Wednesday, 19 June 2024

Michael Owen: "Utilise sports to 'kick-off' social impact"

5 min read

By Michael Owens

Michael Owen shares how sports can be a vehicle for facilitating social change, and molding people into better version of themselves

Sport not only enhanced my life but also had the ability to change my life. Of course, it provided financial rewards but it also gave me a lot more. It has allowed me to travel to places I never thought of going, it has given me memories that will last a life time and it has taught me invaluable skills that I have been able to transfer into my life after football.

We are here today to talk about Wealth and the Power to Change and there is no doubt that Sport is a vehicle that can help facilitate change. Social problems such as the environment, education, resources, poverty and health are being acknowledged as the greatest challenges for all humankind and whilst there is no single answer to these issues, there are plenty of examples of how sport has helped already.

In my work, I have been lucky enough to get the chance to see what sport, and particularly football – can actually do when utilized by those trying to make a positive impact in their communities. Sport brings people together from diverse backgrounds around a common goal and provides a platform to work together, develop friendships and focus on commonalities, not differences. It can break down cultural, religious and language barriers.

Sport and physical activity improve individual health and wellbeing, both physically and mentally. A physically active population is a healthier population. Sport and physical activity also provide one of the most cost-effective forms of preventative medicine, with the potential to dramatically cut health care costs. In many countries, opportunities to participate in sport are limited by significant infrastructural, social and political barriers but the education system can play a key role in ensuring children have access to it and have a positive experience.

I was lucky enough to earn a living from playing sport and of course, for some, sport can be an escape from poverty. However, earning a salary from participating in sport doesn’t materialise for everyone who sets out on that path. Sport, however, does create many employment opportunities from grass roots level through to professional level. It also adds further to economic development by improving employability, especially among young people as it teaches core skills that can easily be transferred into the workplace. 

One of the most obvious lessons that football taught me was how to operate in a team. Like in the work place, there are different personalities that need to work together for the team to succeed. Everybody has their own individual strengths and weaknesses and on many occasions in a team environment, individuals have to sacrifice themselves for the benefit of others. In my experience, those doing the sacrificing earn the most respect from their colleagues and often end up becoming the most valuable members of the team.

Being part of a team requires communication. In football, as in many businesses, there are a variety of nationalities working alongside each other. When I first entered the senior squad at Liverpool there was only one foreign player in the dressing room. By the time I left some seven years later, around half of the squad were foreign. Football has evolved as have many industries. We all must find ways of communicating even if we don’t speak the local language. This was an issue when I moved to Spain to sign for Real Madrid. English was not widely spoken amongst my teammates so non-verbal communication became even more important. Fortunately for me, you can’t hear much in the middle of The Santiago Bernabau Stadium so actions were more important than words!

Leadership is another aspect of life I’ve learnt from a career in sport. The longer I worked in football the more I realised that the leadership skills deployed by a variety of managers and players would apply in any walk of life. Of course, there are many different ways in which people can lead and I had the privilege of learning from some of the best. That’s not to say that my character would suit copying the likes of a Sir Alex Ferguson. One of the skills of leadership is understanding what type of a leader you are and playing to your own strengths. Sport exposed me to learning from such a variety of different people and I struggle to imagine another environment that would have taught me so much about various aspects of life.

While sport is essential to human development, I also know the role that sport plays in the economy. It provides employment opportunities and drives growth domestically and abroad through activities such as the manufacture of sporting goods, hosting sports event and the spin offs such as ticket sales, and merchandise along with sport-related services and the media. Physical activity adds $51.26 billion (GBP 39 billion) to the UK economy alone each year and half of this comes from individuals’ involvement in grassroots sport. The more successful the sporting economy is, the more people are being physically active and vice versa.

Sport is also an important source of public and private expenditure. Whether this is the private sector providers opening up low cost gyms or public facilitators of grassroots sport investing in facilities or coach development, right through to those investing in the infrastructure to host a major event.

Hosting a major sporting event itself can also give many economic, social and cultural benefits. The several years of planning and investment that goes into hosting a major event can boost employment and create new business opportunities for companies of every shape and size throughout the region. Meanwhile, the improved infrastructure required can attract new companies and enable people and businesses to operate more efficiently. The economic landscape in South Africa went through significant changes after hosting the 2010 FIFA World Cup. There were new roads, transport links and telecommunications infrastructure, and this all facilitated commercial life for the country’s citizens. 

To make a good impression, host cities and countries have a strong incentive to address problems such as crime, poverty, and urban decay. Some choose to simply hide such problems from view. But others use the event as a catalyst to actually make things better. And, of course, an improved global image can give tourism and economic growth a significant and sustained boost. Barcelona, Sydney and Beijing have all seen this from hosting the Olympics. 

The cities and countries who choose to host a major event can have a legacy of improved sporting venue and London 2012 is a case in point. It has left a lasting legacy for residents, especially around the main site in East London. It created close to 8,000 full-time jobs and led to a boost in economic output of close to $2.63 billion (GBP 2 billion). I travel to this site in East London regularly as it’s the home of BT sport, one of the UK rights holders for the Premier League and Champions League and our studio presentations are delivered from there.

The Premier League is the most-watched sports league in the world, broadcast in 212 territories to 643 million homes and a potential TV audience of 4.7 billion people. This is just one example of the reach that sport has. Sport enables people from all different ages, races and religions to come together and share in the moment and as a result, the value of sport in addressing society’s wider issues should not be underestimated.

As former South African president Nelson Mandela said: “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair.”

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