The Power of Sport for Social Change
The Power of Sport for Social Change

The Euros has returned, albeit a year late, along with the familiar sense of mania and national pride felt most strongly during World Cups, the Olympics, and in some cases, Eurovision…

With people rallying behind their national teams, we are reminded of the glaring spotlight that is placed on sportspeople, both on and off the pitch. From tackling child poverty to taking the knee in protest against racial inequality, sportspeople themselves are continuing to push their spotlights onto real issues and injustices.

Our Business Director, Aimeé Howells, channels her expertise as former Associate Director at Manchester United FC and Head of Sport and Sponsorship at GO!, to illuminate the power of sport for social change.

The Current Landscape

It’s not uncommon in sport sponsorship for rights to be used for CSR initiatives; at my time working at Manchester United, the core of the Chevrolet sponsorship leant to this. The Power of Play movement saw pitches being built in all manner of places – from unpacified favelas in Rio to unite rival gangs – with the aim of driving positive lessons in communication and ambition. The Goal Keepers initiative saw us focus on young girls within STEM, to help surface skills on and off the pitch and create long lasting legacies.

As we’ve seen the world go through dramatic changes and a recalibration over the past 18 months, it’s clear that brands within the sports landscape have started to reconsider their position in order to drive purpose and social change, not just CSR as a tick box exercise.

Championing Change

It is clear to me that there is a key driving force for this in the UK, and that is Marcus Rashford. Marcus- cutting through the noise and disrupting the commercial landscape to talk about things that really matter to him, driving social change to ensure our children in the UK didn’t go hungry during the pandemic- is, without a doubt, shifting a paradigm for good. Now we see him moving on to focus on children’s literacy and the importance of learning these skills early on.

We know that Gen Z are a generation with purpose: when it comes to sustainability and world matters, they are the generation that is focused on making change. This for me is why Marcus Rashford and his ability to remove himself from the values of a rights-holder, to use his influence to focus on his own personal values, is so powerful. According to our 2020 Whitepaper Into the Mainstream: Influencer Marketing in Society, 38% of 16-24 and 25–34-year-olds are more likely to source news updates and opinions from influencers than journalists and established news outlets.

When these opinions and news updates lift the lid on important social issues, the likes of Marcus Rashford can draw attention to them on a huge scale and rally voices of all backgrounds and generations behind them. Whether you’re a Manchester United fan or a Chelsea supporter, if you can see your values and interests being represented by someone with real influence, it can transform into real change.

There may be some cynics out there that think this is a PR exercise for him, but regardless of whether there is an element of this involved or not, it certainly has driven change and will continue to do so. Even the commercial deals with the likes of Levi’s, which focus on sustainability and buying less clothes (yes, a clothes manufacturer is really pushing this message!), stays core to purpose.

Brands Moving Forward

We are now in the space where there is a timely and legitimate opportunity for brands to influence real social change through purpose driven marketing. BT deciding to sponsor the Home Nations for the Euros is a sign that brands are thinking bigger in order to create impact. The announcement of Hope United, BT’s uniting force to bring the Home Nations together to tackle hate crime and to arm the younger generations with the digital skills required to make change for good, is highly relevant to the space that BT operate in and nothing short of genius. A truly authentic way to create purpose and drive change at a mass scale.

Is this the beginning of sponsors leading the way, to rise above the commercial positioning with specific rights-holders and standing for things that really matter off the pitch? Could this be the beginning of individual players being sponsored? After all, brands can align more closely with the values, power, and influence of the individual- qualities which are respected and appreciated by Gen Z. This is the authenticity they require and the identity they crave. They want to connect to people who have a shared vision and no longer want to connect to commercial, soulless organisations that don’t stand for what they do.

So, where do rights-holders fit into this, long-term?


Players and brands alike, using their influence to drive social change, can make a massive impact; how could they not, when you think about the scale with which they are delivering these messages?

Aimee Howells

According to our 2020 Whitepaper, 41% of consumers agree that social media influencers should use their platforms to discuss current affairs and everyday activism. In the UK, half of the marketers surveyed believe that influencers communicate better about political and social issues than brands. This was reflected throughout the pandemic, with influencers echoing governmental messaging to do with wearing a mask, washing hands, social distancing and more recently, vaccine take up.

The Future Landscape

For me, I think the goal is to continue forging a space where sports men and women can continue to influence culture off the pitch. We’ve seen evidence that movements can truly be created and can drive positive change. What I would love to see continue is female players being accepted without question of their sexualities, and a space where a male player feels supported enough to speak openly about their sexuality and mental health; not when their career is done on the pitch, but at the height of it.

There is such a massive space for players to use their influence to create movements and drive them with purpose… so long may it continue.