barcelona on raising polio awareness. The idea was that with hundreds of millions of fans, FCB could raise awareness and engage its fans in more than soccer. Here are some of the things we created:

FC Barcelona + Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, More Than A Goal

This worked, in as much as a lot more people understood the challenge we collectively face with Polio. But it only went so far: FCB has more organization infrastructure than most clubs (with 1M+ official members), but the organization is a traditional top-down one without grassroots microleaders or self-organized chapters — so the impact stopped at awareness. In that way, this was similar to NBA Cares and all the other leagues’ pro-social efforts that are modeled after traditional top-down philanthropy.

How could a sports league become the worlds’ largest community organization?

Beyond looking at Marshall Ganz’ leadership methodologies, sports leagues could look at Alcoholics Anonymous for inspiration. AA relies on volunteer organizers, but has a central General Service Organization to coordinate, train and distribute materials. There are frameworks (e.g. formats for different kinds of meetups), a culture of welcoming new members and shared service, sponsor-pairing, and the whole thing is fueled by the power of sharing stories.

This thought started as Andrew and I chatted at lunch, but as I write this, I think it’s feasible and of huge business and social impact potential. and I want to help make it happen. So if any league representatives want to talk, reach me at sebastian@enso.co :-)