“The societal outcomes of sport are difficult to measure”
Is there empirical evidence supporting discourses on the positive societal impact of elite sport? To answer this question, Jens De Rycke, PhD Student at Vrije Universiteit Brussel, developed a conceptual framework called the MESSI model to map the state of art of research on this subject.
Jens DE RYCKE
PhD Student at Vrije Universiteit Brussel
You have recently worked on a conceptual framework to map the societal impact of elite sport. Can you tell us about it?
JDR: The first thing I did was to look at the potential impacts that sport could have, focusing on elite sport. I examined all the potentially positive and negative outcomes of elite sport, and whether there was academic evidence to support that. I ended up finding 362 articles concerned with the societal impact of elite sport. I then categorised them because they were from a very broad range of topics. In the end, I had 79 themes which I arranged into 10 categories. This is how I developed the Mapping Elite Sports’ potential Societal Impact (MESSI) model. This was the first overview of the state of art of research on this subject. I then used this model to develop a measurement scale.
Is there today an efficient method to measure the societal benefits of elite sport?
JDR: The problem is that the societal outcomes of sport are difficult to measure because a lot of them are intangible. What we do with the measurement scale is to ask for people’s opinions, but they do not necessarily reflect reality. This is a problem we have in our field: on many occasions it is not possible to use the most robust research designs, (like for example case-controlled studies). Mixed method designs are one of the best ways to have robust findings, by bringing qualitative and quantitative research together. However, in all the articles we have reviewed, only about 11% used this method. This shows that there is still a long way to go.
“Elite sport in itself is not good, nor bad: it’s neutral”
Is it difficult to claim that elite sport has a positive societal impact?
JDR: Impact is a process, and it therefore calls for a causal relationship. A lot of studies use research designs that are not appropriate to detect causal relationships and thus claim impact. Another important point is that elite sport in itself is not good, nor bad: it’s neutral. This means that in order to have benefits from sport, we need to manage it, structure it, and activate it in a certain way, so it becomes positive. We need to use sport as a leverage to achieve positive outcomes, but we have to keep it mind that this does not happen automatically. As such, we just launched an Erasmus+ Project supported by the EU commission called “Athletes 4 Society” where we want to empower European sports organisations in managing the public value of sport. We do this by helping sport organisations to develop policies/campaigns/programmes that put their elite athletes as role models to good use towards positive societal impact. I am hopeful that this project will make a positive contribution!