• Sports have brought people together during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Many leagues have adopted creative solutions to overcome health and safety challenges.
  • Sports icons and leagues have leveraged their platforms to address key social justice issues.

Even as the recent surge of COVID-19 cases from new variants has led to increased lockdowns around the world, people are still uniting for a common purpose: sport.

Major international sports leagues successfully started to return to stadiums in much of the world last summer as cross-industry partnerships, innovation and new safety measures made it possible to address the pandemic's challenging health and safety risks and bring sports back to the playing field. At the same time, sports organisations and athletes took on heightened roles by leveraging their platforms to shine the spotlight on social justice issues.

As COVID-19 vaccine distribution expands and fans return to stadiums, what can sport tell us about how to connect people and improve social cohesion in the year ahead?

Learning from bubbles and the digital experience

Some sports leagues, such as the NFL, were impacted by COVID-19 cases in 2020, though relatively low in proportion to the number of tests conducted (the NFL had about 500 confirmed positive cases from more than 800,000 tests between August and December). On the other hand, the NBA and MLS in the US, NHL in Canada, UEFA Champions League in Europe, all finished their 2020 seasons without a single positive COVID-19 case.

This success was largely possible due to strict safety measures from localized bubbles and “bio-bubbles”, which essentially isolated players from the outside world to help minimize the risk of contraction of the coronavirus.

Yet sustaining such an environment is not economical in the long term. The NBA bubble cost over $150 million to maintain factoring in daily tests, treatments, quarantine, meals, security, transportation and sanitization of facilities. Furthermore, isolation can also impact the players’ mental health.

Digital experiences through technological advancement and personalization are instrumental in ensuring commercial viability as well as engaging consumers in a world of social hostility. For example, La Liga introduced various audio-visual effects working with EA sports and others to bring reactive crowd noises and virtual audiences into its games. The NBA created a truly immersive experience by providing courtside seats for its virtual fans to watch and react to the games in real-time.

Driving positive societal change

Beyond its immediate physical health benefits, sport can be a vehicle for well-being, tolerance and a means of raising awareness and lessening the cultural divide. The return of sports and even the re-opening of sports facilities could significantly improve the mental health of sports fans and athletes who find themselves at risk of mental health decline due to isolation. Sport has been attributed to helping form stronger societal bonds and boosting self-esteem for the younger generation.

Image: Nielsen US Promoting Racial Equality in Sports Study, July 2020, N = 1,000

Sports can also play an important role in addressing and raising awareness of key societal issues. This has been a year of reckoning for social justice throughout the world, leading to renewed conversations about inequalities and the duty of government, businesses, and other influential stakeholders to coalesce around issues of social justice and economic empowerment of marginalized communities.

For example, the NBA established a social justice coalition, a board of players, coaches and governors, to promote civic engagement, voting and reform to police and criminal justice. Players wore jerseys with custom social justice statements to promote the Black Lives Matter movement, and the teams even collaborated with local elections officials to convert their stadiums to polling centres with safety measures to encourage voting during the last presidential elections in the US.

The League, also in partnership with the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA), established a foundation and is committing $300 million in funding over the next 10 years to promote skills development, employment and career advancement among Black youth in the US and Canada.

Sports icons also play an important role in showcasing model behaviour and sportsmanship. From the Michael Jordan mania of the 90’s encouraging athleticism among young fans of basketball, to the “Salah effect” generated by Liverpool FC’s Mo Salah that has enabled cultural acceptance of Islam amongst British fans, athletes can promote diversity and tolerance, helping to build understanding towards communities that face cultural marginalization.

For example, during the COVID-19 lockdown, Marcus Rashford, England’s football striker, helped introduce a campaign to feed more than 1.5 million vulnerable children that were unable to get free school meals due to school closures.

Finally, sport can be an excellent common denominator for tackling cultural barriers in society. The International Olympic Committee is taking strides towards messages of tolerance and inclusion. The committee opened Pride House Tokyo, a permanent community hub for LGBTQ+ peoples in Tokyo as part of its ongoing planning for the Tokyo Summer Olympics in July 2021.

On the same front, Manchester United, the Premier League’s club with most titles, continues its support towards reducing cultural barriers in the workplace by partnering with Stonewall, a UK-based LGBTQ+ national charity, to promote an inclusive work environment and training programs for its employees.

Creating targets for social justice

International sporting events have played a tremendous role not only economically, but in being a force for peace and reconciliation that enable cohesion across the world. In the 2018 Winter Olympics, North Korean and South Korean athletes marched under a unified flag, a significant tender of peace between the countries; both countries even fielded a unified ice hockey women’s team.

That said, powerful anecdotes such as this one would be strengthened if they could be benchmarked against measurable targets.

The United Arab Emirates is one country attempting to do so by developing a social cohesion index as part of its Vision 2021. One of its metrics is the number of Olympic and Paralympic medals won by the country, illustrating the importance the country places on participating in sport and recognizing the impact of social cohesion on societal wellbeing.

These values are exemplified throughout the country. For example, Majid Al Futtaim, a leading shopping mall, communities, retail and leisure pioneer across the Middle East, is committed to UAE’s Vision 2021 and has implemented several safety measures to enable customers to return safely to its facilities and Ski Dubai, including a queueless experience enabled by QR codes and advanced sanitization measures. It is also serving as a hub for international sporting competitions such as The World Cup and Para Snowboard World Cup.

“Sport and entertainment are powerful tools for social integration and inclusion, whilst having the power to unite people in challenging times. In line with Vision 2021, we will continue to leverage the power of sport to strengthen social cohesion.”

—Cameron Mitchell, Chief Executive Officer at Majid Al Futtaim Leisure, Entertainment & Cinemas

As the world looks ahead to a promising lineup of international sports events including the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 and the Qatar FIFA World Cup in 2022, we must draw on the lessons learned from the industry in 2020. Sport has a unique power to relay important messages, foster cultural inclusion and tolerance and bridge a divided society. We expect that sport will continue to advance social reform and increase cultural acceptance by providing a common platform to bring us together in the year ahead.