An Olympic effort: How does sport support our communities?

While images of famous sports personalities and competitions grab the headlines, the real impact of sport comes at the grassroots level, in local communities. Grassroots sport creates jobs and helps bring communities together. What do we know about its impacts?

Sport as an economic driver

The economic impacts of sport are often underestimated. Yet if we consider that sport generates jobs and revenues not only in “sport sectors” like events and clubs but also in wider markets – including in sports equipment, sports clothing, and journalism as well as attracting sports tourism, then we begin to understand how large the economic footprint of sport really is.

Across the European Union, sport related activity accounted for 2.15% of EU GDP in 2020 (equaling EUR 363 3 billion) and sport related employment accounted for 6.46 million jobs (2.84% of total EU employment). In New Zealand, the sport industry is estimated to contribute 2.3% of GDP, employing more than 53 000 people. In Australia, a slightly narrower definition is used to estimate that the sports industry contributes approximately 0.8% of GDP and 1.5% of total employment, is estimated to contribute 0.3% of GDP in Canada and 1.4% of GDP in Italy.

Direct employment in the sports sector

share of all employment, 2021

Sport produces health, social and economic benefits

Sport also brings well documented benefits to both physical and mental health, preventing diseases and improving cognitive functioning. Analysis by the OECD and the WHO found that if everyone in the EU did 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week, over 10,000 premature deaths could be prevented a year. This means the EU could save nearly EUR 8 billion per year in healthcare expenditure (0.6% of the health care budget).

Investments in sport are investments in inclusion, social cohesion and stronger communities

In 2000 Nelson Mandela captured the essence and the power of sport in words:

Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire, it has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope, where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all types of discrimination”.

Nelson Mandela

All over the the world, sport is used to promote inclusion (think of the Paralympics or the Rainbow Laces Campaign), youth empowerment (think of peer coaching and mentoring, or the Youth and Sport Task Force) and social cohesion (think of sport being used in post-conflict settings or to help integrate refugees).

Policy makers are increasingly using new methods to estimate the broader impacts of sport on health and wellbeing, educational attainment, crime reduction, and social cohesion, as well as the value of sport volunteering.

In Italy, Istituto Credito Sportivo’s Platform DELTA assessed 14 000 investments from 1993 to 2022, and discovered that every Euro invested generated EUR 2.93 in social returns. In the UK it is estimated that every pound spent on sport generates GBP 3.28 worth of social impact. The Dutch estimated that every Euro spent on sport in the Netherlands generates between EUR 1.80 and EUR 3.55. UEFA recently estimated the social impact of amateur football across Europe to total EUR 12.3 billion in in-kind savings through the positive social impact of football on communities. These studies demonstrate the huge value that sport can bring to society and communities, and make a strong case for further investment.

Harnessing sport for development

The football legend and revolutionary leader, Johan Cruyff, used to quizzically say that, “Sometimes something’s got to happen before something is going to happen”. Something is happening to the world of sport at a policy level. There is growing consensus on its importance for society and relevance in broader sustainable development agendas. And there is a growing impetus, at international, national and local levels to harness the power of sport for good.

As part of its Olympic legacy strategy, France has introduced an initiative to incorporate 30 minutes of physical activity a day in schools. In New Zealand, social proscriptions or “green proscriptions” are supporting people to engage in sport through the healthcare system. In Viborg, Denmark, abandoned industrial units are being transformed into street sport centres for the community and youth. In Trento, Italy, sport innovation has been recognised as a priority sector in their Smart Specialisation Strategy, including through supporting the development of the sport-tech sector (e.g. fitness apps, innovative materials for sport clothing, etc).

Trento also leads the Unisport Italia programme, a national network devoted to exploring sport as an instrument of education, innovation and well-being; and hosts the Festival of Sport, bringing together world leading athletes, coaches, sports writers and experts with the local community.

Sport is deeply rooted in local communities. It is part of the history and part of the future of our communities. If we are to make “better policies for better lives”, we need to value the role that sport can play in transforming people and places for the better. There is no better time to celebrate that role – and inspiring others to act – than through the Olympics.

OECD work on global events offers guidance on how to better leverage major sporting events for local development.

Find out more about the OECD work on sporting events and local development here.

Further recommended readings and suggested international events:

Co-founder at FIGC Youth Lab | + posts

Francesco Anesi is Ambassador of the “Global Sport Innovation Center/GSIC powered by Microsoft”, Co-Founder of “FIGC Youth Lab” (a laboratory of innovation, empowering the youth/grassroots dimension of the Italian Football Association) and a passionate educator/consultant.

Francesco is the scientific coordinator of forthcoming publication by Lausanne-based network “Smart Cities & Sport” exploring the very concept of “Smart Cities & Sport” with an inter-disciplinary approach.

Francesco is a bridge-builder, working on sport, innovation and sustainability – because, as Isaac Newton warned: “We build too many walls and not enough bridges”.

Policy Analyst at OECD Centre for Entrepreneurship, SMEs, Regions and Cities (CFE) | Website | + posts

Martha Bloom is a policy analyst/economist at the OECD. She specialises in cultural and creative industries policy, with a particular focus on social and economic impact measurement, labour market dynamics and innovation. She also leads the OECD work on global events and local development. Prior to joining the OECD, Martha worked for the UK Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre (PEC) and had a varied career in the arts sector. She holds an BA in Theatre Studies, an MSc in Project Management and Innovation, and a PhD in Technology and Innovation Management, where her thesis examined skills and innovation in the UK creative industries.

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