A Sports Stack for India: Systems approach to using sport for society
Using sport to achieve positive societal outcomes and visible social impact requires an approach that recognises the different roles for sport, and the levers necessary to unlock its potential. It also requires treating sports as an equivalent intervention to other social impact mechanisms used more commonly by civil society. This allows for a systemic approach, driving the quest by all for a physically active and engaged life.
With opportunity and incentives in place, everyone can find a way to participate in sport and create social meaning through it, both personally and externally. Sports’ tendency to inherently tilt towards fair play, excellence, comity, and respect enhances overall systemic inclusion, empowerment, and equality, while also taking participants through a journey of personal growth and engaged citizenship.
Yet, there are challenges to this proposition of universal participation. According to a PwC survey from 2019, while plenty of children take up sports in their early years, there are precipitous dropout rates during their teenage years. There are many reasons for this, and addressing them becomes a pressing need.
This is where the Sports and Society Accelerator in India wants to intervene as an ecosystem-builder, using a Sports Stack approach to creating public cultural infrastructure for the universal adoption of sport.
Introducing the Sports Stack
The Sports Stack is both an evaluative framework and a policy lens that facilitates a whole-of-system balanced approach to the design, implementation and monitoring of policies and initiatives involving sports.
As a starting point, assume ‘sports for society’ policy frameworks and action governments are the foundation or Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) of this Stack. A participative model, therefore, is one that allows organisations and individuals to use this foundation layer, and participate and contribute in targeted ways to address needs within a particular layer. This allows innovation, scale, pecuniary positive externalities, and a community-driven social impact ecosystem. If you can participate, you can contribute. When the access and involvement barriers no longer exist and the incentives are aligned, people will start solutioning in ways that are meaningful to themselves, their associates, and their communities. As more do this, a momentum and cascading virtual social network develops. A bias towards action and change begins to predominate. This may sound overly simplistic, but human history shows sport’s potential to win against the odds time and again. Building well and for the right reasons requires cohesion, shared common interests, government support, and awareness.
A medal at the Olympics won by an Indian athlete can inspire many to take up sport. As they do so, and the base is broadened, more world-class athletes will be produced. This needs work at multiple levels, spread across various layers and focus areas. The co-dependency between the top and bottom of the Sports Stack is critical to a sustainable, thriving ecosystem. Many connectors, handovers and interfaces are required for the transitions, progressions and balances that are involved. This is where the various layers of the Stack come into play, pulling their own weight and contributing to ecosystem health.
The layers of the Sports Stack
An examination of the seven-layer Stack begins with the ‘excellence’ layer, which deals with elite programmes towards the pursuit of medals or international championships. Through the effort of the Indian Government’s Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS), state-specific efforts in coaching and infrastructure, federations and non-profit organisations, major strides have been taken towards actualizing these goals. With the success of Indian athletes at the Tokyo Olympics and the Tokyo Paralympics, this layer is reasonably well positioned in terms of policy, constituents, resources, and outcomes. A focus on building a wider culture of excellence will have to continue to drive these efforts.
To ensure adequate growth upwards and downwards in the Stack, the ‘governance’ layer has a major part to play. The support and investment sports needs for a truly universal foundation will expect accountability and transparency.
To support the ‘excellence’ layer, a well-functioning and well-funded ‘performance’ layer is needed to incentivize and actualize platforms from which capability and longevity can be enhanced in safe and enabling environments at moderated personal cost.
Next comes the ‘sustainability’ layer, where sport’s role as a source of livelihood for a diverse array of people is recognised. It recognises the need to build social protections and risk mitigation tools if diverse groups are to access opportunities for upward mobility. It is also the layer where investments in the sporting ecosystem can be identified and utilised towards adequate returns. These returns do not actually need to be quantified in terms of tangible values, but instead in terms of the social capital generated, and the positive social impact of the investments in sport.
Even more so, training in sports can prepare for life and careers both inside and outside sports. A United Nations report pointed out that “participation of women and girls in sport challenges gender stereotypes and discrimination,” making it a vehicle for empowerment across sectors. This was backed up by an EY report in 2018, which outlined how 94% of women in C-suite leadership positions in the US had formerly played some kind of sports.
This is where the next layer of “progression and capacity” gains prominence. Here, skill development takes place by building capacity in the sports ecosystem for universal and wide opportunities.
A layer below, and closely connected, is the “access and participation” layer where the Accelerator’s theory of change is rooted. Here, population-scale participation in sports and physical activity, either played or supported by any individual, is the essential outcome. Universal participation, with a focus on attaining equality, inclusion, and empowerment through opening access and removing barriers, also has several other upstream and downstream benefits and resonates through the Stack. For example, it will inevitably help broaden the constituents of the excellence layer by expanding the talent pool because of universal participation in sports or physical activity. Anyone and everyone should be able to participate in sport in any way, because of all the good that sport can ensure for society. This is why the access and participation layer is the Accelerator’s primary focus.
This brings us to the bottom layer. The “impact and legacy” layer is both a starting point and a population-scale movement. Through adequate and accurate documentation of achievements, capabilities, potential, and learnings, it is this narrative at a mass scale which helps build a legacy of sports for entire communities and society at large. The social feedback loops allow for awareness, encouragement, enhancement, and expansion of all that is beneficial to society from sports. This layer’s role is not only to show all of us what can be done, but it also feeds into all the other layers of this Stack. A successful legacy impact pushes more people to demand access and others to enable participation, putting upward pressure on the other layers of the Stack.
The road ahead for sport and development in India
The trifecta of universal access, participation, and benefit might at first blush appear virtually unattainable in the Indian context. Yet, dedicated efforts and an ecosystem-building approach have the potential to effectively turn the tide and bring cascading change. Existing partnerships and knowledge of several meaningful initiatives provide the ecosystem with a head start in bringing large-scale programs with tangible goals to life. The machinery of a vibrant and growing social enterprise community, combined with enabling sports policy from governments, can deliver scale and impact in previously unexplored ways. Sport can show the way to building a thriving, confident and participative society that encourages its citizens to self-solve local problems and find ways to thrive. It is also the path to unfettered benefits for society overall through an intervention with minimal barriers and maximum outcomes.
Desh Gaurav Sekhri is the Co-Founder of the Sports and Society Accelerator. He is a policy specialist and a dual-qualified lawyer, licensed to practice in India and New York. Desh most recently served as Officer on Special Duty at NITI Aayog for Sports and Law from 2017-2021. At NITI, he also headed the Access to Justice vertical. He is also a former junior national lawn tennis singles finalist.
Nandan Kamath is the Co-Founder of Sports and Society Accelerator. He is a dual-qualified lawyer, licensed to practice in India and California. He is a specialist in sports law, governance, and sports performance. He is the Founder and Principal Lawyer at LawNK, and Co-Founder and Managing Trustee of GoSports Foundation. A former national-level cricketer, Nandan has represented the Karnataka state junior teams in cricket.
Mridul Kataria is a Program Associate at the Sports and Society Accelerator. He has a Master's in Development Studies from the Graduate Institute, Geneva, and close to four years of academic and field experience in the sport and social change sector.