News article

What is the ‘purpose’ of sport?

March 07 2024

In a recent workshop, SailGP and Given made the case for sports to embrace purpose at the core of their business.

What is the ‘purpose’ of sport?

“What is the purpose of sport?” was the question raised at a recent workshop hosted by Given, a consultancy for purpose-driven brands and businesses, and SailGP.

Becky Willan, CEO of Given, presented the case that sport needs to re-evaluate its purpose and look beyond its focus on performance and profile and engage in a wider conversation around purpose. This, it was claimed, can help make sport more equal and inclusive, while at the same time engaging new audiences and retaining talent.

Willan explained that many people were not confident in using the term ‘purpose’ for fear of getting it wrong. She felt that this was particularly the case in sport, where the focus of winning and not failing created a barrier to thinking broader and changing the approach of most sports organisations.

She argued that sport needed to be brave and redefine what performance was all about and define a broader set of objectives for the sport, engaging athletes to use their voice and platforms to create change and move away from just focusing on performance.

Fiona Morgan, Chief Purpose Officer for SailGP, explained how SailGP started from day one with a focus on purpose driven by CEO Russell Coutts, who challenged Morgan to produce a new fresh concept for sailing – a concept that would be driven by purpose.

Morgan – who is possibly unique in sport as one of, if not the only person with the title Chief Purpose Officer – explained how Coutts wanted to redefine the sport of sailing and create a compelling concept that delivered a broader set of outcomes.

Morgan said that purpose is much bigger than sustainability and engages all aspects of the business. By defining the purpose of SailGP, it brought an energy and a passion to the sporting league that enabled it to engage sailors, teams, partners, hosts and suppliers on the same journey. The Head of Purpose title created a broader role beyond sustainability and operations. It put Morgan at the heart of everything that SailGP does, including its commercial discussions.

Morgan explained that 75% of SailGP’s partners joined the sailing league because of the organisation’s interest in purpose.

Katy Green, Senior Field Marketing Director for Cognizant, explained that they were drawn to SailGP because as a relative new business themselves, they were looking for a broader engagement than the traditional sponsorship model. Cognizant had identified that to drive more business and to appear relevant in the current environment they needed to be more purpose driven themselves. They were looking for sports where they could unlock shared values and partnerships that could deliver broader outcomes – a ‘Mutality’ that delivered social, environmental and commercial outcomes.

Karen Webb, Chair of British Swimming, highlighted the fact that whilst British Swimming was achieving high-level performances in the pool, it was failing to attract commercial partners, achieve TV coverage and maintain is relevancy. Webb observed that many NGBs were struggling for relevancy and revenue in the current age. As Chair of British Swimming she was looking at the product that they offered today and felt that the organisation needed to re-think its purpose and its approach. She felt the sport needed to engage its athletes more and create a platform that was more than just about winning medals, engaging fans and brands more through purpose than achievements in winning medals.

She was supported by Kate Miller, Chief Communications Officer at the England & Wales Cricket Board (ECB). Miller said that her sport was very much in the spotlight and was challenged by the history of the game and its links to slavery and colonialism.

She felt that the sport was going through an inclusion crisis and had failed to engage communities for years. Cricket, as with many sports, had failed to see the value of community and needed to urgently make amends by addressing the purpose issue. She felt that ECB was now on a mission to take the best of cricket’s rich history and merge it into a modern and inclusive sport. Miller felt that more needed to be done to lobby for more sport at school and to engage in broader social outcomes.

Morgan and Willan encouraged more sports to think about purpose and to think about a more holistic approach to the way that sport is governed, delivering better social and environmental outcomes whilst at the same time generating new commercial opportunities.

Images: SailGP/Ricardo Pinto for SailGP/Patrick Hamilton for SailGP 

Read more

    GSS Weekly Newsletter Registration

    Register your interest in receiving our free weekly sport and sustainability newsletter and get it delivered to your inbox every Thursday

    GSS Weekly Newsletter Benefits:

    • Free access to all the latest sustainability news and features

    • Free weekly newsletter featuring all the latest developments in sport and sustainability

    First name

    Last name