Is there a “right” sport to use in sport for development?
Football is the easy choice because of its popularity the world over. While football can be contentious and religion causes divides through the sport (as it does in the countries of the former Yugoslavia or in places like Northern Ireland) basketball is seen as a neutral choice. Even fight sports like boxing, karate, judo or mixed martial arts which were once considered a niche tool for development have mainstreamed themselves across the globe. Fight for Peace employs MMA globally, MIFUMI uses karate in Uganda, Boxgirls use boxing in Kenya and Brazilian programmes use judo, karate and capoeira.
In trying to understand why the same sports are used repetitively in sport for development work, it makes sense to look at what’s needed in a sport to facilitate development outcomes.
- Large groups of youth should be able to engage: With 22 people playing at any one time, it makes sense that football is the first sport of choice in many sport for development milieus. It also explains why a sport like cricket is less popular in development because at any time you really only have two to four people involved (batsmen and bowlers).
- Cost should not be a prohibitive factor: High costs can be a great hindrance when attempting to replicate or scale work in the developing world.
- The sport should be able to convey development messaging: Coaching and instruction in the sport should be structured to incorporate developmental messaging. Executing drills can improve sporting skills but also deliver key issue messaging. Organisations like Grassroots Soccer and Tackle Africa have really refined the ability to convey health messaging through drills that have typically only been used to improve footballing skills.
- Context appropriate: Champion sports that suit the geography and climate they’re being introduced in. Football/baseball/basketball in warmer climates, ice hockey in colder climates. Take into account altitude, limited infrastructure, cultural norms, etc
- Sports can be entrenched in stigma: Some sports can be entrenched in religious and/or gender stigma. However non-mainstream sports present a blank canvas for communities to engage youth and capture their attention. Football and basketball have been around for so long they sometimes carry baggage which can hamper instead of help.