Shared Table: Activating the Power and Scale of Sports for Social Good

Emeryville / 13 September 2017

Last week was an epic week to return to work from parental leave. My first full week back and I found myself sitting amongst an inspiring mix of minds at an enso Shared Table, discussing the potential of sport to deliver positive social impact. Personally, sports offered me catharsis through the turbulence of young adulthood — proving inspiration, building confidence, and introducing me to an inseparable family of friends. As I bring my first daughter into the world, I can’t help but think about the role that sports will play in her life, the physical and mental well-being they will bring her, and the opportunity we have to scale that. It’s good to be back at the table.

In collaboration with Purpose + Sport and Clif Bar & Company, we convened a diverse group of leaders from various layers of sport, business, philanthropy, and media — for a family style meal and one big conversation around our shared desire to leverage the scale and influence of the professional sports industry to create positive change. We gathered at Clif’s stellar bike-powered, biophilic office in Emeryville, CA. Guests around the table included:

Tonya Antonucci, Playworks | Jama Adams, SidePorch | Maddie Bowman, Professional Freeskier | Sebastian Buck, enso | Lawrence Cann, Street Soccer USA | Morgan Clendaniel, Fast Company |Stacey Cook, Professional Alpine Skier | Andrew Crow, Strava | Neill Duffy, Purpose + Sport | Mike Geddes, streetfootballworld USA | Jenni Hart, enso | Taylor Lydon, Positive Coaching Alliance | Sean McNamara, enso | Lisa Novak, Clif Bar & Company | Rebecca Perez, Purpose + Sport | Stephen Revetria, Giants Enterprises | Liz Salazar, GeoKids | Keely Wachs, Clif Bar & Company

The conversation bounced around the table organically and authentically. Key themes that emerged from the dinner included:

Broadly speaking, the sports industry is not delivering on its purpose potential. This was raised at the table both in relation to other industries as well as in relation to the unrealized and immeasurable influence of sports specifically. From widespread participation at the community level (youth, recreational, amateur, and collegiate sports) through to the vast reach of professional sports as a business (inclusive of its athletes, teams, leagues, sponsors, and fans), sports present a natural platform to deliver positive social impact at scale.

The time to change that is now. We’re seeing a few shifts in culture simultaneously:

  • People increasingly expect business to stand for something more than just profit, and are prepared to reward those businesses that do. There is a tremendous opportunity to bridge the gap between this purpose-based value system and the way professional sports operate.
  • Sports, throughout history, have been a unifying force for people. Participants, coaches, and fans together share common human emotions (struggle, joy, pride) when on the field, in the water, on the slopes, or even from the stands — despite our differences. Now more than ever before, social isolation is a growing epidemic in culture — one that’s increasingly recognized as having significant negative impacts on overall the health of society. Sport presents an incredible platform to foster vast social connection and bring people together in meaningful ways.
  • Unfortunately, a growing apathy in sports is undermining its fundamental role in the fabric of society. At the youth and community level, there are a broader set of extra curricular activities available today than twenty years ago. At the professional level, the future fan base is threatened as many millennials turn to on-demand entertainment and e-gaming, losing interest in traditional sports. Apathy is the enemy to our ever fully realizing the vast potential of sports to deliver positive social impact.

We must redefine success. Then, together take small steps toward success. Yes, performance, and the strive to win, sits at the heart of sports. However, anyone who has ever played, coached, or watched sports knows that the game is about more than winning. It’s about camaraderie and community; about commitment, confidence, and perseverance; it’s about performance and entertainment. At the youth level, where many first engage in sports, emphasis should be placed on “being your best vs being the best.” At the professional level, in addition to winning, we should support and celebrate the same. One athlete shared frustration that her sponsor contracts recognize a narrow definition of success — performance-based only — while her personal goals include charitable contributions such as getting more kids into the sport; unfortunately this is not recognized as ‘success’ by the industry.

We need to put pressure on the industry from all angles.

  • Within the industry, brands must demand that teams facilitate purpose-oriented initiatives as part of sponsorship agreements. Teams and brands must reward athletes for more than just performance, building philanthropic activity into athlete contracts + KPIs. We must incentivize. Reciprocally, athletes should be pressuring teams to recognize goodwill as an aspect of performance — and a driver of athlete brand equity. In other words, we must all ask more of each other — but it inevitably starts with… us.
  • Externally, the pressure is already building. Just as consumers put pressure on brands to stand for more than just profit, fans will increasingly expect teams and players to use their influence to make a lasting and meaningful contribution to society — and this will elevate the players’ and teams’ brands in the process. Shared success.
  • At a fundamental level, perhaps there is an even more obvious incentivized opportunity: could we introduce a mechanism to link sports goals/KPIs to impact goals/KPIs? A goal scored, an hour contributed, a program supported, a dollar donated. Or as Common Goal has just launched, a commitment by the world’s top soccer players to contribute 1% of salaries towards grassroots soccer; success becomes shared.

Finally, we need a common agenda — and a measurable shared mission. To improve as an industry, we need a starting place. There is an opportunity to develop a shared mission for the industry, one that delivers a holistic view of the industry’s performance and goals, inclusive of social impact. A platform to raise awareness, invite participation, set standards and goals — and to encourage collaboration as an industry. Such an effort would rely on involvement from a variety of stakeholders, including athletes, coaches, teams, leagues, fans, business, nonprofits, civic institutions, and community. LEED was referenced as an analogous platform, from the United States Green Building Council, that has provided clarity and motivation towards a broad view of success from the green building/construction industry. Once established, this could serve as a starting point for measureable progress.

Thank you to our co-hosts Keely Wachs of Clif Bar & Company and Neill Duffy of Purpose + Sport, The City Kitchen for the to-die-for bittersweet chocolate cake, and all of our guests for being a part of the conversation.

enso is a mission-driven creative company. We build mission-driven brands and shared missions. Find us at and Thanks to enso + sebastian buck, alice pang and sean mcnamara.